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OPINION AND ANALYSIS | 25-03-2022 11:08

Putin must be running short of cannon fodder

Is Russia so different from the US and Western European countries that she will be able to shrug off the deaths of well over 10,000 soldiers after just one month’s fighting in Ukraine without their relatives demanding an honest explanation?

After emerging from two gruesome world wars, those Europeans who survived the carnage managed to convince themselves that they at least had learned their lesson and in future would resolve any territorial disputes that might arise in a peaceful fashion. For many years, it looked as though those who thought this way had got it right. Recent generations of Europeans, comfortably sheltered as they were by the US nuclear umbrella from outside aggression, certainly seemed far more peaceful than their bellicose forefathers. The writer Robert Kagan summed it up neatly when he said “Americans are from Mars and Europeans from Venus.”

Was this because they had been successfully defanged by their political and cultural establishments whose representatives incessantly warned them not to return to the bloodthirsty old ways? Or was it the result of something far more basic: the collapse of the European birth rate to below replacement levels?

Older men and women may declare wars, but to do so they need to have a ready supply of young men who are willing to risk their lives on the battlefield. When a large proportion of the families of a country have no male children at all and the rest make do with one, asking them to send their offspring to war is far more difficult than it was when most had two, three or more to spare. In Steven Spielberg’s film, Saving Private Ryan, the commanding general wanted the lad to be sent back home because his three brothers had already been killed in action and he thought it would be terrible for a family to be deprived of all its sons.

This is surely the main reason Western countries find it terribly hard to put up with losses which are insignificant by the standards of the not so distant past. In Afghanistan, the US military suffered no battlefield deaths in the year and a half before Joe Biden put a sudden, and extraordinarily ignominious, end to what he and most other people insisted was a genuine war.

Is Russia so different from the US and Western European countries that she will be able to shrug off the deaths of well over 10,000 soldiers after just one month’s fighting in Ukraine without their relatives demanding an honest explanation? Vladimir Putin evidently hopes so, but as the truth seeps through the barriers he has built to stop it spreading, his compatriots will surely become aware of the dimensions of the disaster he has brought about and start calling him to account.

As in many other countries, Russia’s population is shrinking; the current fertility rate is estimated to be about 1.6 births per woman, when to keep the number of inhabitants stable it would have to be 2.1. If it is any consolation to Putin, the situation in Ukraine is even worse, with the latest fertility rate hovering near 1.23. All this suggests that the war is unlikely to drag on for years, as it most certainly would have done had birth rates remained as high as they were a century ago.

Putin is as aware as anyone else of the long-term dangers posed by population decline and in the course of his long reign he has tried to reverse it, but his mind is filled with old-fashioned geopolitical notions which clearly mean more to him than recent demographic projections. Many have pointed out that he has been heavily influenced by 20th-century thinkers who, as it happened, lived in a world in which an onrushing “population explosion” was assumed to be far more likely than the reverse. Neither the tsars he admires, nor the hard men of the Soviet politburo he once served, had to worry about a lack of manpower. There was more than enough available to them and they could squander it in any way they saw fit. 

Putin is far from being the only ruler who can see the demographic writing on the wall but nonetheless behaves as though it cannot really mean what it evidently does. Although some, like him, attempt to encourage women to have more children, their efforts are strangely half-hearted, perhaps because they realise that, for them to have the desired effect, a society would have to undergo a thoroughgoing cultural overhaul. Disquieting as the thought may be, it would seem that all too often modernity goes hand in hand with sterility. Unless this changes, a couple of centuries from now humans will die out, as the dinosaurs did before them, leaving the planet to other creatures which, thanks to evolution, could one day become bright enough to study whatever remains they come across and, when in a speculative mood, ask themselves if they too are doomed to go the same way as their by then extremely remote predecessors.

While there are still enough of them to matter, humans, who have always been a competitive breed, will continue to squabble among themselves to see which group comes out on top. Putin and those surrounding him thought military prowess would be a deciding factor, but in his particular case that was a mistake, largely because he failed to provide himself with enough of it. Others, among them the Chinese and most Westerners, put their faith in technological wizardry plus economic productivity, but their societies show little interest in reproducing themselves; during the lifetimes of many who are already young adults, a rapidly falling population will have put paid to their dreams of national greatness or even security.

This suggests that the future, if our species has much of one, will belong to those communities which find a way to combine technology, economic ability and military preparedness with an adequate birth rate. Only one advanced country, Israel, where the average woman has 3.1 babies, is already doing this, perhaps because her inhabitants, unlike most Europeans or North Americans, know full well they face existential challenges which are far grimmer than those Putin says threaten Russia and have to fight against individuals who are determined to exterminate them.

Is having a deadly enemy near at hand what people need for them to feel life is so worth living that they want to have children who will remember them and are willing to confront the economic and other inconveniences which bringing them up entails? Whatever it is, the baby boom that in the West followed close on the heels of the World War II suggests that a near escape from a mortal danger can do wonders for a nation’s morale, so it would not be that surprising if, after surviving Putin’s onslaught, the Ukrainians started having far more children than they did before he tried to add their country to his already enormous domains.

James Neilson

James Neilson

Former editor of the Buenos Aires Herald (1979-1986).

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