Vladimir Putin recently decreed that any Ukrainian who wants a Russian passport can get one. More than 800,000 Donbas residents have already taken the plunge, the Kremlin says, and it’s an offer that may be hard to refuse. Russian citizenship is now required in many parts of occupied Ukraine to hold down a job and access services. Declining it can get you noticed, in a bad way.
The initiative has a history. Any foreigner with ‘spiritual and cultural ties’ to Russia became eligible for citizenship in 1999. Another law expedited applications three years later, and in 2008 Putin waged a war to defend new passport holders in Georgia. Kremlin-watchers call the strategy ‘passportisation’, but Putin claims it’s normal. As he’s observed, Poland, Hungary and Romania have extended rights of dual nationality to millions of neighbouring residents. When Russia first offered passports to Donbas residents in 2019, he claimed to be emulating those precedents.
The parallels don’t extend far. Even Viktor Orbán isn’t threatening to exterminate Hungary’s rivals. But passportisation is a response to demographic concerns that are common to the region. As Putin routinely acknowledges in his addresses to the nation, Russia’s population has been on the decline for decades. Millions of young, productive and fertile citizens have emigrated westwards. Birth rates are low, and life expectancy is about as short as it gets in the developed world. There were almost a million excess deaths during the first two years of the Covid-19 pandemic, Russia’s population dropped more in 2021 than at any time since the Soviet Union’s collapse.
Putin’s fighting back. Two years ago he authorised dual citizenship. Like the governments of Poland and Hungary, he bumped up financial incentives to have children and invoked ‘family values’ to exalt heterosexuality and discourage abortions. And now it’s war. The attack on Ukraine – a state Putin insists is part of the motherland – is more than a land grab. It’s an effort to bulk up. Passportised Ukrainians don’t even have to speak Russian. They just need undefined ‘spiritual and cultural ties’.
According to many pro-war bloggers and talking heads in Russia, Moscow’s gain will be Kyiv’s terminal loss. Ukraine was a demographic basket case even before its current battle for survival began, and the cheerleaders say Putin’s latest move is a coup de grâce. Once Western states finally come to terms with reality, the argument goes, their own hunger for citizens will kick in. While Russia digests southern and eastern Ukraine, Poland, Hungary and Romania will squabble over the leftovers.
The hypothesis isn’t entirely ridiculous. Belarus is about to streamline its naturalisation procedure for Ukrainians. Significant economic sectors in Poland have become dependent on Ukrainian guest workers in recent years (the country’s xenophobes find them less objectionable than Africans and Muslims), and a small minority of extreme nationalists share the Kremlin’s contempt for the government in Kyiv. Western Ukraine was part of Poland until 1939, and they want it back.
Only one head of state is actively trying to dismember Ukraine, however, and Putin isn’t just being ultra-competitive. It’s easy to understand how rapid population growth can promote armed conflict: expanding societies are volatile, and young men desperate for limited opportunities are often violent. The urge to cannibalise that’s being generated by competitive demographic decline is darker. Potential fathers are being sacrificed, millions of women and children are being exiled, and once vibrant cities are being reduced to no-man’s-land. That isn’t merely miscalculated or counter-productive – it’s thanatotic – and yet, in Russia, Putin is more popular than he’s been for years.
That bodes ill for ageing, underpopulated societies everywhere – including eastern Europe as a whole – but Russia looks singularly vulnerable. Most of the five million people who emigrated during the first two decades of Putin’s rule were under forty; almost all had university degrees (92 per cent) and a significant proportion had PhDs (14 per cent). Since February, hundreds of thousands more have bolted. And by Putin’s reckoning, critics who have stayed don’t even count. They are residents of Miami and the French Riviera ‘in their minds’, he thinks, because they can’t ‘do without foie gras, oysters or so-called gender freedoms’. True patriots, he says, should spit them out ‘like flies’. Supporters of the war won’t doubt that. In victory or defeat, Russia is going to be a shrunken place.