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Russia No Longer A Top 5 Defense Spender

Walter Russell Mead

Russia is increasingly flexing its military muscle on the world stage these days, but you wouldn’t know it from looking at the raw numbers. A new report on global defense spending finds that Russia is no longer a top-five global defense spender. UPI:

A new report by the IHS Jane's Defense Budget team reveals Russia has dropped out of the top five global defense spenders for the first time in 30 years.

The report notes military budgets around the world rose from 2015 to 2016 to $1.57 trillion, citing various conflicts and rising political tensions as powerful factors. The researchers expect defense budgets to climb even higher in 2017, with Russia falling further behind.

"The surge in Indian defense spending pushed Russia below Saudi Arabia and down into the number six slot," principal analyst Craig Caffrey said in a press release. "We expect the Russian defense budget to fall again next year and it will sit below France in the number seven position by 2020, based on current plans, with a total defense budget of $41.4 billion."

Russia’s decision to rein in military spending is in part a reflection of hard budget realities. For an economy that has been battered by low oil prices and sanctions—and which has repeatedly dipped into its dwindling reserves to plug budget gaps—some fiscal belt-tightening would be in order anyway. Still, the downward trend in Russia’s defense spending suggests several other important lessons.

For one, Putin thinks that non-military spending gives a bigger bang for the buck than the military. So double-down on RT, but hold the next big order of tanks. The wisdom of this prioritization may be up for debate, but it suggests that Russia does not foresee an actual shooting war anytime soon. Hitler was not cutting the defense budget in 1938.

Second, it suggests that Putin is more interested in Europe than in the Middle East. Having scored a victory in Syria, with a big boost from Obama’s dithering, he seems less interested in following up by expanding his military reach there than in continuing to play divide-and-conquer in the European Union. That game costs less than projecting hard power and has a better prospect of ensuring Russian economic and political interests in its neighborhood.

Finally, Moscow’s defense cuts should remind us once again that Russia’s strength does not lie in a fearsome military or any inherent resource advantage. As we have noted before, Russia’s mission in Syria has been carried out with a relatively small force commitment, using outdated and rusty equipment whose shortcomings are plain to see. Given the Putin panic that is so fashionable these days—including in the Pentagon, where senior officials are arguing for increased funding to combat the Russian threat—it is important to keep Russia’s actual capabilities in perspective. When it comes to Russia, we are being outplayed, not outspent.

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