gros159_SERGEY BOBOKAFP via Getty Images_russiatank Sergey Bobok/AFP via Getty Images

Putin's Potemkin Military

While defense spending accounts for a significant share of Russia’s economy, the sum itself – an estimated $60 billion in 2020 – is rather modest, especially by “great-power” standards. In its war against Ukraine, Russia's military is putting the country's economic weakness on full display.

FLORENCE – War represents a contest of wills, the German strategist Carl von Clausewitz argued some 200 years ago. On this point, the Ukrainians fiercely defending their homeland seem to have a distinct advantage over the invading Russian forces. But, to win a war, will must be supported by military means – and that requires industrial and economic strength. Here, Russia might have an advantage over Ukraine for now, but it is far weaker than the West it ultimately aims to challenge.

In terms of economic and industrial strength, Russia is a mid-size power, at best. Its manufacturing output is only half that of Germany, and its GDP is about the same size as Italy’s. The European Union’s combined GDP is almost ten times larger than Russia’s. And that is before the new round of punitive Western sanctions begin to take their toll.

Given its large economy, Europe can afford to build credible defense capabilities. For European countries to meet their NATO commitment to spend 2% of GDP annually on defense, they must increase spending by just 0.5% of GDP, on average. If one considers that total government expenditure in these countries currently averages 45% of GDP, this seems entirely feasible.