Stratfor explains why Russia won’t join our arms race

Summary: Here Stratfor examines the arms race, one aspect of the propaganda campaign seeking to start a new cold war with Russia. Spoiler: it’s bogus, like the rest of the campaign. Stratfor

An Arms Race Russia Will Not Run

Stratfor, 30 December 2016.


In the 25 years since the Soviet Union fell, Russia has punctuated military buildups on its border with the occasional rattle of its nuclear saber in response to U.S. provocations. But a muted reaction to President-elect Donald Trump’s recent suggestion that the United States should expand its nuclear weapons arsenal reflects a different military and economic reality for Russia, one in which the Kremlin realizes it could not afford to keep up in a new nuclear arms race.

Trump’s Dec. 23 pronouncement that the U.S. nuclear arsenal should be beefed up came as President Barack Obama signed a wide-ranging $618.7 billion defense spending bill. Trump’s remarks, particularly his quip about reigniting an arms race, elicited criticism from the Kremlin. Russian presidential spokesman Dmitri Peskov responded that his country would not take part in any arms race, and Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova criticized the United States for trying to spend Russia to death.

In years past, Russia used news of U.S. arms buildups to justify expanding its own arsenals, but echoes of the disastrous Soviet defense spending spree in the 1980s have given Moscow pause. Russia’s more moderate tone does not mean it will pull back on its defense plans, but rather that the Kremlin does not want to repeat a history of military overspending that helped accelerate the demise of the Soviet Union.

Russia and the new arms race
Mockup of a 50-megaton ‘Tsar’ atomic bomb on display at a Moscow museum. Alexander Nemenov/AFP/Getty Image.


The United States and Russia have long been locked in a bitter standoff over Moscow’s borderlands, and the tensions between the two have intensified since 2014 over the conflicts in Ukraine and Syria. Washington and Russia are implementing long-term plans in expectation of prolonged antagonism. The United States is driving measures to bolster NATO’s forces along Europe’s eastern flank. It established a ground-based missile-defense system in Romania in May and plans to expand NATO troop rotations starting next year. The United States also is in the midst of a $350 billion plan to modernize all three legs of its nuclear weapons triad — bombers, submarines and land-based missiles — but those upgrades do not equate to an expansion of its arsenal.

In response, Russia is transforming its military by implementing a division-level structure that is focused on high-end conventional warfare against a potential enemy like NATO. It has deployed its 1st Guards Tank Army along its western border as a spearhead force prepared for offensive and defensive operations in Europe, with plans to add three brigades with the same mission and capabilities. Moscow announced in November that it will send S-400 Triumf surface-to-air missiles and nuclear-capable Iskander short-range mobile missile systems to its European exclave of Kaliningrad.

But Russia is attempting to shape its strategic one-upmanship to today’s reality and not repeat Cold War mistakes. Under Russia’s current foreign policy strategy, known as the Strategic Concept, it plans for future hostilities with the West that take the form of more asymmetric and regionalized proxy conflicts, such as the one in Ukraine, rather than a direct military or nuclear confrontation. Global proxy wars played a significant role in Moscow’s Cold War calculations, but its tactics today are more focused on struggles closer to home. NATO remains a top concern, as evidenced by the steps Moscow is taking to shore up its military position, but Russia can afford to go only so far in its push against the West.

An enduring economic recession and stagnant oil prices forced the Kremlin to trim the national budget in 2016. Military spending dropped from $66 billion in 2015 to $50 billion, or 4 percent of gross domestic product, this year. However, the modest oil price recovery over the past few months has allowed the Kremlin to toss an extra $12 billion to its defense industry. Even though Moscow plans to raise its defense budget to $60 billion in 2017, U.S. military spending still exceeds that figure tenfold.

But Russia’s decision to keep half of its 2017 federal budget secret means that the true amount it spends on defense is unknown. By making the budget opaque, the Kremlin gains the flexibility to shift money to its defenses without exposing itself to the disapproval of an increasingly impoverished Russian population, which has seen its social support funds diminish.

Its budget-shifting ability still would not afford the Kremlin the ability to engage in the kind of arms race that defined the last years of the Cold War and helped bankrupt the Soviet Union. In the 1970s, Washington was gripped by the idea that the Soviets were far more powerful than its allies. The Pentagon shifted its strategy to boost the offensive potential it could bring against the Soviets by doubling defense spending between 1980 and 1989, a financial race the Soviets could not win. In addition, the launch of the Strategic Defense Initiative anti-ballistic missile system (colloquially known as Star Wars) showed off the United States’ vast technological advantage over the Soviets.

The legacy of those events weighs heavily on the Kremlin’s decision-making in its current standoff with the West. Russia’s increasing political, social and economic fragilities are reminiscent of those experienced by the Soviet Union in its death throes. Moscow can avoid the same kinds of instability unleashed in the late 1980s and early 1990s, as long as it heeds the lessons of the past. The quick Kremlin reaction to Trump’s suggestion of a possible future arms race is an indication of such thinking.

But Moscow’s reactions are also an indication of the opportunities it sees in 2017 to relieve some of the foreign pressure on it. As the European Union’s divides widen, the united Western front that has squeezed Russia in recent years is showing signs of stress. Moreover, Moscow sees an opening with the incoming U.S. administration to reshape the tensions between the two. Though it will not end their conflict, increased engagement could lead to the easing of certain pressures, such as economic sanctions and military posture. At this point in the U.S. leadership transition, the Kremlin does not want to take the chance of being perceived as hostile. So Russia will maintain its strategic position against the United States and its allies while trying to ensure that the tensions with them remain manageable.

An Arms Race Russia Will Not Run” is republished with permission of Stratfor.


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