Russia’s People Problem

Russia’s aging population presents important challenges for the country. Photo Credit: Needpix.

Russia is no stranger to the challenges of the so-called “demographic crisis,” with declining birth rates and low life expectancy receiving significant attention in the years following the collapse of the Soviet Union. Although the country managed to reverse this population loss in the late-2000s, the crisis has since returned, with 2019 representing the second consecutive year of population decline, an annual net loss of more than 300,000.[i] The United Nations’s median population projection foresees a decrease in Russia’s population from the current figure of approximately 145 million to 135 million by 2050. Such a future is concerning for the long-term outlook of a country facing a slow-growing economy still largely dependent on oil and natural gas exports.[ii] For Russian foreign policy, however, the most consequential demographic trend is not this overall population decline, but one of its components—the loss of human capital. The trend of outward emigration of Russia’s high-educated workforce, coupled with an inability to replenish these losses, will negatively impact Moscow’s ability to compete with other major powers and project power in the coming decades.   

First, it is important to establish that while many have pointed to Russia’s demographic trends as evidence of the country’s seemingly inevitable decline as a major power, a state’s population is not the indicator of national power it once was. As Michael Kofman, senior research scientist at the Center for Naval Analysis, explains, “The conversation on demographics can tend towards the simplistic, focusing on population size rather than the qualitative dimensions that make up human capital—such as education or health. This represents a fundamental problem in strategy discussions that can at times seem rooted in a dated pursuit of land, people, and resources.”

Furthermore, modern militaries are becoming less dependent on manpower as increasingly sophisticated technologies populate the battlefield, acting as force multipliers for their operators. Russia appears to recognize this, having exercised a force structure in Syria and Ukraine that emphasizes a combination of highly trained specialized units, information and cyber warfare, precision-strike weapons, and drones to achieve operational goals. In contrast to conflicts of the past, success in future military engagements, particularly those among major powers, is unlikely to depend on a state’s mobilization of manpower. Instead, the advantage will belong to those who can properly develop, field, and integrate ever more advanced technologies into their force structure.  

In the pursuit of military and economic advantage, Russia is attempting to carve out a position in the competition for “emerging technologies,” occurring primarily between the United States and China. To this end, Moscow has made investments in the development of technologies such as hypersonic missiles, artificial intelligence, and quantum computing. However, as it attempts to keep up with the high-tech industries of the U.S. and China, Russia will increasingly feel the crunch of the country’s “brain drain” and its lackluster high-tech workforce.

Like the concept of a demographic crisis, Russia is not unfamiliar with the notion of a brain drain. During the 1990s, there was a large exodus of highly educated and skilled Russians attempting to escape the economic turmoil of the post-Soviet transition. Of the estimated 1.2 million emigrating outside the Former Soviet Union during this period, 21 percent had a higher education, nearly double that of Russia as a whole.[iii] A similar, and possibly more concerning trend, is occurring in the modern day. Since 2000, Russia has experienced another wave of emigration, with an estimated 1.6 to 2 million leaving the country since President Vladimir Putin took office.[iv] Evidence suggests that this group is disproportionately pulled from the higher educated middle and upper-classes, with departures motivated at least in part by political conditions under the Putin-led government. An Atlantic Council report on this “Putin Exodus” surveyed recent emigres from Russia to the West, finding that 81 percent have at least a bachelor’s degree, with 36 percent possessing a master’s degree or PhD.[v] Additionally, a 2018 report from the Russian Presidential Academy of National Economy and Public Administration (RANEPA) found that half of Russian postgraduate students want to leave their country for better opportunities.[vi] Moreover, the Russian Academy of Sciences has stated that from 2013 to 2016, the number of “highly qualified specialists” leaving the country annually doubled from 20 thousand to 44 thousand.[vii] 

The impact of this concentration of Russians emigrating with higher education levels is not reflected in overall immigration statistics. Russian immigration figures indicate that the country is actually experiencing net positive immigration. According to the Federal State Statistics Service, the country experienced net immigration of 124,854 people in 2018.[viii] Most of this immigration originates from members of the Former Soviet Union, particularly Central Asia, and is frequently cited as evidence disputing the existence of a Russian brain drain. These arguments claim that Russia’s high rate of immigration is supplanting those leaving the country, stymying the potential effects of emigration among more highly educated segments of the population. But this is not the case. The aforementioned RANEPA report noted that even as Russia has tried to promote the immigration of highly skilled workers, over a six-year duration from 2012-2018 only 13-17% of immigrants had completed at least some higher education, compared to 28% among the Russian public, according to the country’s 2010 census.[ix] Furthermore, this figure represents a trend of decreasing education levels among immigrants destined for Russia over the past three decades. In the 1990s, the average level of higher education for immigrants corresponded with, and in some years exceeded, that of the Russian population. This figure was at approximate parity throughout the 2000s, but has decreased throughout the 2010s, ultimately leading to the current disparity.[x] While Russia has demonstrated an ability to supplant its decreasing population and support gaps in the workforce with immigrants from the Former Soviet Union, the educational makeup of that population indicates it is not likely to serve as a long-term solution to the loss of human capital Russia is experiencing. 

Such trends threaten to have a direct impact on Russian efforts to compete in technology sectors. A Boston Consulting Group survey of Russian tech workers suggests a high willingness to relocate among young tech employees. Of those surveyed, between 52 and 54 percent of respondents with skills in management, information technology, digitization, analytics, and automation were willing to leave the country for work.[xi] 

Demographic woes also threaten the replenishment of Russia’s educated class. While Russia has traditionally maintained a well-educated population, especially in STEM fields, the number of students enrolled at universities has dramatically decreased in recent years. Higher education enrollment has decreased from a peak of approximately 7 million in 2010 to 4.2 million in 2017, with the total number of graduates dropping by a third.[xii] The coming of age of Russians born in the 1990s, when birth rates plummeted, offers one explanation for such a significant decrease in university enrollment. Nonetheless, it is evident that Russia’s output of individuals with university-level education is waning, with little indication of future reversal as the overall population faces further decline and a rising median age.[xiii]

None of this is to say that Russia is incapable of competing with the US and China in technology fields. The development of artificial intelligence in particular has been highlighted as a major strategic priority for Moscow, with President Vladimir Putin claiming, “the one who becomes the leader in this sphere will be the ruler of the world.”[xiv] A claim reinforced by Russia’s national artificial intelligence strategy, which allocates $6.1 billion to the development of the technology over the next six years.[xv] However, the bleed of human capital in recent years calls into question Russian’s potential to compete with the United States and China in this arena. Additionally, the private sector’s role in the field, heavily emphasized in the United States, and to a lesser extent in China, is minimal in Russia, with efforts largely dependent on state support.[xvi] Given the importance of innovation and start-up culture to success in the tech industry, it is hard to envision how Russia can compete effectively. 

As emerging technologies like artificial intelligence grow in their importance to national security, it is very possible that Russia will find itself increasingly outclassed by the U.S. and China. Already constrained by a sluggish economy with little comparative advantage beyond natural resources and arms sales, Russia’s efforts to compete in the technological arms races of the 21st century will be further hindered by the country’s continual loss of high-skilled workers and scientists. For U.S. policymakers responsible for the development of long-term strategy, especially that relating to technology, it is important to be aware of how these trends will affect the degree to which Russia poses a credible threat, particularly in relation to China. 


[i] Lilya Palveleva and Robert Coalson, “Echoes of War and Collapse: Russia’s Demographic Decline as Small 1990s Generation Comes of Age,” RadioFreeEurope/RadioLiberty, January 12, 2020,

[ii] “Russia’s Natural Resources Valued at 60% of GDP,” The Moscow Times, March 14, 2019,

[iii] Timothy Heleniak, “Migration of the Russian Diaspora After the Breakup of the Soviet Union,” Journal of International Affairs 57, no. 2 (Spring 2004): 105,

[iv] John Herbst and Sergei Erofeev, “The Putin Exodus: The New Russian Brain Drain,” Atlantic Council Eurasia Center, February 2019, 14,

[v] Ibid, 19.

[vi]  “Half of Russian PhD Students Want to Move Abroad,” The Moscow Times, April 4, 2018,

[vii] Polina Zvezdina, “The Russian Academy of Sciences Announced ‘Brain Drain’ Doubled in Three Years,” RBC Group, March 29, 2018,

[viii] “International Migration,” Russian Federal State Statistics Service (Rosstat), last updated April 6, 2019,

[ix] “Monitoring of Russia’s Economic Outlook,” Gaidar Institute and the Russian Presidential Academy of National Economy and Public Administration, January 2018, 15,

[x] Ibid, 15.

[xi]  Rainer Strack et al., “Decoding Global Talent 2018: Russia Faces a Talent Conundrum,” Boston Consulting Group, June 25, 2018,

[xii] “Russian Statistical Yearbook,” Russian Federal State Statistics Service (Rosstat), 2018, 194,

[xiii] Sergey Aleksashenko, “The Russian Economy in 2050: Heading for Labor-Based Stagnation,” Brookings Institutions, April 2, 2015,

[xiv]  “Putin: Leader in Artificial Intelligence Will Rule World,” CNBC, September 4, 2017,

[xv] Samuel Bendett, “Russia’s AI Quest is State-Driven — Even More Than China’s. Can it Work?” Defense One, November 25, 2019,

[xvi] Margarita Konaev, “Thoughts on Russia’s AI Strategy,” Georgetown University Center for Security and Emerging Technology, October 30, 2019,

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