Yawning while Russia arms

  • 2012-07-25
  • By Kestutis Girnius

Russia’s President Vladimir Putin is a man of his word. During the presidential election campaign, he pledged to spend 23 trillion rubles (more than $750 billion, depending on the currency rate) on strengthening the country’s armed forces during the next 10 years. Last week the government announced that it intended to spend 2.3 trillion rubles (about $72 billion) on national defense in 2013, an increase of 25.8 percent compared to 2012. This unprecedented outlay of funds is intended to enable Russia to deliver an “effective and asymmetrical response” to NATO’s planned missile-defense shield over Europe and reequip the army so that it could respond properly to modern threats.

Money pledged is not money spent. Were the price of crude oil to fall sharply, Russia would have to cut spending drastically, and the military would not be spared. But Putin has made very clear his intention to arm on a massive scale.
For more than two years the rhetoric emanating from Moscow has become ever more truculent. A high-ranking general even stated that a preventive strike might need to be launched at bases housing the NATO missile shield. And all is not just rhetoric. In early 2012 Russia deployed an advanced S-400 mobile missile complex in Kaliningrad and announced its intention to station short-range Iskander missiles as well. Lithuanian Minister of National Defense Rasa Jukneviciene stated that Russia has tactical nuclear weapons in the exclave.

On hearing of the announcement of Russia’s new budget, chairman of the Lithuanian Parliament’s Committee on National Security and Defense Arvydas Anusauskas noted that Russia’s defense budget is its internal matter, but questioned what was the purpose for expenditures on this scale. He believes that Lithuania is in no position to match Russian defense spending, but should increase its defense spending to ensure that it would at least reach the level that existed before the financial crisis of 2008. It is worth noting that in 2008, Lithuania’s defense expenditures were slightly above 1 percent of GDP, or half of what they should have been if Lithuania took seriously its commitment to NATO to allocate 2 percent of GDP to defense.

Anusauskas’ tepid response is par for the course for Lithuania’s politicians. Although vocal, and at times strident, in condemning Russian militarism and trumpeting the potential dangers of its belligerent foreign policy, they have pared the defense budget such that the country’s armed forces are probably incapable of responding credibly to armed aggression.

Membership in NATO has been a mixed blessing. Lithuania is now more secure than it has ever been, possessing the kind of security guarantees that it could not even dream of in the post-war period. But membership has promoted a deep sense of complacency and the belief that national defense is a matter of tertiary importance that can be palmed off on others.

Despite Russia’s militant rhetoric, the possibility of Russia attacking any of the Baltic States is almost zero. Yet reasons for concern remain. The Georgian conflict exposed the general ineptitude and technological backwardness of Russia’s armed forces (five Russian planes were shot down by Georgia in five days of conflict, in contrast to one NATO plane in almost three months of war with Serbia), so a decision to modernize and reequip is understandable, although the scope of the Kremlin’s plans beggars the imagination.

What does seem beyond comprehension is its proclivity to consider NATO a potential foe. NATO is nowhere as peace loving as its acolytes are wont to claim – since the cold war it has resorted to military force in Bosnia, Kosovo and Serbia, Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya. But to seriously believe that NATO is a threat and to locate new missile systems in the Kaliningrad region suggests that Russia is viewing the world through a skewed mirror of its own making, a disconcerting development.

Russia has the sovereign right to set it own budget, and its elected officials are free to adopt policies that do little to further the interests of its citizens. Lithuanians can view their eastern neighbor’s decision with a sense of puzzlement, and even amusement. But what Lithuanians cannot do is to continue to free ride on the goodwill and financial commitments of its NATO partners. NATO is not self-sustaining. Washington has already expressed its concerns about the failure of European states to accept their fair share of the burden of defense, while Poland has pointed out the discrepancy between Lithuania’s emotionally charged rhetoric and its casual, even blasé attitude toward its own financial commitments.

Several months ago all of Lithuania’s major political parties made a commitment to beef up the defense budget. It is an easy commitment to make, a difficult one to honor. Several earlier pledges to fund adequately national defense were breached almost on the day of their signing. If Anusauskas, a member of the right-of-center Conservative party, believes that it is enough to increase the defense budget to 1 percent of GDP, then one can assume that a leftist government will be even more laggard in implementing its pledges. Free-riding remains Lithuania’s default position, even in view of Russia’s rearmament and deep cuts in the defense budget of other NATO nations. If things turn out right, it might seem to have been a prudent choice. But not an honorable one.