Apr 26 2014, 9:17am CDT | by Forbes
I’ve heard numerous analysts say that Putin’s aggressive policies to “defend” the Russian-speaking population in Ukraine are ultimately designed to help offset the country’s perilous demographic situation: by bringing more Russians into the fold, the thinking goes, Putin will help extend Russia’s status as a major power for just a little bit longer. Here, for example, are the editors of National Review:
Russia’s population is declining fast because, among other reasons, its life expectancy the past few decades fell, which itself can be traced to rampant alcoholism… Putin’s strategy is one of reconquering former Russian and/or Soviet possessions, bringing in ethnic Russians to offset the demographic decline, establishing a Eurasian Economic Union to bolster Russia’s economy, and, where his expansionary plans meet an obstacle, stirring up ethnic divisions to destabilize neighboring target states.
I feel pretty confident in saying that whatever is motivating Putin to stir up trouble in Ukraine’s eastern oblasts it is absolutely not a desire to “offset demographic decline.” Why am I so confident in saying this? Because the industrial belt of Eastern Ukraine might very well be the most demographically unstable area on the planet. The three oblasts in which “pro-Russian separatists” have been most active, Donestk, Lugansk, and Kharkov, are depopulating at more than twice the rate of the Russian Federation. Here is what has happened to their natural change in population over the past decade
It is true that there are certain small areas of the Russia that are depopulating at a comparable rate (Pskov and Tambov oblasts for example) but Eastern Ukraine as a whole is much worse off demographically than any economically or politically significant parts of the Russian Federation.
None of these statistics are a secret. If I can easily hop over to the Ukrainian statistics service’s website and pull down oblast-level data on population change, you can bet that the FSB possesses the same capability. Putin might, as Angela Merkel said, “be in another world,” but he obviously possesses the math skills of an elementary school student and can grasp that bringing rapidly depopulating areas into Russia won’t do anything to help address Russia’s depopulation. The Russians might be reading from a new and more aggressive script, but they haven’t totally departed from reality.
Is it possible that the Russians still take over parts of Eastern Ukraine? Unfortunately yes: almost anything seems possible these days. But if the Russians do annex parts of Ukraine it will primarily because of political and military considerations and not because of any concerns about demography. That is to say that Eastern Ukraine is much less demographically stable than Russia itself, and that we should keep this in mind the next time someone mentions Putin’s need to replenish his stock of ethnic Russians.
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