The Russian bear has come through the past year far leaner than before, yet still plans to maintain much of its high projected defense spending over the next decade. Indeed, the combination of plummeting oil prices alongside crippling economic sanctions severely diminished the funds available for military procurement. Even now, with prices seeming to stabilize, Moscow’s revenues are a shadow of their former scale and it will face massive economic dislocations that will tax Moscow’s capabilities for at least the next few years. Instead of expanding Russian budgets, one ought to expect a shift towards austerity and receding international commitments. However, Moscow has instead substantially expanded its military budget that is only now beginning to slow, regardless of the fact that such military expansion and interventions in the years of slim pickings may ultimately undermine the state.
It is in this climate that NATO vows to reduce cuts, or even increase its own defense spending. Yet, engaging in an arms race to spend Russia into oblivion is hardly sound policy if divorced from strategy. Prompting regime collapse is not a prudent course, as chaos in a large state with high tech weapons and nuclear capabilities is a far greater threat than Moscow currently poses. Alternatively, matching Russia is pointless if it cannot even maintain its own spending levels, let alone make headway in its long race towards parity. Yet, if part of a broader negotiation, western nations need to consider concessions they would hope to trade for slowing their defense budgets.
A Map of NATO. Russia perceives this organization as an anti-Russian alliance expanding into its ‘Near Abroad” (Wikimedia Commons)
Yet NATO has few options. Crimea remains fully ensconced under Russian control and economic pressure and confrontation short of war are unlikely to change the status quo. Even Syria is a non-issue, as Putin already retained his vital base in the Mediterranean, projected Russian power despite economic impediments, and bolstered the Assad regime. This raises few hopes, and little benefit, within Washington to change the situation now. What then is the utility in bolstering NATO defense budgets to counter a Russian investment in research, technology, development, and procurement already lagging behind Western levels and predicted to exceed Russia’s current ability to pay for it?
A Russian T-72 Main Battle Tank and a Su27 Fighter, the latter involved in exercise Vigilant Eagle in 2013 (Wikimedia Commons)
The real opportunity, if NATO nations remain wedded to expanding defense budgets, is to moderate this economic pressure just enough so that Washington can leverage its greater spending for policy concessions elsewhere. For example, while chasing the Russian bear out of Crimea is unfeasible, increasing economic pressure and then reducing it can guard against further encroachments into Ukraine or other non-NATO countries in Eastern Europe and the Caucasus. This is particularly effective if combined with credible threats of NATO expansion. The result will be a cash-strapped Russia under pressure and ready to cooperate on certain agreements. The real benefit of a potential arms race deliberately fueled by NATO to maintain high, and ultimately unsustainable, Russian defense budgets is therefore to manipulate this pressure for rollbacks of Russian influence or other concessions where possible in the years ahead. Such efforts will require nuanced diplomacy and careful timing to succeed. Without this, Washington should simply leave Russian military budgets alone to bankrupt the state, and focus its own substantial revenues for better use elsewhere.