April 28, 2023 - 10:11am

Along with tanks and men, it appears that Russia’s war in Ukraine has decimated another of its resources — the labour force. This month Russian state news agency TASS revealed that the number of workers under 35 is at its lowest share of the labour market since the early 1990s, with the most significant decrease in 2022 amongst those aged between 25 and 29. 

The cause of this decline is easy to ascertain — Putin’s “special military operation” has taken young men from their offices and factories and placed them on the front line. Russia’s Federal Statistics Service has suggested there was a net increase in the military last year of approximately 400,000 after 300,000 reservists were called up in September’s partial mobilisation. The Kremlin is now seeking a further 400,000 recruits through a tightening of conscription laws and a propaganda campaign urging young men to sign up. 

Besides Russia’s war casualties, which are subject to dispute, TASS complained of the loss of “young specialists”, the war in Ukraine having exacerbated Russia’s long-term “brain drain”. Up to one million Russian citizens, predominantly young men, have fled the country to avoid the draft or in protest at the war, usually from among the highly educated professionals the country can least afford to lose. 

Over 10% of the country’s tech workforce left in 2022, while businesses have been further hit by an exodus of migrant workers fearful of being corralled into Russia’s military operation. In all, economist Vladimir Gimpelson estimates that emigration and mobilisation cost the Russian workforce approximately 2% of male workers aged 20-49 last year. 

The loss of skilled workers can be expected to increase thanks to the actions of the Russian Government. A bill to raise the age of conscription from 18-27 to 21-30, as well as recruitment officers pressuring students to join the war effort, means that graduates could walk out of the classroom and straight into the line of fire. 

So what does this diminishing workforce mean for Russia? Regarding the economic consequences, CEO of strategic consultants Macro Advisory Chris Weafer told Newsweek that the shortages of labour and skills will be  “as damaging for Russia’s future economic growth prospects as the sanctions ban on technology”. The ratio of vacancies per jobseeker increased over the course of 2022 from 2.1 in the first quarter to 2.5 in the last, while half of businesses complained of staff shortages last year. A sluggish economy combined with employers trying to lure workers with higher wages risks fuelling inflation and, in December, Central Bank Governor Elvira Nabiullina warned that “the capacity to expand production in the Russian economy is largely limited by the labour market conditions”.

The haphazard manner in which mobilisation has been conducted means that there are manpower shortages in sectors critical to both the economy and the war effort. This week, Russia’s central bank found the number of available employees to be at its lowest since 1998, with shortages most prevalent in male-dominated sectors like manufacturing, industrial enterprises, water supply, mining, transportation and storage, all of which are likely to impact domestic war production and the effort in Ukraine. Additionally, 390,000 men have taken posts in the military, public administration and security, abandoning sectors like construction, processing and retail.

Russia has struggled throughout the war with ammunition shortages, making it all the more vital to possess a strong labour force and technologically skilled experts. Though the defence industry is hiring civilian workers, they are unlikely to possess the necessary experience and specialist knowledge required to be immediately productive. Gimpelson does not expect the self-employed, drivers or couriers to move into factory jobs critical to wartime production. For their part, private sector enterprises are striving to fill traditionally male-dominated roles like driving by hiring women, teenagers and the elderly. 

The West struck back at Russia’s war in Ukraine by crafting a package of sanctions designed to weaken the economy. Yet, it would appear the war itself is wreaking greater damage on its instigator.