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Russian Military Capability is Far Stronger than its GDP Would Suggest

One of the points I made in three recent posts (link 1, link 2, link 3) was that measuring GDP of a country in USD today, or at pretty much any point after the mid-1990s, is highly misleading since it makes the assumption that the cost of services and products of equivalent quality are identically priced, in USD, all over the world. As many of you know, that is simply not true in 2017- if it was ever so. The price of products and services of equivalent quality vary widely across countries and are often far lower in many supposedly “less affluent” countries than they are in USA. Examples of this phenomena include medications costing 3-10 times less in many European countries than in USA and medical services of equivalent quality in India and Thailand costing only 5-10% (or less) of their cost in USA- as measured in USD.

Consequently, access to many goods and services in many supposedly “less affluent” countries is often equal to, or better, than in USA. But what does any of this has to do with whether the GDP of Russia in 2017 (as measured in USD) has any correlation to its real-life military capabilities? As it turns out.. a whole fucking lot!

I am sure that almost all readers of this post have some across at least one “news” article from some supposedly “reputable” western news outlet which suggests that the GDP of Russia is rather insignificant and comparable to an average west-European countries- when measured in USD. These same presstitutes, I mean “journalists” also tell us that at this rate the Russian economy will collapse and the country will become insignificant and fragment into many pieces. The problem is that they have been writing and saying the same thing since at least 1991- if not earlier.

Sadly for them, their predictions of gloom and doom for Russia have just not come true. In fact, since 2001 living standards and conditions in Russia have gradually improved from their low point of 1997-1998. Today, the economic conditions of average Russians are pretty OK and in many respects are better than those of many Americans living in middle america, especially below the Mason–Dixon line. Could they be better? Sure.. But you can say the exact same things about people living in non-coastal USA. I should note that there is a certain irony that large parts of middle america now look like all those abandoned and ruined soviet-era towns that western “journalists” loved to photograph in the 1990s. I should also remind readers that the near collapse of the Russian economy in the mid-1990s was the laws and policies formulated by eCONomists from Harvard and other ivy-league universities. However, that is an issue best left for a future post.

Coming back to the main subject of this post- we can certainly disagree about the precise causes of this continuous improvement, there is no doubt it did occur and has been sustained since that time. And this brings us to the next, and related, question- How does this correlate with their current military capability? To answer that question- let us look at a bit of history. As many of you know, between 1917 and 1991, Russia was that main constituent of the Soviet Union aka USSR. As you might also remember, soviet-era Russia was also a military superpower- with way more than enough nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles to destroy the world a few times over, not to mention a very large conventional army and airforce. In other words, it is clear that even soviet-era Russia was more that capable of developing and manufacturing humoungous numbers of contemporary weapons and fielding a large and organized army (and other armed forces) which could use them.

And this leads us the question of whether the amount of USD spent on weapons by a country has any correlation with their real-life military capability. I am sure that many of you have seen some version of the chart from 2013 posted below this paragraph. The gist of it is that USA spends way more money (as measured in USD) on its armed forces than many other countries in the world. Now, we can look at this data in two ways. American jingoists might see this as proof of their overwhelming military superiority over the rest of the world, largely because they think that weapons of equivalent quality and effectiveness cost the same all over the world. Cynics like me might see this an example of delusional people spending obscene amounts of money on something that has a history of poor performance. I mean.. what does it say about a country which spends about 700 billion a year on defense and yet cannot win against poorly organized insurgencies in Iraq and Afghanistan?

The military capability of USA, like its healthcare system , is largely about presenting the appearance of competence and ability- while delivering something that is mediocre and very expensive. It is well known that USA has been unable to win a decisive military victory over any semi-competent nation since the end on WW2. Furthermore, a lot of the budget and military resources of USA is spent on maintaining the pretense of a global empire. To put it another way, it is the defense budget of USA (and not other countries) which presents a false picture of its real-life capabilities. In contrast to that, the military budgets of countries which make most of their own weapon systems (like Russia and China) underestimates their real-life capabilities. This is especially so with Russia, which has a large pre-established human and industrial base, to make them on a very large scale.

Then there is the issue of nuclear weapons and ICBMs + launch platforms, of which Russia has a rather large number. I should point out that the infrastructure for making nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles + their launch platforms while expensive to build from scratch, already exist in Russia. So they just keep on cranking out a few more and maintain the ones the thousands they already possess. It is also no secret that any open-ended war with Russia would sooner or later turn into a nuclear one, and well.. regardless of other subsequent events would definitely result in the obliteration of USA as an entity for all times to come. In other words, comparing the defense spending of USA and Russia as measured in USD to draw actionable conclusions about their relative real-life capabilities is highly misleading and incredibly dangerous.

What do you think? Comments?

  1. webej
    April 1, 2017 at 5:44 am

    What most people and the official press narrative don’t get is that both sides have fundamentally revised their nuclear doctrine. Both sides have tactical battle field nuclear capabilities as well as short and medium range arsenals. Both sides embrace the possibility of a pre-emptive first strike. American thinking is that tactical nuclear deescalates the chance of all out ICBM strikes because it allows you to save yourself in a conventional theatre when a massacre seems imminent. Both sides have and are working on newer weapons which avoid predictable trajectories and have a far shorter time to hit their target [the US missiles in Romania en Poland, Mach7 gliding bombs, super torpedoes lurking buried in the other sides’ coastal waters], etc. The time window to react is decreasing quickly.
    All this innovation is married to completely different attitudes: There are no adults in the room who realize that anything at all that decreases nuclear incidents must be embraced, and that there needs to be communication at the highest levels before a strike to eliminate accidents.
    In addition, US doctrine seems to be that Russia (and China) must be eliminated as competition to America being the boss of the world. Western confidence in their superiority and technological edge are bound to disappoint in real war chaos. All confidence in (allegedly) superior electronics, command & control capabilities, jamming, satellite data, etc., are bound to disappoint in real world applications against a well-organized disicplined force — which is likely to reveal all kinds of assymetrical destruction that nobody thought of beforehand.

  2. April 1, 2017 at 3:10 pm

    what you are saying is that it is all about “getting your needs met” than “wealth.” Presumably you could be reasonably happy making 50k a year, paying a fair share of taxes, driving a modest sedan and living in a decent apartment. Still having enough money left over to bang at least 2-3 hot prostitutes a month. I would be happy working far less than full time, living at around 25k (and contributing a bit less in taxes) while living in a dive and driving a beater. Obviously not able to afford prostitutes but if I had left over cash things like old tube amplifiers, rifles and vintage video games.

    Yes, that is correct. On any timespan other than the short-term, it is the ability to get real-world things done that matters than who possess some proxy measure of ability.

    USA can produce tons of flashy and impressive-looking stuff based on various proxy measures of ability and capability which then fails to produce desired results in the real world. That is why USA lost wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and Vietnam. That is why its real-life power keeps on atrophying in spite of maintaining and sometimes increasing spending on defense etc. That is why all its capacity to spy on the internet yields almost no worthwhile actionable intelligence that can further its goals.

    Proxy measures of capability and ability =/= real life capability and ability.

  3. J.M.
    April 1, 2017 at 4:26 pm

    You forget one thing in your analysis: The reason the U.S. hasn’t been able to win its in the Middle East is due to the single fact that its army is restrained. Due to the nature of modern war and the residual ethical system of the West, Roman style of warfare (extermination of hostile populations, not only armies), had the U.S. adopted and implemented such a practice, it would have lost the media warfront, the public opinion would have shredded their government’s legitimacy to shreds. Despite the fact that due to corruption and plain stupidity the U.S. pays a lot for the same capabilities other countries acquire for a far lower price tag, the fact is that those wars in the middle east would’ve been winnable had they decided to exterminate its enemy, not to turn him into a secular democrat…

    No.. they haven’t been able to win a single war of any significance for two reasons: 1] It is not possible to win a war against another nation which has enough nukes to level most populated centers in USA. 2] It is not possible to win against widespread insurgent movements who are armed with same type of personal weapons as the invaders.

    USA killed millions in Vietnam and Cambodia and hundreds of thousands in Iraq- and it still LOST both those wars. In other words, it got its ass handed to it every single time since WW2 irrespective of how they prosecuted those wars.

  4. Atlanta Man
    April 1, 2017 at 5:17 pm

    The United States will never fight a direct war against China,or Russia-it will always be proxy wars. China’s military machine is untested and has yet to project power. Russia is having a successful go of it in Syria but failed to succeed in Afghanistan, and is not really stable internally. The United States is in serious decline not because of it’s military failure as much as its short sighted economic policies leading to destruction of the middle class-They outsourced the future of our country and got a tax cut for it.

  5. P Ray
    April 2, 2017 at 4:22 am

    The other interesting thing about Russian missiles and military technology, would seem to be that they keep a tight grip on their documents and hardware manufacturing ability, so that no matter what changes in technology happen, it’s possible to retrofit or replace aging parts.

    In the US for a very long time, they stored nuclear launch codes on 8 inch floppy disks, I do not believe the US military manufacture their own disk drive units.

    • P Ray
      April 2, 2017 at 4:26 am

      This is “technological staying power” and it is really important as time goes by,
      because, as Kaecilius said in Doctor Strange:
      “People think in terms of good and evil, but really, time is the true enemy of us all. Time kills everything.”

      No matter how good your arsenal, without the ability to make spare parts or to safely keep the documentation, you’re either prone to stupidity, sabotage or sloughing off of parts.

  6. April 2, 2017 at 6:15 am

    Russia is actually overrated as a threat because Russian states have always had large militaries proportional to shitty economies. Russia relies far too much on crude commodities that have low profit margins per unit and are susceptible to huge price swings. What realistically are they going to do to neighbors they desperately need to buy their natural gas?

    Given their history, especially WW2 and its aftermath, Russia would not hesitate if they felt their existence was at risk. Also those countries need Russian commodities as much as Russia wants to sell them. Supposed “eCONomic” proxy measures have little real-life relationships to the ability to wage total war.

    The Russian Empire had a huge military but still got humiliated by the Japanese and German Empires. You need a real economy to pull through any kind of real conflict, look at the US civil war. This is a major factor in the hard wall that the USSR hit in the cold war. They couldn’t neglect butter in favor of guns forever.

    The military command disasters of 1905 and 1917 was partially why they had ‘that’ revolution in 1917- a hundred years ago.

    It’s always been true that you can’t govern anyplace where most people are against you, unless you’re willing to simply kill everyone. US had too much faith that tech and firepower alone could change fundamentals.
    The ancient Romans preferred to govern places they took over and tax the locals but they too needed basic consent. They turned to dispersal and extermination after the third time they had to spend years putting down revolts in Judea

    The palette of options has changed somewhat since the pre-industrial era.

    The USSR had all the same problems in Afghanistan as the US did in Vietnam, Iraq, and Aghanistan. Perhaps they all forgot to use politics as war by other means.

    And they learned from it, unlike the USA who then went to get repeat that mistake again and again to get defeated in Iraq and Afghanistan. Have you noticed that Russia in 2017 makes sure that its allies on the ground, rather than themselves, are doing most of the actual fighting, dying and winning.

    The British Empire for example would cultivate local allies, encourage local kingdoms to fight each other, and concentrate their power around limited strategic objectives like key trading ports while farming out power in less important areas to local rajahs so long as they didn’t cause trouble. The British accomplished far more with far less actual military strength that had to be projected across huge distances with less technology.

    Once again.. what works in the 1800s just does not work today since the palette of possibilities has changed.

    So truth is, US actually does have a hugely excessively large war machine that dwarfs competitors’ capabilities. Systemic incompetence, though, pretty much ensures it never actually gets used with any real common sense direction or strategic foresight.

    And they lost in Iraq and Afghanistan + got sidelined in Syria and Libya.

    That said, other countries may be using their funds more sensibly by simply building counters to US strategy. When no one could rival the British navy, submarines allowed the Germans to punish them asymmetrically. When no one can challenge the US air force, the Russians specialize in building high tech anti air missile systems. When no one can challenge the US navy, China puts a huge budget into developing anti-ship missiles. Imagine if they could take out just one aircraft carrier? It would be like the rebels blowing up the death star.

    And this is why I keep on bringing up the fact that nukes and ICBMs have changed the options for warfare since the 1960s- if not earlier. Today, all of the expensive military hardware of USA is simply incapable of winning a war against an adversary with more than a dozen nukes.

    • April 2, 2017 at 4:10 pm

      “Supposed “eCONomic” proxy measures have little real-life relationships to the ability to wage total war.”
      Superior finances, resources, manpower, and logistics allowed the North to wage successful total war against the South in the US Civil War. Germany and its allies, significantly outweighed by the combined economic might of their adversaries, were ultimately crushed in both world wars. The fate of the South and Germany was sealed despite many brilliant victories on the battlefield.

      You do realize that the south had more money and financial assets (including slaves) than the north in 1861, right? The north won because its real-life industrial capacity was far superior to the south. I keep on saying.. it is real-life capability, not some proxy indicator thereof, which matters in the end.

      “The military command disasters of 1905 and 1917 was partially why they had ‘that’ revolution in 1917- a hundred years ago.”
      But the Russian people didn’t change because of a revolution. Their formula was and remains: Large army relative to a relatively poor economy.
      Paranoia about the expansion of Russian power goes back to at least the 19th century but unlike with the Germans, it’s never really turned out to be the menace it was thought to be.

      “And they learned from it, unlike the USA”
      Russian ambition was limited by their economy running out of steam and people losing faith in their social model. The USSR never recovered from Afghanistan even though it shared a border with it.
      When they had the resources for it, they were funding rebels in 3rd world countries all over the planet. How a communist Angola would have benefited them, nobody really knows.
      Russia’s role is limited today at least as much because they just don’t have that much ability to project force compared to the USA. A lot of the problem with USA and Russia: they’re too much alike.

      That is what people in USA like to believe. USSR got over Afghanistan pretty soon. You might have seen how they took their experiences in Afghanistan to “pacify” the Chechens. The USA has not demonstrated a similar ability to learn and adapt.

      “Once again.. what works in the 1800s just does not work today…”
      You’ve said before that Westerners had a greater power gap in the 19th century. Not so sure that’s true. I think the British were just smarter and less ideological They were trying to run an empire for profit. The way they used force in the opium wars is a lot like it’s used now. A single group of ships carrying a few thousand royal marines in a special ops role managed to lock down a vital river and destroy key strategic targets on land, forcing an enormous empire to its knees, and to the bargaining table to make humiliating concessions. Actual modern engagements are becoming more like this, the British were better at it.

      You do realize that the Qing dynasty did not have strong influence outside parts of northern China in the aftermath of the Taiping rebellion in the mid 1800s.

      Even if we go back to Ancient Rome a few properly trained and equipped legions, numbering about 5,000 each, even when at full strength routinely destroyed opposing armies of 100,000 or greater.
      There’s always been huge gaps in military power that continue to this day. It’s about understanding what you can accomplish and choosing objectives wisely. Even the biggest advantages can be squandered if you’re dumb.

      Perhaps you might want to read a little about how those “brilliant” elite generals of WW1 got millions of their own soldiers killed by believing in their cleverness.

      “all of the expensive military hardware of USA is simply incapable of winning a war against an adversary with more than a dozen nukes.”
      An enemy with just a dozen nukes probably has crappy delivery systems. I’ll definitely give Russia that much, pretty sure they’re a nuclear threat anywhere on earth.
      Nevertheless, Russia is already just a glorified Eurasian commodity provider. Sooner or later, the political reality catches up to the economic reality, no matter how many weapons they have, that would be suicide for them to use.

      As it would be for the USA, and that is my point! All this sabre rattling by a post-Iraq and post-2008 USA is highly counterproductive since few believe that it is anything but a shadow of what they thought it was.

      • April 2, 2017 at 6:03 pm

        “You do realize that the south had more money and financial assets (including slaves) than the north in 1861, right? The north won because its real-life industrial capacity was far superior to the south.”
        My barometer has been size of the economy in which finance is a factor. I basically agree with you on this, though.
        Just got this quote from quora checking your assertion.
        “Though the North’s economy was bigger, the South was actually wealthier on a per-capita basis, though this disguised staggering income inequality.”
        I’ve actually referred to the modern wealthy as “planter aristocracy” in my own blog posts, an analogy which it seems is apt.

        “You might have seen how they took their experiences in Afghanistan to “pacify” the Chechens.”
        As I recall, this was a long and bloody conflict with a far inferior foe. I do not know if the Russians could have endured this war of attrition had they not coveted the oil fields and were not desperate to discourage more territorial defections. Seems modern war is back to favoring the defensive advantage. Back to medieval times and castles.

        You do realize that the Qing dynasty did not have strong influence outside parts of northern China in the aftermath of the Taiping rebellion
        You seem to be pretty much right about this. Nevertheless, here’s a quote from wikipedia:
        “The capture of Canton, on 1 January 1858,[9] a city with a population of over 1,000,000[16] by less than 6,000 troops, resulted in the British and French forces suffering 15 killed and 113 wounded. 200-650 of the defenders and inhabitants became casualties.”
        Masters of war. And that was just the beginning. Canton was shaping up to be a major power center of its own in China which would culminate in Sun Yat Sen and Chiang Kai Shek.

        “Perhaps you might want to read a little about how those “brilliant” elite generals of WW1…”
        A favorite subject of mine and a big reason why I can’t take blogosphere monarchists completely seriously. They had their chance and failed horribly. I’m well aware of men like Haig and his fantasies of cavalry charges as his actual men were drowning in mud at 3rd Ypres. He was a genius compared to Hotzendorf.

        “All this sabre rattling by a post-Iraq and post-2008 USA is highly counterproductive…”
        There really is overwhelming power there as wargames and the 1st Iraq war demonstrate vs. conventional opponents…but…they’re dumb.

        A funny one about pompous WW1 generals.. disguised as comedy, but very accurate.

  7. J.M.
    April 2, 2017 at 8:47 am

    Once again you fail to understand history. Your bias and chip on the shoulder are too huge. In Vietnam despite millions of casualties, the U.S. didn’t intend to exterminate the hostile population of its enemy, most casualties were due to the fact that the Vietcong had a penchant for hiding amongs its own civilian population…sounds familiar. Moreover the U.S. despite all this lost the media war, hence the will to continue the war. As I said before the Romans just simply exterminated/expelled hostile populations if need be. The U.S. Army doesn’t have those options…

    Actually killing millions of Vietnamese and Cambodians was the official military strategy of USA- and they still LOST. Same as Iraq and Afghanistan- they LOST.

    Also, trying to kill more Vietnamese would have guaranteed other nuclear powers would nuke american cities at the first sign of serious conflict with USA.

    • P Ray
      April 2, 2017 at 9:34 am

      The U.S. “winning” militarily against a country which is ideologically aligned to another superpower may cause BIG problems down the line.
      Pretty sure even those scenarios get played out in the RAND Think Tanks.

      The U.S. has to “win without winning” in that scenario. But maybe the egotism is too strong for that.

      The Roman army integrated a lot of captured people. Their biggest problems were feminism and greed.

      Even had a Philosophy professor tell me, with a straight face that a woman aristocrat was worse off than a slave.

      Like something out of the Sound of Music, such tripe is of a level that is hard to forget.

    • J.M.
      April 3, 2017 at 3:58 am

      Once again, had the U.S. policy intended to EXTERMINATE the hostile population, Pol Pot and Mao massacres would have been a fenderbender by comparison, in cruelty as well as in international repudation, the U.S. image would have been tarnished forever as a real genocide and in all likelihood those countries would have been rendered uninhabitable. By the way Pol Pot killed much more Cambodians than the U.S. army ever could or intended. There is a great difference between the acceptance of collateral damage and extermination Soviet or Nazi style.

      I have addressed that issue in a previous post and to restate it concisely- even attempting something along those lines would have ensured that many other countries would develop nukes + delivery systems and launched them against USA at the the first sign of the next conflict.


      • J.M.
        April 3, 2017 at 3:51 pm

        I have addressed that issue in a previous post and to restate it concisely- even attempting something along those lines would have ensured that many other countries would develop nukes + delivery systems and launched them against USA at the the first sign of the next conflict.

        I never denied that fact, nuclear proliferation is already happening. My point is that from a technical point of view, despite its current atrophy and decadence, the U.S. Army has the power to exterminate entire hostile population should it operate free of the conventional rules of engagement, future consequences be damned. Only political considerations and some residual ethics still function as a leash on this potential “mad dog”. The U.S. lost because it doesn’t want to do what’s necessary to win, since doing so would turn its victory into pyrrhic one very quickly…

      • Yusef
        April 6, 2017 at 2:36 pm

        I don’t necessarily mean to agree or disagree, but your emphasis on the word EXTERMINATE makes your argument more difficult to follow. Sure, the U.S. could have, at any time, chosen a nuclear option to EXTERMINATE its enemies… The U.S. chose not to do so.

        So what does that say about the U.S., its intentions, tactics, strategies, objectives, etc.? What do we learn? If you are trying to say the U.S. is thereby shown to have been more humane than other regimes, a stronger defense of that thesis is needed, in my opinion.

        The U.S. likely killed four million Vietnamese up to its departure in 1975… In what way is that not a massive gruesome slaughter? Because four million is not the entire population of Vietnam at that time?

      • J.M.
        April 8, 2017 at 4:37 pm

        My use of the word “exterminate” came as a response to Diabolos main thesis: The U.S. lost those wars to much weaker enemies due to its inability to destroy them. My point was that even without the use of weapons of mass destruction, the defeat and/or extermination of those hostile groups and/or their host populations was within the realm of possibility, technically speaking, the problem would have been the future consequences and the dislike of the public opinion for such measures, especially if the enemy represented no threat to national security, and what that entails. Moreover most Vietnamese died as a result of the penchant of the enemies for hiding among the civilian population. Thus U.S. army attacking the enemies required attacking the civilians as well. Damned if you do, Damned if you don’t.

      • Yusef
        April 11, 2017 at 3:32 pm

        Maybe “Diabolos” can weigh in here if his main thesis was “the U.S. lost those wars to much weaker enemies due to its inability to destroy them.”

  8. hans
    April 2, 2017 at 8:47 pm

    Russian missile capability is at least two generations ahead of the decrepit US missiles.
    Especially Cruise missiles and missile defense batteries.
    Russian Airplanes are virtually indestructible in standard operation while US needs to service their decrepit and overpriced birds almost after every other sortie.
    This translated directly into the utter defeat of ISIS, so it´s not just some “internet theory”.

    Russian soldiers are positively crazy, and not too stupid either.
    The coddled US and EU snowflakes that DO get somewhat hardened in service, cannot possibly hope to keep up.

  9. April 9, 2017 at 2:12 am

    The real combined budget of the listed countries is 720 bn vs 600 for the US. That chart is somewhat fraudelent.

    The rest of this blog post is just full of nonsense.

  1. September 18, 2017 at 2:07 pm
  2. April 13, 2018 at 10:19 am

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