The Wilson Quarterly

Russia’s army and navy, bristling with nuclear weapons, rocketry, and 1.2 million conscripts and volunteers, is a ­ripe-­looking fruit with a diseased core. Its military capabilities are under­mined by the nation’s low birthrate and poor ­health.

Murray Feshbach, a senior scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center, writes that Russia’s armed forces lack the skilled and healthy workers to back up its saber rattling and international ambitions. As the military deploys ever more technologically sophisticated weaponry, it relies on ever less educated troops to operate it. Military records show that only 43 percent of new naval conscripts in 2004 had finished high school. Some had less than four years of schooling, and the percentage of draftees who had completed higher education fell from 17 to 13 percent in a six-month period.

The cause of much of Russia’s problem is demographics. Births fell by 50 percent between 1987 and 1999, and Feshbach predicts that this decline will produce an “echo” in a depressed birthrate starting in 2012 and continuing for decades to come. The most optimistic national estimates show Russia’s population falling to 136 million in 2020, down from 141 million today. Life expectancy in Russia is among the lowest in the developed world: for men, officially 61 years; for wom­en, between 72 and 73 years. In the Netherlands, by contrast, men and women typically live to be 77 and 82, ­respectively.

“Drugs and alcohol use, crime, illiteracy, and health ­problems—­in­cluding HIV, tuberculosis, hepatitis B and C, psychological disturb­ances, and ailments related to ­muscular-­skeletal structures and central nervous ­systems—­are increasing marked­ly,” Feshbach reports.

An unusual child health census in 2002 showed that prenatal problems were rampant within the generation now approaching the prime conscript ages of 18 to 27. Only 30 percent of children are born healthy, Russian statistics show, with half lacking sufficient iodine or calcium during gestation—deficiencies that can lead to mental retardation and weak bones. Tuberculosis nearly quadrupled in the 15-to-17-­year-­old age group between 1989 and 2002. Mental disorders almost doubled in the decade be­fore 2002 among the same co­hort, and alcoholism went up by nearly a third in two years. Even cases of cancer and cerebral palsy increased ­dramatically.

Life expectancy, birth and death rates, labor productivity, and reproductive and child health re­flect the health status of the population, and that status is not good. For some groups within Russia, it is distinctly worsening, a situation the government was late to recognize. Russia, Feshbach concludes, has “a huge military arsenal and major ambitions—but very low human potential to realize these ambitions.”

THE SOURCE: “The Health Crisis in Russia’s Ranks” by Murray Feshbach, in Current History, Oct. ­2008.

Photo courtesy of Flickr/Victor Dubilier

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