Why you should care
Because despite recessions and diplomacy, Russia’s expanding military means business.
With the recession fading, countries seem to be thinking about their borders and possible conflict. For the first time in five years, global defense budgets are on the rise. And in 2014, one country in particular is taking militarization to an astonishing level.
You guessed it: With Russian involvement in Crimea raising diplomatic hackles, it’s no secret who’s stirring the pot in Europe. Russia is now the third-biggest defense spender in the world, after the United States and China. Looking at Russia’s military expansion plans for 2014, you’d think the Cold War had never ended.
Russia’s military funding has jumped a whopping 92 percent since 2010.
This superpower means business. Over the next three years, Moscow plans to nearly double its defense spending. Some analysts suggest its biggest expenditures will be upgrading old equipment and expanding its military structure. But such staggering expansion says otherwise.
It can be difficult to tell who’s holding the better hand, but there are a few measures that tell us how countries stack up in terms of defense — and can therefore help us gauge their ambitions.
Aircraft carriers: The U.S. currently has 10. Britain, who no longer rules the waves, trails behind with two, along with India and Italy. And Russia has one. But in the past decade, Russia has been talking a mean game about doubling its Atlantic naval presence with a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier — and one is currently under construction. This, in itself, isn’t necessarily threatening, but it’s a signal that Russia intends to raise the stakes on blunt-force diplomacy by equipping itself to enforce blockades, discourage naval movements and potentially affect trade.
Submarines: Once again, America leads — but not by much. The U.S. has 71 submarines to North Korea’s 62 and Russia’s 61. With the North Korean navy in some disarray and the U.S. debating its naval funding, Russia’s promise to deliver 24 new submarines by 2020 is both impressive and unnerving.
Over the next three years, Moscow plans to nearly double its defense spending.
Nuclear weapons: Russia has its finger on the button with an estimated 8,420 nuclear warheads — nearly 1,000 more than the U.S. The former Cold War rivals’ priorities now appear to be on reducing the nuclear stockpile rather than adding to it. But as security specialist Loren Thompson points out, Russia’s aggression in Crimea has triggered new concerns about maintaining the delicate nuclear balance.
Russia’s hefty defense plans have clearly put NATO on its toes. So where does the rest of the world come in?
The EU’s total defense budget this year is 170 billion euros ($236 billion), compared to Russia’s $70 billion budget. That might not seem like much competition — until you consider that the EU’s biggest defense spender, the United Kingdom, will shell out about $13 billion less than Russia this year. And then there’s Russia’s ambitious spending trajectory and what that might portend.
With Crimea in focus right now, many — including Obama — are criticizing the EU’s recent defense cuts. Richard Dannatt, the former British Armed Forces chief of staff, agrees. “With a resurgent Russia, this is a poor moment for the U.S.-led West to be weak in resolve and muscle,” he says.
But the world has changed quite a bit since defense spending coincided with mass mobilization. Russia has just over 2 million active troops — almost 10 million fewer than its army at peak strength during World War II.
It may be true that defense spending no longer translates to boots on the ground. But whether it’s merely upgrading its defense or gearing up for total dominance, Russia’s spending is clearly sending a message — and it ain’t a love note.