Is Putin more afraid of Russian mothers than of NATO?

On March 9, 2022, there was a panic in Moscow that forced Vladimir Putin out of hiding.  On that day, the Russian leader said: "I now address the mothers, wives, sisters, brides, and girlfriends" of Russia's soldiers in Ukraine.

What was the reason for Putin's urgent speech?  Family and friends of Russian combat troops had just found out that in the first attack on Ukraine, conscripts had been sacrificed on the battlefield, while experienced, professional soldiers had been kept in reserve for decisive battles.

In his speech, Putin posed as an avenger of mothers and all other women.  Only LGBT partners escaped his clumsy version of Prince Charming.  He claimed he didn't know about these military assignments and immediately ordered the withdrawal of the greenhorns from the firing line.  He even promised to court-martial the responsible career officers.

This at least half-admission of a mistake contrasts strikingly with his boasting about his war proceeding absolutely according to plan.  Why is Putin more afraid of Russian mothers than he is of MIGs being supplied to Kiev, or even of NATO itself?

An answer can be found in the history of the Russian Empire, which the man in the Kremlin wants to restore.  Between 1840 and 1914, tsarist Russia had the highest birth rates in the world, with women consistently averaging seven children each.  Every 20 Russian mothers gave birth to 70 sons.  For every 1,000 inhabitants of the world, more than 100 lived under the Romanov crown.  For every 1,000 men of military age, as many as 120 were, due to Russia's extremely low median age, under the command of the tsars.

Putin's Russia can only dream of such demographic abundance.  In 2021 — with a fertility rate of 1.5 — there will be only 15 sons for every 20 Russian women.  Today, the 115 million Russians under Putin's direct control — 80 percent of the Federation's population — account for only 15 of every 1,000 citizens of the world.  Out of a global total of 1,000 men at military age, Russia's high median age (41 years) means that, at best, only 10 are under Moscow's command.

To make things worse, these 10 are likely to be their mothers' only sons, or even their only children.  With Russia's war index of 0.7 (700 nineteen-year-olds follow 1,000 fifty-nine-year-olds), the young have such wide career paths that the option of a hero's death seems unattractive, indeed repulsive.  The times of expendable sons are over in Russia just as in the West.

Putin knows all this.  Russia's low birth rates mean that every war he wages will wipe out many family lines forever.  This grim statistic applies not only to conscripts, but also to professional soldiers.  But the latter, in a sense, have only themselves to blame.  When they enlisted in the military, their families knew the risk.  Fallen professionals — as Putin announced on March 3, when giving figures on dead and wounded for the first time — were promoted one last time to secure somewhat higher pensions for their widows.  Moreover, eight average annual salaries were announced for a fallen soldier and — in addition to disability benefits — five and a half for a wounded or maimed one.  The descendants of professional soldiers will hardly want to jeopardize these benefits and will therefore keep a low profile.

It is the anxious mothers and girlfriends of the draftees whose fears force Putin into telling lies.  There is little to suggest that they will fall for them.  Their furious verbal attack on one of Putin's functionaries, Sergei Tsivilev from the Siberian Kuzbass, who had deliverd their sons as cannon fodder while bringing his own child to safety, proved to be a direct hit on the commander in chief.

However, his countermove to withdraw soldiers from the front line cannot be indefinitely repeated.  Will he have the protesting women locked up?  Will he even shoot them?  Not even Brezhnev dared to do that during the full Soviet dictatorship.  He had anguished mothers demonstrating at the Kremlin and, thus, before the entire world.  Their fallen sons were among the 13,000 killed in the Soviet war in Afghanistan from 1979 to 1989.

Last but not least, it was this high casualty rate in a declining population that caused the Soviets to admit defeat and leave.  Will the same pattern repeat in Ukraine?  Will it occur one day that Russia's mothers, even in a real defensive war, would rather surrender than send their sons to their deaths?

Gunnar Heinsohn (b. 1943) introduced the subject of war demography at the NATO Defense College in 2011 and taught it until 2020.

Image: World Economic Forum via Flickr, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

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