The one thing Putin wants Russians to do like Americans

Russia is making headlines with Vladimir Putin's plan to grab the presidency in the March 4th elections. The concern is that Putin seems intent on restoring Russia's great power status. But that hinges on a grand scheme Moscow watchers have largely missed. Let's call it Putin's conception mandate.

Putin told reporters recently, “We mustn’t tempt anyone with our weakness.” “Anyone” ostensibly meant the United States, and observers assumed “weakness” referred only to Russia’s military limitations. Moscow plans to spend some $770 billion in military modernization in the coming decade.

But who will man that military? Putin knows that after decades of extremely low fertility rates and a public health crisis, Russia isn’t even producing enough healthy eighteen-year-olds to meet its recruitment goals—much less can its anemic worker pool drive a competitive economy.

To stop the demographic death spiral, Putin is proffering a social manifesto that includes baby bonuses and efforts to tamp down Russia’s robust abortion culture. Russian women still average about as many abortions as live births, around 1.3 per woman, despite slight improvements on both fronts since its communist era. This is well below the fertility rate needed to sustain national numbers, about 2.1. As a result, Russia’s population began to decline in the early 1990s, more than a decade before any other country. It is projected to further decline from 143 million today to 98 million by 2065.

The stunning 50 percent drop in births between 1987 and 1999 will slash by one-third the pool of recruit-age youth by the early 2020s. A rapid rise in HIV and tuberculosis has shrunk the number of those youth who are service-eligible from more than 50 percent in 1988 to less than 10 percent today. Mental disorders, malnutrition, and musculoskeletal disorders—results of Russia’s poor maternal and child health, and public health more generally—are top reasons for rejection from service.

The implications for regional and global stability are sobering. Tactical nukes became the backstop to the lack of troops in an exercise in the Russian Far East in 2010. And now Moscow is seeking four hundred more intercontinental ballistic missiles. Contrast this to the picture in the United States. Americans, uniquely among citizens of the developed world, are having enough children to replace themselves.

Demographers don’t know exactly why. While higher fertility rates among immigrants account for some of the boost, values matter a lot. High rates of religious practice are correlated to larger family size. This bodes well for the American workforce, which will continue to expand in the coming decades, while Russia’s—along with Germany’s and Japan’s—will contract by more than 25 percent.

The demographic-religious nexus has garnered scholarly attention in recent years. Analyses explain why it is no wonder President Obama’s attempt to foist the cost of paying for birth control, sterilizations, and abortions on religious institutions has met with such rancor even though contraception is ubiquitous and American abortion laws are among the most liberal in the world. Americans jealously guard the right to put their religious values into practice. Therefore their affinity for religious liberty and their positive demographic disposition are of a piece.

Communism destroyed the large family norm in Russia, and it cannot be recreated out of thin air. In the United States, it has been preserved by a political system of checks and balances that preserves individual liberty.

The loss of the large family norm in the West helps explain why demographers have got global fertility projections so wrong in the past. Experts thought fertility rates in the twentieth century would bottom out at replacement levels. Then they just kept plummeting, and no one knows how far they will go. Even those European nations that have seen modest recovery have not been able to regain replacement levels. A top UN statistician told me that if things don’t change drastically, the fertility rate and the size of the childbearing cohort will become so small that some societies will virtually disappear by 2070.

As a result, realization of Putin’s plan to recoup population numbers would be nothing less than a miracle.

The red flag here is that while Moscow tries to reverse its population implosion, it will lean on destabilizing stopgap measures to maintain global influence. It's recent obstructionist policy over Syria and Iran are attempts to keep Russia relevant in the Middle East. But even more worrisome is that if Putin’s conception mandate fails to radically improve Russia’s demographic prospects, temporary solutions such as lowering the nuclear threshold could become permanent features of Russian foreign policy.

These trends suggest that Russia’s inelegant decline in the coming decades could be as destabilizing as its meteoric rise a century ago. Washington should view Russia’s receding power with vigilance—not complacency.

Susan Yoshihara is director of the International Organizations Research Group at C-FAM, a New York-based international social policy research institute and the coeditor of Population Decline and the Remaking of Great Power Politics (Potomac Books, 2012).