Over five million Russians have permanently left Russia since Vladimir Putin took power in 1999. The exodus accelerated when he made his rule legally permanent in 2020. In 2022 Putin ordered the invasion of Ukraine, the first of several conquests he proclaimed necessary for Russian survival. This is not working out well because increased internal repression and external violence have crippled the economy (fewer jobs) while forcing men into the army to fight in Ukraine have led to still more Russians leaving Russia. The departures are substantial and continually reduce the population and percentage of the population that is Russian.
This is all about Putin seeking to increase Russia’s Slavic population and rely less on migrants from former Soviet states in Central Asia to make up the difference in numbers. This is worse because the ethnic Russians have a much lower birth rate than the new arrivals. This lower birth rate is similar to what is happening in most industrialized nations.
When Putin became the Russian leader in 1999, there were 117 million ethnic Russians who formed 80 percent of the population. The other 20 percent were various “less reliable” minorities. That included Ukrainians. By 2020 there were 109 million ethnic Russians and 24 percent of the population was non-Russian. In 1999 the total population was 147 million while in 2020 it was 144 million. Russia added the population of Crimea (2.4 million) to the official total but that province belongs to Ukraine and the Ukrainians are poised to take it back.
Currently Russia is forcibly moving over a million Ukrainians to Russia. About ten percent of these forced migrants are children that are to be raised by Russian families as Russians. That might work with the younger children, but those ten or older have been resisting this forced change. Adults want no part of becoming Russian and that is why many were moved to remote (from Ukraine) parts of Russia.
The Russians who have left since 1999 are largely better educated, more affluent and looking for a place to settle for good. In 2022 half a million of these Russians fled to Europe or Central Asian states that were once part of the Soviet Union. These Russians were fleeing the surprise conscription of young Russians to fight in Ukraine. Putin was conscripting migrants from Central Asia as well as those in Russia as temporary workers. These non-Russians were angry at being forced into the army and many went back to Central Asia when they saw what was happening. Few of these older “mobilized” men made good soldiers and those sent to Ukraine were often untrained and poorly equipped. Their usefulness in combat was dismal. The Russians who fled are starting businesses and the Central Asian governments appreciate this. Some may return if Putin is replaced by someone who is less lethal to young Russians and the economy. The Russian expatriates have cash and skills that are quickly put to work improving the local economy. This was in sharp contrast to the 1990s, when many Russians living in these former parts of the Soviet Union found themselves under pressure to leave. Now a new generation with no memory of the Soviet Union welcomes these affluent and talented foreigners.
The exodus of Russians accelerated after the Russian war on Ukraine began in 2014 with the seizure of Crimea and a partially successful seizure of two provinces in eastern Ukraine. A quicker than expected Ukrainian military response halted the seizure of the two eastern provinces and that led to a shaky ceasefire and pointless peace talks. In February 2022 when Russia sought to conquer all of Ukraine, that also failed. In Russia, the departure of Russians increased.
This aggressive behavior was not popular with many Russians, nor was Vladimir Putin, who became the Russian leader and in 1999 and after about six years decided that Russia needed a more permanent and totalitarian government under his leadership. Putin remained in power despite term-limits and by 2020 had managed to change the constitution to make his long-term rule legal. Putin has displayed considerable talent for political survival. One thing that might bring him down is the continued Russian failures in Ukraine, which Putin still insists is actually part of Russia. The invasion has unified Ukrainians as Ukrainians in ways that no one, Russian or Ukrainian, ever expected. Despite what Putin said, most Russians considered the fighting in Ukraine a foreign war against a very adept and motivated people.
Putin blamed it all on the West, especially the NATO alliance. Ukrainians were not eager to join NATO until the 2014 attack, now they are an unofficial NATO member and expect to formalize that when their NATO-supported war is over. Between 2014 and 2021 NATO provided considerable assistance to transform Ukraine’s Soviet-era military into a force that thought and fought like NATO troops did. This meant better training and leadership as well as more flexible tactics. This played a major role in the unexpectedly rapid defeat of the Russian invaders and the superior performance of the Ukrainians on the offensive. Because of heavy losses and the poor quality of replacement troops, the Russians find themselves, nine months later, outnumbered by better trained, armed and led Ukrainian forces that also have a lot of combat experience. This is why Putin has resorted to attacks on Ukrainian civilians and infrastructure (electricity, water and transportation). To do that Russia had to buy cruise missiles from Iran and artillery ammo from North Korea because Russian production was crippled by sanctions.
Despite government censorship and control over mass media, Russians still find out about what is happening in Ukraine. The government suppressed public protests with mass arrests and jail sentences. That led to clandestine attacks (usually fire bombs) 0n military mobilization officers and lots of anti-war and anti-Putin graffiti. Other Russians simply left Russia. That exodus was so massive and sustained that it defeated Putin’s campaign to make Russia more Russian.