Between October 2020 and September 2021, the population of Russia experienced its largest peacetime decline since records began, shrinking by 997,000 people.

That would be bad news for any government, but for Putin, it is a disaster. In 2019, he admitted that the thought of a shrinking population “haunts” him. As a result, his haunted regime is now looking for shortcuts to population increases — the targets are Russian women and Ukrainian children.

The link between Putin’s current and potential wars and looming restrictions on abortion is far from subtle. Russian billboards feature the photo of a fetus on one side and the picture of a small boy in a military uniform on the right, with the text stating, “Defend me today, so I may defend you tomorrow.” 

The Kremlin is also attempting to replenish its shrinking population with Ukrainian refugees, some of whom were forcibly moved to Russia, as well as stolen Ukrainian children — a war crime, for which the International Criminal Court (ICC) issued warrants against Putin and Commissioner for Children’s Rights in the Office of the President of the Russian Federation, Maria Lvova-Belova. Russia says it has taken at least 700,000 children.

In January 2023, the host of Solovyov Live, Sergey Mardan, rejoiced over these tactics, stating: “Look at how much the motherland is spending to solve the demographic problem . . . We got these people [Ukrainians] for free, for nothing — approximately five million of them! Five million souls!”

Panelists on state TV shows argue that just as Chechens now fight on Russia’s side — despite the brutality of the two Chechen wars— at some point in the future, Ukrainians will do likewise in support of Putin’s imperial expansionism and the anticipated invasions of other countries. 

This year, the drive to produce additional battalions of future soldiers has reached a fever pitch, with propagandists and government officials urging women to give birth to more children. In May, Akhmat Battalion Commander Apti Alaudinov insisted that women should have at least five children each to achieve a geometric increase in population. 

During the plenary session of the Russian Orthodox Church congress, Patriarch Kirill said: “There truly is a population problem in Russia. It’s an enormous country, but it definitely lacks a sufficient population… Indeed, we need more people, this is obvious, everyone recognizes it,” he said. “If we solve this problem, if we learn how to talk women out of getting abortions, statistics will immediately increase.”

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State Duma deputy Dmitry Vyatkin suggested that women start giving birth at 20 years of age, so they can have multiple children. He noted, “I have three children. It’s not enough.” And Natalya Moskvitina, founder of “Women For Life,” complained at a religious conference: “What is an abortion? It is a culture of death! We have a culture of death in our country. We approve of it, we allow it . . . You’re either on the side of good or evil.” 

But this flood of anti-abortion arguments has not been universally acclaimed.

After airing the Moskvitina clip on the TV show The Meeting Place, host Ivan Trushkin caustically noted: “Ms. Moskvitina appeared on our program many times. I didn’t always get the impression she was on the side of good.”

The hosts played another clip, featuring Margarita Pavlova, a member of the Federation Council Committee on Defense and Security. During the Russian Economic Forum in Chelyabinsk, Pavlova said, “Girls are being told they should first get an education, build a career, buy an apartment, and only then get married and have children. As a result, we have a generation of 40-year-old unhappy women . . . We should stop encouraging young women to seek higher education.” Trushkin added, “It should be noted that Ms. Pavlova herself has a higher education.”

Political scientist Aleksandr Sytin said: “I am a consistent homophobe but a total proponent of abortions. I also believe they should be totally free and 100% covered by insurance.” And pundit Gevorg Mirzayan chimed in to say, “Straight to the point, every normal person will always be in favor of abortion.” 

Russia’s most prominent propagandist, Vladimir Solovyov has also entered the fray, attacking a call from Pavel Astakhov, a former Children’s Rights Commissioner, for a ban on abortions. Solovyov  said: “If we use the methods of evil and say that we want to implement harsh measures, then how are we different from [the Americans]?”

Typically, state media figures operate as obedient weathervanes, amending their stance whenever it is required. However, even some of the most pliant talking heads have a problem with their country’s current direction. Putin’s propagandists eagerly anticipated that the discourse over abortion-related issues would shatter America, but Putin’s disastrous policies brought these divisions home.

Meanwhile, anti-abortion measures are taking effect. Efforts to force pregnant women to use government clinics subject them to numerous delaying tactics where they are forced to see psychologists and priests or to have extensive and unnecessary testing to prolong the process beyond the legal limit of 12-22 weeks.

Private clinics in the Kursk and Chelyabinsk regions, in the Republic of Tatarstan, and in occupied Crimea, have already halted abortions, while others are imposing fines for the “promotion” of the procedure. 

Julia Davis is a columnist for The Daily Beast and the creator of the Russian Media Monitor. She is a member of the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences, the Screen Actors Guild, and Women In Film.

Europe’s Edge is CEPA’s online journal covering critical topics on the foreign policy docket across Europe and North America. All opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the position or views of the institutions they represent or the Center for European Policy Analysis.

Europe's Edge
CEPA’s online journal covering critical topics on the foreign policy docket across Europe and North America.
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