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How the US could push Russia’s defense spending to the brink

Russia's President Vladimir Putin. (Mikhail Tereshchenko/TASS/Zuma Press/TNS)

The United States should pull a page from the Cold War playbook and drive Russia to spend money in a tit-for-tat power game that its smaller economy can’t support, a think tank said in a recent study.

The West can exploit factors that are making Russia more vulnerable, such as economic sanctions, fuel prices falling below peak levels, an aging population and increasing authoritarianism under President Vladimir Putin, Rand Corp. said in the report. However, it also urged caution with ventures that could provoke Moscow.

The U.S. should fund operations with the secondary aim of unsettling Russia and diverting it to less-threatening pursuits that deplete its coffers, said the Rand report, titled “Overextending and Unbalancing Russia.”

“Such cost-imposing options could place new burdens on Russia — ideally heavier burdens than would be imposed on the United States for pursuing those options,” Rand said.

The U.S. outpacing Moscow in military spending is often credited in part with causing the Soviet empire to collapse. Rand doesn’t recommend provoking Russia into a Cold War-sized arms race.

Instead, the report gives a list of operations the U.S. could fund, from military to political to economic.

Russia’s military intervention in Ukraine and annexation of Crimea five years ago altered how Washington and its allies view the security landscape in Europe. Since then, the U.S.-led NATO alliance has grappled with how to best counter Russia, largely focusing on putting more troops in Eastern Europe for defensive purposes.

The report says providing more lethal aid to Ukraine could cause Russia to funnel more money to its current operations and risks escalating tensions.

Expanding U.S. energy production to nudge out Russia in global markets, on the other hand, was rated as a low-risk, high-yield pursuit. It would put stress on Russia’s economy, forcing Moscow to curtail defense spending, while benefiting the U.S. economy, Rand said.

Moving more NATO troops near Russian borders and holding larger NATO exercises there won’t push Russia to expand its presence in these areas, and if done aggressively runs a high risk of provoking a conflict, Rand said.

Deploying ballistic missiles and nuclear weapons in Europe and China also is not recommended, Rand said, because it could ignite an arms race that would cost the U.S. as much as it would Russia or more, the report said.

An effective tactic would be to move bombers within easy striking range of key Russian targets, which would raise Moscow’s anxieties. The bombers would be safe if they stay out of range of Russian ballistic and ground-based cruise missiles, Rand said.

Beefing up naval presence by the U.S. and its allies and expanding electronic warfare capabilities have a good chance of forcing Russia to extend itself in these areas.

Another measure would be investing more in weaponry, such as Army tactical missile systems, long-range anti-radiation missiles and drones, Rand said. That would prompt Russia to spend significantly on countermeasures.

Every move must be weighed carefully so the U.S. doesn’t deplete itself in its effort to overextend Russia, the report said.

“Although Russia will bear the cost of this increased competition less easily than the United States will, both sides will have to divert national resources from other purposes,” Rand said.

In April, a Stockholm International Peace Research Institute report said that Russia’s annual defense spending had decreased by 3.5% last year to $61.5 billion, which ranked sixth in global military expenditures. The United States spent $649 billion on its armed forces, which was nearly equal the next eight nations combined, SIPRI said.


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