Russian aggression in Ukraine reflects major demographic considerations

A portrait of Russian President Vladimir Putin by Ukrainian artist Darya Marchenko is made from 5,000 used bullet cartridges collected at the Russo-Ukrainian front in eastern Ukraine. The portrait is named "The Face of War." The portrait was presented along with a novel which tells personal stories of six people involved in this project including Darya's own story and stories of people who helped her to collect the bullet shells at the frontline. She calls her art approach philosophic symbolism where every element has its hidden meaning. In her works each used bullet cartridge stands for a human life that was brutally ended by Putin's military invasion into Ukraine. (Image: REUTERS/Gleb Garanich)

A portrait of Russian President Vladimir Putin by Ukrainian artist Darya Marchenko is made from 5,000 used bullet cartridges collected at the Russo-Ukrainian front in eastern Ukraine. The portrait is named "The Face of War." The portrait was presented along with a novel which tells personal stories of six people involved in this project including Darya's own story and stories of people who helped her to collect the bullet shells at the frontline. She calls her art approach philosophic symbolism where every element has its hidden meaning. In her works each used bullet cartridge stands for a human life that was brutally ended by Putin's military invasion into Ukraine. (Image: REUTERS/Gleb Garanich) 

2015/09/15 • Analysis & Opinion, Russia

The continuing de-Russification of Russia, caused by the influx of migrants from Central Asia and the Caucasus and the higher birthrates of non-Russian peoples within Russia, could be slowed or even reversed if Moscow annexed the Donbas, according to Rostislav Ishchenko.

Together with the population of already annexed Crimea and refugees from Ukraine, he argues, Russia would “completely compensate” for the eight million ethnic Russians the country lost between 1989 and 2010 and see its population rise to 150 million.

And doing so now, the Ukrainian commentator who lives in Moscow says, is absolutely critical because current demographic trends inside Russia mean that “about 20 years from now,” the ethnic Russians may become “a national minority in their own state” and the non-Russians will begin to ask why they, having become the majority, should live inside a Russian state.

Ishchenko’s argument may not determine the Kremlin’s decision, but it is important because it reflects something few either in Moscow or the West are willing to talk about: what Russia is doing in Ukraine and elsewhere reflects real fears about the demographic situation in Russia now and in the future.

Indeed, it has informed Russian nationalist and imperialist arguments since at least 1991 when many but far from all of them viewed the decline in the relative size of the ethnic Russian nation as one of the major reasons for the disintegration of the Soviet Union.

It is also significant because it shows the ways in which the imperialism of those like Ishchenko is informed by a belief that the empire can only survive in peace if the ethnic Russians form an overwhelming share of the population and set the agenda for the rest as “the state-forming nationality.”

But it has an obverse which Ishchenko and others of his camp are seldom willing to acknowledge: any territorial expansion of the Russian Federation beyond portions of Ukraine and Belarus – and even significant parts of these two countries – would push down the ethnic Russian share of the population under Moscow’s control.

According to Ishchenko, Moscow needs to construct its policy on the basis of two realities. On the one hand, he argues, “a significant number of Belarusians and Malorossians [“Little Russians” – a Russian imperialist name for Ukrainians – Ed.] do not want to become Litvins and Ukrainians” but want to continue to maintain “their own all-Russian identity.”

And on the other, “the percent of the ethnic Russian population in Russia itself is steadily declining” and that for as far into the future as one can see, that is likely to be the case because non-Russians have higher birthrates than do Russians and so the balance is shifting toward the former and against the latter.

Ishchenko argues that “only Russia could establish an imperial state based not on the suppression of small peoples and not on their assimilation but on convergence and integration in a common space where all can live comfortably.” But that is possible only if ethnic Russians remain a super-majority of the population.

When they decline in share, that opens the way to disaster as shown in many of the now-independent former Soviet republics and in the non-Russian republics of the North Caucasus where ethnic Russians form but a tiny fraction of the population now compared to the much larger share they formed 25 years ago.

And that decline in Russia is all too real. Last year, Moscow celebrated the fact that the population of the Russian Federation had grown by 20,000, while ignoring that the number of ethnic Russians had fallen by 88,000 while the non-Russians had increased by 108,000, a total shift against the Russians of 196,000. More of the same is coming, Ishchenko says.

Ishchenko concludes: “the reduction of the numbers of the Russian people below a critical level will lead to the destabilization and destruction of the Russian Federation despite the objective interests of all the peoples living in it.” Indeed, he says, “as a result of this process, many peoples will disappear as such.”

Fortunately, he continues, “the size of a population changes not only on the basis of natural growth but also as a result of migration flows and the addition of new territories to the state.” Although he is among those who doesn’t welcome migrants from Central Asia and the Caucasus, he is quite pleased by the refugees from Russia-occupied territories of the Donbas and wants to make it as easy for them to acquire Russian citizenship as it is for those in Crimea.

That brings Ishchenko to a discussion of the situation in the Donbas. At the start of 2014, he says, there were approximately 7.5 million people in the Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts. Unlike Crimea, there wasn’t a large population of Crimean Tatars, and “the number of ethnic Russians of the Donbas exceeded the number of ethnic Russians of Crimea not only in absolute but also in percentage terms.”

“On the territories under DNR/LNR control,” he says, “there remain about 4.5 million people.” Some of those have become refugees, but there are still about 3-3.5 million people there – and they should be viewed as potential additions to the ethnic Russian nation in the Russian Federation.

Edited by: A. N.

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  • Dagwood Bumstead

    Nonsense! There are at best some 2.5 million in the so-called LNR and DNR- and a considerable proportion of them are pensioners who won’t be producing offspring but dying within the next 10 years. Ishchenko overlooks that many people have fled the enclaves, some to Dwarfstan, others to free Ukraine. With the economy ruined and nobody likely to invest in either LNR or DNR their future looks bleak, so there won’t be many returnees. Furthermore, those that remained are by no means all ethnic Russians.