The Paradoxical Issue of Russian Military Spending

Why an increase in Russian conventional military spending would result in a safer world

By Alec Veit

According to the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), Russia’s conventional military capabilities are at their highest since 1992. Russia’s armed forces of 3 million personnel saw a 30% budget increase between 2010 and 2019 and a 175% increase between 2000 and 2019. In the same period, the armed forces underwent a serious modernisation program following serious structural reforms. These reforms include a reduction in troop numbers, the restructuring of military districts, and the purchase of and investment in new equipment. Russia is also the world’s second largest weapons exporter and has a successful military industrial complex supported by its development of high tech platforms.

The problem, however, is that since 2016, Russian military spending plateaued around $60 billion. Russian defence spending is predicted to decline further in the next 10 years. This change in pace regarding Russia’s defence spending is largely attributed to crippling western economic sanctions that started around 2014 in response to Russia’s involvement in Ukraine. A weaker and more isolated Russian economy has clearly impacted defence spending, and sheds light on a procurement problem regarding its high-tech defence industry. Even with the ‘know-how’ to create a state-of-the-art military, the weak economy, economic sanctions and insufficient funding means that Russia simply cannot purchase enough equipment necessary.  

This procurement problem is not the only problem Russia’s military is struggling with. Despite Russia’s sheer geographic size, and fairly large population of 145 million, it only spends $60 billion on defence. This is not enough to compete with the world’s other great powers. It spends approximately 15 times less than the US and 4 times less than China. It also only outspends the Saudi Arabia, a far smaller country, by less than $4 billion. In addition, large portions of Russia’s military equipment are outdated and are from the Soviet era, and on top of this, its personnel suffer a morale problem as serious hazing is common

In addition, Russia’s 2008 invasion of Georgia laid bare the structural shortcomings that derive from the many Soviet era command structures. In this invasion, for example, Russia’s lack of effective intelligence on Georgian artillery positions and the number of soldiers on the field saw several Russian units ambushed. Some Russian soldiers used their own cellphones when radios failed, and ineffective decision making plagued Russia’s top ranks. All these issues of outdated structures and equipment caused unnecessary casualties and delays in the Russian victory and has seen Russia deemed largely incapable of competing with the world’s major powers on a conventional military scale. Russia, however, has one key asset that sets it apart from other powers: its position as the country with the world’s largest nuclear stockpile, with approximately 6375 nuclear warheads available

Since Russia is well aware of both this key advantage and its shortcomings on a more conventional scale, it started shifting a lot of its military focus on the tactical use of nuclear weapons. This is based on the use of nuclear weapons to destroy a country’s war-making capabilities. The increasing attention placed on nuclear weapons is clear in Russia’s rapid development and large-scale acquisition of new, shorter range, low-yield nuclear weapons, effective in tactical uses, as well as the development of new sea-launched nuclear capable cruise missiles. Even though Russia’s arsenal did not necessarily increase in size, Russia is seen as the most committed country when it comes to developing and modernising its nuclear arsenal. The increased focus on tactical nuclear weapons demonstrates that Russia is becoming more willing to consider their use in conventional conflict.  

According to the Congressional Research Service, NATO analysts are fearing that Russia may start using tactical nuclear weapons in its immediate spheres of influence in conflicts similar to Ukraine and Georgia if it were to ever face non-nuclear conventional military shortcomings. It has also been stated that there are greater concerns regarding Russia’s potential use of tactical nuclear weapons against NATO, specifically the eastern former Soviet members, which Russia sees as a national security threat

The Congressional Research Service further states that an unprecedented, purely tactical nuclear strike in a smaller scale conflict could easily expand the conflict. It would involve several actors, severely increase the number of casualties, and make many areas uninhabitable for years to come. When it comes to potential conflict with NATO, it could prompt retaliation and a full-scale nuclear war. In addition, this increased reliance on nuclear weapons may drive a dangerous mutual response from NATO and kickstart a Cold War era nuclear arms race that is not only costly to taxpayers, but has the potential of mutual annihilation. 

Considering that Russia is taking the nuclear path as a result of shortcomings in its conventional military, the most viable solution may, paradoxically, be the development of its non-nuclear forces. It can be argued that international nuclear arms control treaties between nuclear powers could solve this problem if all nations agreed to decrease their stockpile sizes. The problem, however, is that the US, for instance, has a strong conventional force to assert military might. The picture is very different for a Russia that relies on its nuclear stockpile, making any negotiations challenging. Additionally, Russia still sees itself as a global power due to a Russian exceptionalism that has persisted since the end of the second World War, so it will demand certain military capabilities, whether they be nuclear or not. 

Being fully aware of this, the international community needs to decide between these two ‘evils’. It needs to decide whether it would rather see a conventionally strong Russia that continuously harasses its neighbours due to its multipolar view of international relations, or whether it would rather see a return to a potential Cold War-era nuclear arms race with an increased risk of nuclear war. Considering the far higher risk of the latter, the scary sight of a more well-funded and stronger conventional Russian military may ironically serve as the safer alternative. 

“The views expressed in this article are the author’s own, and may not reflect the opinions of The St Andrews Economist.”

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