Russia Reform Monitor No. 2564

Related Categories: Human Rights and Humanitarian Issues; International Economics and Trade; Public Diplomacy and Information Operations; Warfare; Corruption; Baltics; Caucasus; Russia; Ukraine

For decades, the Russian government has struggled to successfully manage the country's difficult demographic profile. Low birth rates, high rates of emigration and a neglected healthcare system have all contributed to a declining population – and that trend has persisted despite the best efforts of the Kremlin to ameliorate it. Now, Vladimir Putin's war in Ukraine (and the enormous human and material costs associated with it) are making this state of affairs much, much worse. According to the Washington Post, the war has touched off a "historic exodus" of Russians from the country, one unrivaled in size and scope since the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution. Somewhere between 500,000 and one million Russians are estimated to have left the country over the past year because of the conflict as well as deepening domestic repression on the part of a Kremlin, accelerating the country's demographic decline in the process. (Washington Post, February 13, 2023)

The outflow of Russians prompted by the current conflict is notable in other ways as well. For countries on Russia's periphery (including the Baltic states, as well as the nations of the Caucasus and Central Asia), fleeing Russians have swelled local diasporas – and, in many cases, exacerbated internal tensions and altered relations with Russia. But it has wrought even bigger changes within Russia itself, where domestic politics have shifted as opposition elements depart, taking the potential of change with them. "This exodus is a terrible blow for Russia," historian Tamara Eidelman tells the Post. "The layer that could have changed something in the country has now been washed away." (Washington Post, February 13, 2023)

Since the start of the Ukraine war last February, anti-Russian sentiment has surged globally. While Western governments have correctly banded together to help Kyiv fight the Kremlin's aggression, an unfortunate side effect of the conflict has been a surge in negative attitudes and hostility toward Russians and Russian-speakers writ large. Now, one of the country's most prominent political prisoners has appealed to Western publics for greater understanding.

In an open letter published in TIME Magazine, opposition activist Ilya Yashin – who was sentenced by the Russian government last year to eight-and-a-half years in prison for his opposition to the war – bemoans the fact that "more and more, the Russian people are treated as enemies" based upon the notion that they are "accomplices to the crimes of war." This, Yashin explains, is an incorrect perception. "We did resist," he notes. "Since the start of the war and throughout 2022, the police in Russia arrested almost 20,000 opponents of the war." Moreover, "[p]eople are fleeing from Putin... not wanting to be involved in military aggression." Those who have remained in Russia, meanwhile, "are living with the rights of hostages," and while many don't support the war "they remain silent, afraid of repressions."

Yashin's argument is simple – and powerful. "Do not demean the Russians, as that kind of rhetoric will only strengthen Putin's power," he writes. "By shifting the blame for war crimes from the Kremlin junta onto my fellow citizens, you are easing the Putin regime's moral and political burden. You are giving him a chance to hide from the just accusations of people who have in essence become a human shield in this situation." (TIME, February 10, 2023)

Over the past year, the Wagner paramilitary group run by oligarch and Kremlin confidante Yevgeny Prigozhin has emerged at the forefront of Moscow's military campaign, with Prigozhin himself becoming a major player in the Kremlin's wartime political balance-of-power. But the conflict has proved to be a costly one for the Russian military, and Wagner has not escaped this grim toll. The U.S. government now estimates that Wagner itself has suffered some 30,000 casualties to date, with nearly a third of those taking place since mid-December.

The casualty count, officials say, is a reflection of the organization's ruthless tactics. "They're treating their recruits, largely convicts, as basically cannon fodder, throwing them into a literal meat grinder here, inhuman ways without a second thought," National Security Council spokesman John Kirby has told reporters. "Men that he just plucked out of prisons and threw on the battlefield with no training, no equipping, no organizational command, just throw them into the fight." (CNN, February 17, 2023)