Mixed Messages from Putin and Russian Treasury on Defense Spending
Policy + Politics

Mixed Messages from Putin and Russian Treasury on Defense Spending

Russian President Vladimir Putin on Thursday said that none of his country’s neighbors need to be worried about Russia’s military intentions. While his military would continue to expand and be supplied with more and newer equipment, it’s only because “a strong army that is equipped with modern weapons is a guarantor of sovereignty and territorial integrity of Russia, guarantor of peaceful and calm life of millions of our compatriots.”

According to the government-run news organization TASS, Putin said in remarks to graduates of Russia’s military academies that the Kremlin would continue to invest in newer and more technologically advanced weaponry. However, he added, “We do not have and cannot have any aggressive plans. We threaten no one and are trying to resolve any disputable issues exclusively by political means, we respect international law and the interests of other countries."

Related: Why Vladimir Putin Wants Texas to Secede from the U.S.

This last comment probably seemed a bit rich to the people of Ukraine, who saw Russian troops invade and occupy that country’s Crimean peninsula last year in advance of a “vote” – conducted under the supervision of Russian troops – to join the Russian Federation. They might also have rolled their eyes because of Russia’s ill-disguised participation in an ongoing armed revolt in their country’s eastern Donbas region, where separatists are shockingly well-armed and where many of those captured turn out to be in possession of Russian passports.

But Putin need not have gone so far afield as Ukraine to find people puzzled by his remarks. The idea that Russia will continue investing in new and better weaponry was also hard to square with remarks on Wednesday by the country’s Finance Minister, Anton Siluanov, in which he announced that the military budget would be cut in the coming year.

According to most analyses, Russia, battered by low oil prices and a raft of international sanctions, is at the beginning of what is likely to be a severe recession. Most parts of the government are facing spending cuts of up to 10 percent, the government has indicated.

Related: More Pain for Putin – EU Extends Sanctions

However this plays out, the Russian president has repeatedly said that the country needs to preserve its capacity to defend itself against what it views as an increasingly threatening NATO presence on its borders.

The U.S. this week confirmed that it will be stationing heavy equipment, including tanks and armored fighting vehicles, in a number of Eastern European countries on or near Russia’s borders. Russia has portrayed the decision as an act of naked aggression, while the U.S. and its allies in Europe have said that it is an unfortunate but necessary response to Russia’s invasion of Crimea and its continued support of rebels there.

If Putin’s remarks seem difficult to reconcile with the realities on the ground in Ukraine and with the fiscal realities facing the Russian treasury, it may be a while before that has much effect on his status with the Russian people.

On Wednesday, state-run media outlet Russia Today reported that a “Russian independent pollster, the Levada Center, says the share of Russians who are happy with Vladimir Putin’s work as president has reached 89 percent, which is his highest-ever approval rating.”

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