• Putin wants to raise Russia’s birth rate from 1.48 births per woman to 1.7 in four years
  • The government’s incentives for stimulating more births will cost at least $6.5 billion this year
  • Russia’s population is now 147 million, less than half of the figure for the U.S

While his government has resigned in a big overhaul, Russian President Vladimir Putin has something else on his agenda – he wants to reverse the vast country’s falling birth rate.

Putin seeks to increase the average number of children born to a Russian woman from below 1.48 per woman to 1.7 within four years (the current EU average is 1.59 births per woman).

To meet this target, Putin has vowed to provide state funding for new mothers, welfare benefits for children aged three to seven in low-income families, and free meals for the first four years that children attend school. Mothers who have four children already receive some tax breaks in Russia.

These measures and others are projected to cost at least $6.5 billion this year alone, the finance ministry estimated – with such costs rising in the coming years.

"Our historic duty is to respond to this challenge," Putin told Parliament. "Russia's fate and its historical outlook depends on how many of us there are. It depends on how many children are born in Russian families in one year, five, 10 years, on what they will grow up to be.”

Russia's population declined dramatically during the first decade after the fall of the Soviet Union – reaching a birth rate of only 1.16 children per woman in 1999. The population is now 147 million, less than half of the figure for the U.S.

"Since 2017, the birth rate started to fall again. Families stopped giving birth even to first children. They were afraid of financial uncertainty," said demography expert professor Evgeny Yakovlev.

Another Russian demographer named Anatoly Vishnevsky said he thinks providing financial incentives will not increase the birth rate since most every other industrialized nation is witnessing the same pattern of families having fewer or no children.

"Putin's whole idea that the birth rate can be corrected solely by money is invalid," he said.

Russian journalist Aleksander Zhelenin blamed the country’s demographic collapse on poor economic conditions.

“Over the past six years, living standards in the Russian Federation have continued to decline, including declining incomes for citizens, and deteriorating medical services due to the closure and merger of hospitals and clinics, dismissals of doctors, paramedics and nurses; while mortality rates, in contrast, have grown,” he wrote.

Zhelenin pointed out that in the early 1990s, a recession in Russia coincided with a plunging birth rate. In 1992, he noted that 1.587 million infants were born in Russia -- 912,000 fewer than were born than only five years prior. In 1993 only 1.378 million babies were born, thereafter steadily dropping to 1999 when only 1.214 million children were born.

The Russian birth rate slowly recovered until nearly 2 million babies were delivered in 2014. But by 2016 the birth rate started falling again

"What is noteworthy, is that this [recent] collapse [in birth rate], as in the early nineties, coincided with a decline in the Russian citizens' standard of living and incomes,” Zhelenin wrote.

Putin himself conceded that a weak economy hurts fertility rates. "We need to broadly increase living standards as a whole, to achieve growth in wages and people's real incomes,” he said. “The general sentiment, family planning, and broader planning horizons will depend on the economy."

The government's statistics agency, Rosstat, estimated that Russia’s overall population fell by about 300,000 last year, three times greater than the loss incurred in 2018.

"Birth rates are declining primarily because the relatively small generation of women born in the 1990s has reached reproductive age," said Alla Ivanova, head of the Department of Health at the Institute of Sociopolitical Research, part of the Russian Academy of Sciences. "It is well known that that period [1990s] saw a very significant decrease in births."

Ivanova expects this trend to continue. "For the next 10 years we will most likely live in a period of depopulation -- that is, a contraction of the population driven by natural decrease," she said. "But the overall population might actually increase if migration can compensate for the natural decrease."

Indeed, Moscow has hatched a plan to attract up to 10 million Russian-speaking migrants by 2025. But Ivanova is skeptical this program can succeed.

"Considering our living standards and the development of the economy, highly qualified migrants are not rushing here in large numbers," she said."

Former Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov said he thinks Russians are having fewer babies because of their gloomy outlooks. "[People] aren't thinking about or planning their lives five or 10 years in advance like they did in the early 2000s, when birth rates started rising again," he said. "Today we have returned to 1998, when there was a crisis situation and people could only think about their lives day-to-day -- what should they do tomorrow? Their planning horizon is [now] no more than one year."

Economist Aleksei Ulyanov, a member of the government's advisory panel on demographics and family policy, uses even starker language. He thinks Russia "is on the brink of extinction." Ulyanov cites other factors on falling birth rates: abortion and the consumption of alcohol and tobacco. He has called for restrictions on these activities.

Once again, Ivanova is skeptical. For one thing, alcohol consumption actually declined in Russia by 43% between 2003 and 2016. Moreover, she said, banning access to abortion would create other problems, like "rising maternal mortality rate, underground abortions, increased criminality, and problems with women's health, including reproductive health and sterility.”

"Consulting, providing social, psychological, and economic help – that is the path toward gradually reducing the number of abortions," Ivanova stated. "The number of abortions in this country is going down substantially. And we will continue along that path. But I repeat -- we simply don't need sharp policy changes and radical methods. Radical methods have never brought anything positive."

Rosstat predicted that even if all government measures succeeded the country’s population would only reach 150.13 million by 2036. In a worst-case scenario, taking into account failed fiscal and migration policies, the population would drop to 134.28 million by 2036.

The United Nations has even more dire forecasts for Russia – the agency predicted the population will likely drop to 124.6 million by the middle of this century; and fall even further to 83.7 million by 2100.