On May 9 the whole world burst into laughter and vented its schadenfreude as Russia, economically crippled by Western sanctions, staged its annual Victory Day Parade on Red Square. No one can understand why the Kremlin continues to brandish its sabers and dedicate such a sizeable portion of its budget to military innovation (officially it was 3.9% of its GDP in 2018, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute) while the average monthly salary in the country for the last several years, according to Trading Economics, has been roughly 600 euro. The only country that had a higher military expenditure/GDP ratio in 2018 was Saudi Arabia (8.8%). But in the desert kingdom the average monthly salary is roughly 4,000 euro.
Is it so important for Russia to continue investing so much time, resources (financial and intellectual), ideology and hype in military might – and make a lavish display out of it – while the country is growing evermore isolated, its population is experiencing a negative growth rate, corruption has reached unfathomable dimensions and democratic institutions are being trampled on?
The answer is… yes.
Although the number of Russia’s WWII veterans is getting smaller every year, May 9 still remains a momentous day in the minds of practically everyone in the country. It is like the 4th of July in America or July 14th in France, only more personal. There is hardly a Russian citizen today who does not have a parent, grandparent or great-grandparent who fought in the war or contributed to the war effort. The Soviet Union lost about 27 million people during WWII, which is 15% of its 186-million prewar population. The Russian Socialist Republic alone lost approximately 22% of its prewar population (roughly 14 million). In the 900-day Siege of Leningrad, the most destructive blockade in human history, an average of 1,000 civilians were perishing daily, and mostly from famine and disease.
These figures are mindboggling if compared to the moderate losses and the corresponding percentages to prewar populations that the Western nations – excluding the aggressor Germany (8 million, 9,6 %) – experienced in the course of the war (France – 572,000, 1.4%; Italy – 468,000, 1,1%; the UK – 450,000, 0.9%; the US – 419,000, 0.3%). By the end of the war the Soviet Union’s losses constituted practically half of all the world’s losses (60 million). Only Poland had a higher percentage of losses (25%) with 8.6 million deaths.1 People in the West really cannot understand the degree of devastation that left its trace on the USSR.
Overcoming the war and rebuilding the country to superpower status is what made the Soviet Union a force to be reckoned with. And that status is precisely what the current Kremlin administration is seeking to recapture today.
Last December Russia, which has the second most powerful army in the world after the US, tested a new hypersonic missile named Avangard. It has an intercontinental range and can fly up to Mach 20, which in layman’s terms means around 15,000 miles per hour or 4.1 miles per second. As it approaches its target, with a maneuverable warhead the missile can adjust altitude and direction to avoid detectors and fly so low that interceptors will not be able to reach it. In March, General John Hyten, the four-star head of US Strategic Command, told CNN that, “the current generation of US missile-detecting satellites and radars are not capable of spotting weapons such as the Avangard.”
This is all very nice, but what about that 600-euro average monthly salary? Isn’t it absurd to spend so much money on military hardware while most of your population can barely make ends meet? The answer to this question lies in that mysterious, all-enduring, self-sacrificial Russian soul (although there is in fact an urban minority that does not see itself in this mystery) and is a matter for a different article.
The Kremlin’s rationale, as is that of most Russian citizens, is that the individual’s purchasing power is not as important as his country’s power on the international arena. (Most) Russians identify with the status of their country and seeing it respected by other nations is more gratifying than being able to buy designer threads, vacation in 5-star European resorts and have a 200 square-meter apartment within a 200-meter radius of Red Square (obviously this humility does not apply to the Kremlin elite).
Furthermore, (most) Russians would say that economic growth is not as important as political independence, which is the complete opposite of the prevailing logic in the EU, where material wellbeing is the supreme value. Russia knows that to have the current economic constraints removed it must toe the American line, something the western European countries have been used to doing ever since the Marshal Plan and the eastern European countries since the fall of the USSR. But toeing someone else’s line has not been in Russia’s plans ever since it defeated Napoleon’s pan-European Grande Armée (which excluded only Great Britain) in 1812.
However, a growing number of European parties and politicians (France’s Thierry Mariani, Germany’s Sigmar Gabriel and Italy’s current governing coalition, among a multitude of others) have been speaking out against Western sanctions against Russia, saying that they have done damage to their countries’ economies, and doing everything in their power to keep European-Russian relations healthy. Brussels obviously does not heed their calls; it believes that the long-term advantages of having the Ukrainian economy integrated with that of the West will be greater than the short-term disadvantages created by Russia’s retaliatory sanctions.
Neither has Brussels stood up to the reintroduction of US sanctions against Iran, which have put a stain on Transatlantic diplomacy, forced a significant number of big European companies (Total, Maersk, Siemens, etc.) to abandon their projects with Iran and wrecked the Iranian economy in a matter of weeks. Only now, with Teheran saying on May 8 that it has suspended some commitments made under the nuclear deal and threatening to increase uranium enrichment unless the other signatories to the deal do not protect its oil and banking sectors from the US sanctions within 60 days, has the EU “expressed concern” (as if anyone was expecting Iran to just sit there and do nothing). Iran fears that without an international peace treaty that includes the US, which the JCPOA essentially is/was, or without a proper defense system to protect it in the event there is no treaty, it may sooner or later turn into another Iraq.
As primitive as this may sound, a nation’s sovereignty and independence still depend on its military prowess. This is why many European politicians who genuinely want to see an independently functioning EU have been promoting the establishment of an autonomous European defense force. They understand the world is changing rapidly and they know that the only thing that can stop the three giants (US, Russia and China), and more potential giants in the future, from exercising too much influence on the individual EU countries and consequently one day dissolving the union – which originally was founded to prevent war on the continent – is a strong common army.