At the end of last year, Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered the government to draw up a package of measures by 2023 that will increase birth rates and life expectancy in Russia. He also expressed bewilderment at the falling birth rates in a number of regions. Yet just a few days later, Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu proposed changing the age at which Russian men are conscripted for mandatory military service from eighteen to twenty-one and increasing the upper age limit for conscription from twenty-seven to thirty. That would mean young men being called up after earning their college degrees, and trained specialists being pulled out of the job market to have their skills voided by military service.

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There is a major discrepancy between these two objectives. If men go to war or emigrate en masse instead of fathering children, where will the children come from? The effect on the labor market will also be severe: conscription at such a productive age leeches the labor force out of an economy that is already expected to lose 3–4 million people aged twenty to forty by 2030 (compared to 2020) for objective demographic reasons.

The working population is also losing those who have already left or will leave the country in response to the intense militarization of life, not to mention those who are mobilized, killed, or maimed in combat if the so-called “special operation” continues.

Combined, this will create a significant labor force deficit and a plethora of demographic problems, further exacerbating the negative dynamics in birth rates observed in Russia since 2016–2017. The decrease in the working age population will become chronic, and the “preservation of the people” that Putin has spoken about for many years will not be achieved.

Some of the objective reasons for Russia’s demographic problems reflect historical dynamics: the number of women of childbearing age is falling, and the average age at which women are having children is rising steadily in modernized, urban, well-educated populations.

There are short- and medium-term factors, too (which can also have long-term consequences). The COVID-19 pandemic and the “special military operation” have created a backdrop of extreme uncertainty about the future. This has predictably changed family planning: some people are deciding not to have children or to postpone starting a family or having another child until more psychologically and financially stable times. Nor does the militarization of life in Russia encourage people to add to their families, except for those who consider it their duty to supply the motherland with cannon fodder for future wars.

A year of military service for the 300,000 men mobilized into the army in September and October 2022 will mean 25,000 fewer births, estimates Mikhail Denisenko, director of the Institute of Demography of the Higher School of Economics. That isn’t a huge number, but it could rise significantly as a result of emigration, the long-term decline in birth rates, and potential expansion of the mobilization age.

Russian legislators are also pitching in to increase the birth rate. Worried about the reduced production of future soldiers for their imaginary empire, lawmakers—supported by the clergy—are mulling a partial ban on abortion. Yet Russia has mostly completed the “third demographic transition,” when the majority of the population gains the ability to regulate birth rates. Abortions are no longer widespread in the country.

We are seeing a phenomenon Russia has faced many times: wave after wave of wars and repression that drain away human resources. The best way to promote higher birth rates is to create the conditions for a stable, predictable, peaceful, and safe life—including for young men, safe from the clutches of the military.

Until 2022, Russia was considered a market economy with mid-level incomes, though those incomes were not distributed evenly, which fueled a trend that worries education economics experts: young people whose families cannot afford to put them through college have started rejecting higher education in favor of secondary vocational training, which allows them to enter the labor market sooner.

The proposal to change the conscription age to twenty-one, which was likely approved by the Kremlin, will be a double whammy for the labor market and the economy: highly qualified college graduates will not be able to enter the labor market and will instead end up in the military and lose their qualifications, while young men with vocational degrees who are already in the labor market will be torn from the economy partway toward improving their skills. It would be a mistake to think that this wouldn’t affect the qualitative and quantitative indicators of Russian GDP, household income, and quality of human capital.

Essentially, there is a second war under way at home: a war against the quality of human capital. And the militarization of the country creates all of the conditions to reduce this quality for the longest of terms. Although Russia will not see large-scale unemployment, this is only the case because the economy will face a deficit of both high-skilled and low-skilled labor.

Putin has encouraged the armed forces not to be shy about requesting more financing, and this also impacts the quality of human capital. Spending on the military and security is “unproductive expenditure,” meaning that it does not improve quality of life. It is anti-human in all senses.

Meanwhile, the proportion of productive expenditure (above all, education and healthcare) is stagnant at best and cannot compete with the unproductive expenditure that takes priority for a military-police state. Furthermore, it’s difficult to assess the real scale of spending on the military and defense (including the state’s defense from its own citizens): about 23 percent of expenditure in the 2023 budget is classified.

Another trend, according to Tatyana Klyachko, director of the Center for Continuing Education Economics of the Russian Presidential Academy of National Economy and Public Administration, is that the average number of years of education of the employed population in Russia is stagnating at best, and falling in some aspects. This also reflects the fact that young people want to quickly enter the labor market and start making money. The value of a good education is declining. For the state today, quickly assembling and disassembling a Kalashnikov rifle is a more important skill.

Authoritarian regimes want to get rid of high-quality and globally competitive education. The “special military operation” has only accelerated the political purges at Russian educational establishments. We have yet to find out how many young people with science and technology degrees have left Russia (including due to fears of being persecuted for espionage or treason if working with covert innovations). However, even the nearsighted state has noticed that the number of high school students planning to take the Unified State Exam in physics and information sciences has fallen.

A high-quality, modern education produces modern, thinking people, and thinking people aren’t prepared to go and fight for false ideals. Educated individuals are independent individuals, including economically. A militarized state does not need independent people. It needs people who diligently obey orders.

One of the main problems of Russian society today is that the generation of seventy-year-old Russian leaders is deciding for young people how they will live and what they will die for. This is not a responsible strategy that will contribute to the healthy development of the country, and it certainly does nothing toward the “preservation of the population.”

  • Andrei Kolesnikov