A Russian honour guard attends the parade of the participants of the Vostok-2018 (East-2018) military drills at Tsugol training ground not far from the borders with China and Mongolia in Siberia, on September 13, 2018. / AFP PHOTO / Mladen ANTONOV
A Russian honour guard attends the parade of the participants of the Vostok-2018 (East-2018) military drills at Tsugol training ground not far from the borders with China and Mongolia in Siberia, on September 13, 2018. Photo: AFP/Mladen Antonov

Russia is currently staging a massive exercise to show off its military might. But perhaps its sense of insecurity and weakness is a key factor behind the move.

On September 11, the country kicked off what it calls “the largest-ever [exercise] in the history of modern Russia.” According to its Defense Ministry, the Vostok-2018 maneuvers, which run until September 17, involve some 300,000 troops, 36,000 tanks and other vehicles, 1,000 aircraft and helicopters, and 80 ships and vessels.

These war games are bigger than the Communist-ruled Soviet Union’s largest exercises, the Zapad-81 drills, in 1981, in which about 100,000 soldiers participated.

“The main goal of these grand military drills, the most large-scale ones since 1981, is to check the operational readiness of the Russian armed forces,” Frants Klintsevich, the first deputy chairman of the Defense and Security Committee of Russia’s Federation Council, was quoted by the TASS news agency as saying.

“Such a check-up will be quite handy in the context of a very difficult situation in the world,” he said, citing “the unprecedented pressure that the US is exerting on Russia” as the primary cause of that situation.

More precisely, Klintsevich referred to Washington’s sanctions, which are crippling Russia’s economy, describing them as “some kind of a preventive strike on Russia, an attempt to hinder its inevitable rise [and] its transformation into a leading global power.”

What the Russian senator didn’t mention is that the main reason behind the US-led sanctions against Moscow is the latter’s foreign adventures in recent years, including its annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea in 2014.

What’s more, the Kremlin is unable to retaliate against such sanctions economically. That’s why it chooses to flex its military muscles instead.

Commenting about “Russian war games” on Wednesday, the Chinese state-run Global Times said: “One of Russia’s traditions is showing its military muscle and scaring off Moscow’s potential intimidators, especially when Russia is relatively weak.”

Such views expressed by a major Chinese newspaper are both surprising and telling. Russia’s giant neighbor sent 3,200 troops and 30 aircraft to the Vostok-2018, becoming the first Asian country outside the former Soviet Union to take part in a large Russian military exercise on Russian soil. Also, as rightly pointed out by Li Hui, China’s ambassador to Russia, “At present, China-Russia relations are at their best in history.”

But there are some truths contained in the nationalistic and outspoken Global Times’ less than complimentary comments.

Russia is relatively weak. Economically, it is just a middle power. Despite its vast size, relatively large population and rich natural resources, the largest country by area on earth is not among its top 10 biggest economies.

At $1,527 billion (in 2017, according to the International Monetary Fund), the economy of the country of 144 million people is roughly the same as that of South Korea, which is much smaller in terms of population and especially land area.

Or, by another comparison, Russia’s GDP, as pointedly observed by some, is smaller than that of Texas ($1,696 billion) and California ($2,746 billion).

Unlike advanced economies, Russia’s economy is heavily dependent on the extraction of raw materials. The country is also faced with an aging population and shrinking workforce, which led to a plan to raise the pension age, prompting unrest and protests in recent months.

Russia’s GDP, as pointedly observed by some, is smaller than that of Texas ($1,696 billion) and California ($2,746 billion)

While it is an economic dwarf on the world stage, Russia is a major military power – mainly thanks to the weapons it inherited from the Soviet Union. Under President Vladimir Putin, it often displays its military might to hide its economic weakness or project itself as a leading global power.

In his inauguration speech in May, the 65-year-old leader, who has effectively ruled Russia since 1999, vowed “to increase the might, prosperity and glory of Russia” and “will do everything in [his] power to achieve this.”

But, with his forceful and adventurous posture at home and abroad, rather than increasing his country’s “might, prosperity and glory,” it seems Putin has decreased it.

Staging such massive and long war games that involve almost a third of the country’s armed forces around Siberia and the Russian Far East is costly and, indeed, unnecessary – especially at a time when Russia is facing higher social spending demands and its people are still angry over the proposed pension-age hikes.

In his May address, Putin promised to do everything in his power to “bring prosperity to every household in Russia.”

An editorial by Bloomberg last month said that the Russian strongman cannot achieve that goal before 2024 when the constitution says he must step down, and that he himself “is the reason” that achieving those goals is “an impossible mission.”

The problem is, according to Bloomberg, “more political than economic.” It cited Moscow’s Crimean land grab and its meddling in other countries’ elections as examples because, according to this American business-minded outlet, such actions have not just made Russia “an international pariah and provoked Western sanctions” but also created “persistent uncertainty that keeps foreign investment and ideas away.”

Indeed, Russia was dealt a huge blow following its Crimea annexation. It has slightly recovered during the last two years. However, faced with the possibility of new US sanctions, it recently lowered its 2018 economic growth forecast to 1.8% from 1.9% and to 1.3% from 1.4% in 2019.

Addressing the troops when he inspected the Vostok-2018 exercises on September 13, Putin pledged to beef up Russia’s military capabilities by” further strengthening [its] armed forces and supplying them with the most up to date weapons and equipment.”

According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute’s 2018 report, at $66.3 billion, Russia’s military spending in 2017 was 20% lower than in 2016

He can only do that with a strong economy. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute’s 2018 report, at $66.3 billion, Russia’s military spending in 2017 was 20% lower than in 2016.

Accounting for 4.3% of its GDP, that amount was quite significant. But, it remains much smaller than the US’s military budget, which was $610 billion last year. This also shows, while Russia is a leading military power – or is seeking to project itself as such – it still lags far behind the US.

Awareness of his country’s weaknesses and especially vulnerabilities vis-à-vis the US-led sanctions, Putin has turned to a rising, more powerful China, which Russia until recently saw – perhaps still covertly perceives – as a threat.

Chinese President Xi Jinping attended – for the first time – the annual Eastern Economic Forum (EEF), Putin’s pet project, in the Russian Far East port of Vladivostok, which also started on Tuesday.

Coupled with the Chinese participation in Vostok-2018, Xi’s presence at the 4th EEF indicates there is a burgeoning partnership between the two authoritarian neighbors. Admittedly, Beijing has its own reason to forge closer ties with Moscow. Like Russia, China is locked in many key disputes with Washington, including a deepening trade war.

That said, the current Russia-China rapprochement is opportunistic, not strategic. Given their past mistrust and current rivalry, it’s unlikely that they will develop their partnership into a military alliance.

For its own development, whether it likes it or not, Russia, like China, needs stable relations with the US and its European allies. But its Vostok 2018 will probably worsen their already strained ties.

In his comments, Klintsevich, who participated in the 1981 drills, said the Zapad-81 drills “cooled down some hotheads in their time,” stressing that the “Vostok-2018 drills will fulfill the same role.”

Quite the contrary is true, however. Its latest muscle-flexing will make the US and its allies more wary of – and, consequently harsher toward – Moscow.

What’s more, as Klintsevich himself may not yet forget, the Soviet Union, a military superpower, collapsed not because an outside enemy invaded, captured and destroyed it. It collapsed mainly because it was too weak economically and no longer able to cope with its economic problems.

While it’s very unlikely that Russia will face the same fate, if it focuses too much on military build-up and not enough on economic development, it will not achieve the prosperity Putin has promised or it deserves to enjoy.

According to IMF data, in 2017, Russian per capita GDP was $10,608, while that of Germany and Japan was $44,500 and $38,400, respectively.

Perhaps the Russian people should ask themselves why, though their country is endowed with rich natural resources and many other advantages, they cannot enjoy the level of prosperity that many of their European and Asian peers, such as the Germans and Japanese, have long experienced.

Dr Xuan Loc Doan researches and writes on a number of areas. These include the domestic and foreign policy of the UK, Vietnam and China, US-China relations and geopolitical issues in the Indo-Pacific region.

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