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A Misleading Claim About Russia’s Defense Spending

RUSSIA -- Military vehicles are seen during the Vostok-2018 (East-2018) military drills at Tsugol training ground not far from the borders with China and Mongolia in Siberia, September 13, 2018
Russian Embassy in Canada Twitter Account

Russian Embassy in Canada Twitter Account

Official Russian Foreign Ministry social media account

While ‘brain dead’ @NATO annual #military budget exeeds [sic] $1 trillion, #Russia spends on defence 23 times less (only $46 bln). Neretheless, [sic] #fake Russian threat is used to justify even more waste of taxpayers’ $. Good for business strategy, dangerous for intl. peace & security”

A dubious comparison of NATO vs. Russia

On Dec. 4, the official Twitter account of the Russian Embassy in Canada tweeted:

There are glaring problems in this tweet, starting with the assertion that Russia’s defense budget is $46 billion. That is correct, but misleading.

The figure is “basically the baseline defense budget at the current exchange rate,” Mark Galeotti, a Senior Fellow at the Prague Institute of International Relations and an expert on Russian security issues, told” It's not technically wrong but firstly understates the bang for buck, or rumble for ruble, the Russians get as they are also buying in rubles, not dollars. Also, there is about a trillion rubles in additional defense-related expenditure not in the defense budget.”

According to estimates by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, Russia’s military spending totaled $61 billion in 2018. (Although one expert -- Michael Kofman, Director of the Russia Studies Program at CNA Corporation, has estimated the real annual spending at roughly $150 billion in terms of Purchasing Power Parity) By comparison, NATO reports that its members budgeted a total of $1.04 trillion this year for defense. The obvious reason for this disparity is that Russia is a just a single country and NATO consists of 29 states, including some of the world’s leading military powers. Two NATO members, the United States and France, are in the top five global military spenders. They account for $752 billion and $51 billion, respectively, in NATO member spending.

The embassy tweet also implied that a “fake Russian threat” has been manufactured to justify such high defense spending.

This ignores the fact that NATO has conducted military operations outside Eastern Europe, including Afghanistan (the International Security Assistance Force, 2003-2014, followed by the Resolute Support Mission, 2015). All 29 NATO countries have contributed to Operation Inherent Resolve against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.

AFGHANISTAN -- A foreign soldier with NATO-led Resolute Support Mission inspects the site of a suicide attack in Kabul, Afghanistan September 5, 2019.
AFGHANISTAN -- A foreign soldier with NATO-led Resolute Support Mission inspects the site of a suicide attack in Kabul, Afghanistan September 5, 2019.

Regarding actual Russian aggression, there is the 2014 annexation of the Crimean peninsula from Ukraine, after which Russian forces invaded Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region, parts of which remain under Russian occupation. Putin justified both actions in part by saying Moscow was “protecting Russian-speakers.” In 2008 Russia went to war with Georgia over separatist territories of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

Several NATO member countries – the Baltic states of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia – border Russia and have significant Russian-speaking populations.
While the Baltic states have not yet faced a conventional military attack from Russia, they have been routinely targeted with state-sponsored disinformation. Estonia has been the target of coordinated cyberattacks believed to have been from Russia. In 2014, an Estonian security operative, Eston Kohver, was kidnapped by Russian special forces several kilometers inside Estonian territory.

The Russian embassy tweet includes a cartoon about wealth inequality, implying that NATO defense spending is responsible for this problem in NATO member-states. Wealth inequality is a global problem; in fact the U.S. and Russia are very close in this respect according to the World Inequality Database. A study by Moscow’s Higher School of Economics, in cooperation with VTB Bank, found that the top 3 percent of Russia’s population held almost 90 percent of the country’s financial assets in 2018. Russia has fared worse than others in addressing this problem, according to a report from the charity organization Oxfam.