Flexing on a Diet: The Russian Fixation on Posture

By Hunter Carter

On April 11th and 12th Russian SU-24’s and helicopters made several highly antagonistic passes over the USS Donald Cook, each time coming closer to the ship in what is “one of the most aggressive actions in recent memory”. The move was extremely bold, even for the Russians, and is being criticized by the American leadership commanding the Donald Cook as “extremely unprofessional and dangerous”.

USS Donald Cook, Wikipedia Creative Commons.

The incitement of this fly-by has been met with a barrage of condemnation from both the US, and Poland, who have commented that they can’t treat the actions as anything other than an attempt at provocation. Poland is involved because of a presence of one of their military helicopters present on the USS Donald Cook at the time of the fly by. The US and Poland have labeled the maneuvers as “simulated attack passes”, while Russia claims that the passes were well within safety codes, and that they have no intentions of attacking either the US or any of the Baltic states, including Poland. So what was the point of causing so much turmoil that could be easily done without?

Keeping up Appearances

Much of the answer lies in the current rift between the US and Russia, as well as the current Russian political atmosphere. Putin is in an interesting position, one that requires him to carefully manage politics, economy, and reality, and it is beginning to show which ones he has prioritized. As president, he has reached deep into his bag of rhetoric to stance himself firmly across from NATO, blaming it and other Western states and their allies for much of the misfortune that has befallen the country after the international fallout of annexing Crimea.

Putin has taken many opportunities to flex this stance, especially in the Baltic Sea, an area a little too close to home for the US to be sailing an Aegis equipped destroyer. The conflict in Syria has drawn the two opponents within friction range often lately, including the mobilization of Russian missile systems and the S-400 anti-air network to the region. This incident is just another reminder of that proximity, and it is likely that Russia will answer in similar and increasingly aggressive fashion with each inch NATO creeps closer. But the real question is how much of this posture can Putin afford economically?

Syrians Burning Vladimir Putin Picture and Russian Flag During Protest in Sweden, February 9, 2012. Flickr Creative Commons, Freedom House.

As the US steps up its modernization programs to bring its military another step into the future, Russia attempts to keep pace while paying for it in economic hardship. Just this past year, the United States spent as much on defense as the next 15 countries combined, a statistic where Russia only managed to come in 4th, after China and Saudi Arabia. This position is unlikely to change either, given that even with the US cutting defense spending it still spends variably 8 times more than Russia per year, and for the US it’s still 1.5% less of its GDP than Russia spends per capita. And that figure is as Russia increases its defense spending by almost 30%. With these numbers, it is clear that despite the current budget cuts in US defense spending, Russia is still not fighting even remotely in its financial weight class, and it’s a fight heavily swayed in US favor.

“With assumptions of a 3% decrease in the economy’s total output and a 15% hike in the real value of the military budget (a modest assumption given some of the outlandish initial proposals), Russia would spend 5.34% of its 2015 economic output on its military. As the graph below shows, that would be the highest figure in the country’s entire post-Soviet history by about .4% of GDP.” Forbes, Mark Adomanis, May 19, 2015.

With international sanctions and a plummeting energy market sucking the life out of the Russian economy, Putin has very little room to fund his adventures and hold together his endeavors to keep the stance against NATO strong. It is only a matter of time until Russia will have to start answering its national needs rather than try to prop up its international conquests. With the Russian economy in freefall, with no end currently in sight, it is difficult to see where Putin plans to steer his quickly flooding ship. Another perplexing part is the President’s impressive approval ratings, which have maintained lofty percentages since the annexation of Crimea despite the economic reckoning in its wake. Though it is likely that Putinism and the western blame game will only keep the Russian elite afloat for so long, and that time could be looming, especially as the financial fuel for all of the military posturing used to back the rhetoric will be coming out of the pockets of the people it’s being fed to.

So if this really is a return to an almost ‘Cold-War style’ spend off, Russia is truly in trouble of repeating history. Putin’s attempt to revive Russian national-imperialism is coming at a poor time, as the nation’s largest source of income has plummeted in value while the price of maintaining influence steadily rises. If the Putin regime hopes to maintain the status quo, much less improve its standings as a world power, it might be a good time to start re-thinking some priorities.


Hunter Carter, 24 years old from Winston-Salem North Carolina. Graduated High Point University class of 2014 with Bachelors of International Relations. Seeking MA in Intelligence and Security at Patterson School of Diplomacy and Commerce at UK. Intern at Kentucky Office of Homeland Security Intelligence Fusion Center.


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