More on Vladimir Putin’s State-of-the-Nation Address: Guns and Butter?

In the past couple of months, as the date of possible US withdrawal from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Force (INF) Treaty approached and then arrived, the viscerally anti-Russian editorial board of The New York Times,  which I shall take as a marker for mainstream US media generally on the given country, found itself in the awkward position of defending continuation of an arms limitation treaty with their favorite punching bag country. Yes, The Times told us, allegations of Russian violations used by the Trump administration to press ahead with cancellation were likely true. But the treaty’s life should not be ended pending negotiations on successful resolution of the differences of the parties over its observance.

This position was stated succinctly in an editorial of 18 December 2018 entitled “Don’t Tear Up This Treaty.”  But this was weak tea.  The paper did not rely on its also habitual Trump-bashing to question the decision to withdraw from the Treaty.  It even conceded that “Mr. Trump is justified in his concern about Russia’s noncompliance with the I.N.F.” Nor did it dare to venture into discussion of any specific downsides to withdrawal relating to the possible military preparedness of Russia for such an eventuality and any existential threats posed by their new weapons systems still not deployed but claimed to exceed the performance of US arms. Those new weapons had been largely dismissed as empty bragging by our media when they were showcased last March by President Putin in his 2018 annual state-of-the-nation address to the joint chambers of Russia’s parliament.

That is to say, the two strongest potential arguments against dismantling decades old arms limitation treaties, incompetence or stupidity of the sitting US administration and risks to our very existence by calling the Russians’ bluff, were not invoked by the newspaper.

Things had become so confused or desperate at The New York Times that a couple of days ago they broke with their longstanding blacklisting of “Putin stooges” and other loose cannon on the deck and published an essay by professor emeritus of MIT Theodore Postol, a specialist on strategic weapons systems who had advised the U.S. military in decades past. The headline title assigned to Postol’s essay sounds uncontroversial enough: “Are Trump and Putin Opening a Pandora’s Box?” However, the follow-on subtitle tells us that the Russians also have claims of U.S. violations that merit discussion: “Contention over the I.N.F. missile control treaty is complicated by suspicions on both sides that the other has broken its rules” This is the kind of openness we have not seen in The Times for many a year. To be sure, the essay appeared only in the NYT’s online edition, not in the more prestigious and for-the-record print version.

This confusion at the NYT over how to play the INF Treaty story continued today into the newspaper’s coverage of President Putin’s address to his bicameral legislature.

As I mentioned in my analysis of Putin’s speech yesterday, the Russian President spent nearly all of his time at the lectern discussing domestic policy issues, in   particular immediate release of new funds to pensioners, to families with two or more children, and other targeted measures to tackle the problem of low purchasing power of the working population, not to mention the endemic poverty of vulnerable layers of society, who number about 15% in total, or 19 million citizens.

But the last 12 minutes were devoted precisely to how Russia is responding to the American withdrawal from the Treaty: with more guns.

In today’s article devoted to the Russian President’s speech, The New York Times has chosen to put in question his ability to deliver on both military security and domestic social commitments going forward. See “Threatening U.S., Putin Promises Both Missiles and Butter” by Neil MacFarquhar.

Apart from the usual dose of sniggering over quality of life and governance in Russia, the article is notable for several perspectives that bear on how American ruling elites brush off Putin’s threats so as to avoid reconsideration of current defense and foreign policies as they relate to Russia:

  1. Disparagement of Russian military hardware, actual and projected. Per MacFarquhar, the new weapons systems are just “claims” even as he acknowledges that two of the more awesome among them are now entering active service. Moreover, the journalist says that this year Putin “mentioned just a few” of the systems from last year. Either the journalist misplaced his glasses or got lost in the text, because in fact Vladimir Putin yesterday enumerated each and every new weapons system first mentioned in 2018, stated which of them are in final testing stages and which are being deployed this year or further on. For good measure, he added a couple of new shock and awe systems that were still under wraps a year ago.


  1. Disparagement of the Russian economy, and the assumption that there are no financial resources available for both greatly increased social spending and an arms race with the United States. I quote:


“In promising both butter and missiles,…Mr. Putin did not explain how the troubled Russian economy could pay for it all. As always with his addresses focused on domestic issues, there was a certain gap between the Russia he was describing and the reality.”


The related but unstated assumption is that the Kremlin will have to prioritize the social spending, because the President’s poll ratings have dropped from 80% in the two years following the reunification with Crimea to 60% or less today due to declining real wages and the unpopular decision last year to raise the retirement age in order to cover potential shortfalls in the pension system.


  1. The assumption that the Russians are at the starting point in an arms race, given Putin’s use of the words “create” and “produce” new weapons systems if the United States proceeds with installation of nuclear-tipped cruise missiles in Europe.


Yes, those words were in Putin’s text.  But the advanced weapons systems being introduced into the Russian armed forces this year are already a powerful deterrent to any thoughts of a first strike that American military planners might be harboring. And several of the projected new missiles now ready for serial production could be launched from existing multi-functional launchers without additional expenditures.


MacFarquhar fails to understand that to a large extent, the Russians have been engaged in a new arms race with the United States that began more than a decade ago when the Americans concluded agreements with the Polish and Romanian governments to build what were called missile defense bases. These were immediately seen by the Russians as dual purpose, serving also to launch offensive cruise missiles in the direction of Moscow if necessary. The Russians set out their plans for counter measures back then and today the arms race is largely over for them.


  1. Finally, MacFarquhar repeats the stale story on how the Soviet Union came crashing down because of the last arms race: “a costly arms race in the 1980s, combined with sinking oil prices, contributed to the collapse…”  In light of the foregoing points, however true it may or may not have been that Reagan’s Star Wars broke the back of the Soviets, this tale has little relevance to where we are today.  Indeed, for reasons I will set out in a moment, the warning signs on overspending and excessive financial strain might be better placed before the American leadership with its current $22 trillion federal debt rather than before Russia, which has close to zero net federal debt.

I leave it to others who have the relevant expertise to deal with the question of “guns,” i.e. to try to evaluate the effectiveness of the new Russian weapons systems as deterrents, as reestablishing Russia’s full strategic parity with the United States.  I would only venture to say that my long time observations of Mr. Putin suggest that he is a cautious politician, not one to risk the survival of the country he loves on an empty bluff.

In what follows here, I propose to deal with the “butter” side of the equation. And for this purpose, I shall rely on some expert testimony from Russia’s senior legislators representing all the political parties seated in the Duma: the ruling United Russia, the Communist Party, the nationalist LDPR and the left of center A Just Russia party. They were panelists in the country’s most serious and respected political talk show, Evening with Vladimir Solovyov in a discussion dedicated to analysis of the President’s address earlier in the day.

The question of affordability of Putin’s social programs was precisely the topic they first discussed.

The consensus was that Russia possesses the cash on hand to cover all of the social allocations detailed by the President. Cash reserves had been building up over the past several years but were not touched because of uncertainty over the stability of the economy under the stress of sanctions.  That feeling of crisis is now past. The economy is growing again and is considered to be fairly secure against headwinds of possible new sanctions. Net federal debt is close to zero. Holdings of U.S. Treasuries have been drastically cut back. Accordingly, the government has confidence that it can assume long term commitments to alleviate poverty and improve living standards for  those of its citizens who have been left behind. Putin came to the legislature not with generalities but with very specific proposals that had been costed with great care.

Perhaps the most authoritative voice on the talk show was Andrei Makarov, United Russia deputy and Chairman of the Duma Committee on Budget and Taxes. He confirmed that the 200 billion rubles needed to fulfill all of the President’s new social programs each year is presently available so that implementation could begin at once for many of these measures. Others would require several months to initiate because they required reworking of laws. Amending the current budget law to enable all of the requested allocations could be achieved within the statutory deadlines of May – June.

One other panelist worthy of special mention was Oleg Morozov, member of the Federation Council Committee on Foreign relations.  He noted that the country had indeed emerged from crisis and could now tackle social issues.  In 2018, he explained, Russia had its largest ever export figures, exceeding by 100 billion dollars the previous high set in 2013, i.e. before the Crimean Spring and onset of sanctions. And the foreign trade balance was strongly positive. Moreover, there was strong growth in non-raw materials exports, setting a record on that too in 2018.

These gentlemen and their colleagues will be answerable for fulfillment of the “butter” program. We may trust their judgment on feasibility well above the hostile speculations of Mr. MacFarquhar and his editors at The New York Times.


©Gilbert Doctorow, 2019