April 5, 2022
Could population trends in Russia have played a role in President Vladimir Putin’s decision to invade Ukraine in February? This short post takes a look at what our social science theories tell us about population and war in light of Russia’s demographic trends.
For years, one common argument in the U.S. policy community was that Russia’s demographic troubles would curtail its ability to project power outside its borders. Without the manpower to staff a military or the labor force to undergird a strong economy, some scholars argued that Russia, and other aging states, would become more pacifist or turn its attention inward. When I worked at the Pentagon in the mid-2000s, I often heard policymakers espouse this geriatric peace theory. At that time, decades of low fertility seemed the least of Russia’s troubles. During the early 2000s, Russia’s overall population was shrinking by over half a million people some years and male life expectancy was 58, just four years higher than the average for the world’s lowest-income countries.
As I argue in my new book, 8 Billion and Counting: How Sex, Death, and Migration Shape Our World, this interpretation is colored by desirability bias. U.S. policymakers wanted to see a weakened, less-threatening Russia, and Russia’s demographics helped construct that narrative. But population aging and contraction are such new trends that we know little about how states conduct foreign policy under these conditions, and we shouldn’t expect aging states to act like aging individuals for many reasons I discuss in the book.
Population aging and contraction are such new trends that we know little about how states conduct foreign policy under these conditions, and we shouldn’t expect aging states to act like aging individuals for many reasons…
Geriatric peace theory underpredicts Russian aggression. Power transition theory (PTT), which considers population a key component of power, anticipates riskier international behavior under demographic changes. PTT predicts aggression under two conditions: when a dominant power sees its decline while secondary powers are rising, and when an inferior state sees its power increase while the dominant power declines. What’s tough about employing this theory is that it overpredicts conflict. When fertility—which is a demographic trend we know Putin closely tracks—is declining, PTT would expect aggression, and indeed we’ve seen that. When fertility has rebounded, PTT would still expect aggression, and indeed we’ve seen that.
So, what to conclude? Political science—the main discipline for studies of war—doesn’t have adequate theories to think through the relationship between population and interstate conflict. The safest argument, the one that leaves us best prepared for the future, is that population aging and depopulation are not an automatic recipe for peace. What Russia, China, Japan, and many other aging countries have shown is that when the threat level or motivation is sufficiently high, even states at the end of the demographic transition will marshal the resources to fight.
Jennifer D. Sciubba is a PRB Board of Trustees Member and author of 8 Billion and Counting: How Sex, Death, and Migration Shape Our World, released March 29. Follow Jennifer at http://jennifersciubba.substack.com.