When Russia launched a series of airstrikes against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in late September — arguably done to bolster its longtime ally, Syrian President Bashar Assad — many American conservatives lauded Russian President Vladimir Putin's show of strength while deriding what they suggested was President Obama's lack of resolve in helping to end Syria's bloody civil war. Many of these same conservatives have lamented America's lack of leadership in helping to abate the refugee crisis that the war has created while blasting Obama's refusal to directly confront ISIS in the field.
Since 1999, Russia's greatest growth industry has been bolstering its military industrial complex. This past June, Putin stated that, "It's clear that the efficiency of the military-industrial complex is the most important source of economic growth." Putin has also created a program in which military draftees can opt to serve in defense-related industries that employ approximately 2.5 million Russians.
Still, with such a demand for munitions and military supplies, it was only a matter of time before Putin would test his hardware in battle, thus creating greater demand for more supplies. And while Bloomberg reports that Russian oil companies are projecting a fourth quarter of record output despite a global slump in crude prices, Putin is seemingly hedging his bets on defense remaining a key stabilizing industry for years to come.
But according to a report last month by IHS Jane's, a leading defense intelligence publication, Russia is spending the equivalent of $4 million per day in Syria. Since Sept. 30, that runs to about $161 million combating ISIS while propping up the Assad regime. Russia has an overall defense budget of approximately $50 billion, only a small percentage compared to the American defense budget, which generally hovers around $615 million per fiscal year according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.
These events are reminiscent of when then Reagan announced his Strategic Defense Initiative in 1983, one that was immediately dubbed "Star Wars" by the press. Reagan's rhetoric ignited a military build-up by the Soviet Union that eventually bankrupted the nation and led to the fall of the Iron Curtain.
Putin has never hidden his fondness for the days in which the industrial world was divided into two superpowers, the United States and the Soviet Union, and his goal has always been to reestablish some semblance of dominance both economically and with respect to foreign affairs.
But Putin's insistence upon a militaristic course over the past few years ultimately could prove as financially unsustainable as his Soviet predecessors. Since 2013, Russian exercises in Crimea and eastern Ukraine have been reminiscent of the Cold War, when the Soviet Union gobbled up satellite nations to spread communism globally.
Now, with Russia seemingly engaged for the long haul in Syria, logic would hold that any further aggression in the form of annexing other former satellites — such as the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania — would seem untenable. But logic has rarely dictated power grabs by any colonizing nation, and while not trumpeted heavily in the press, the U.S. military over the past few weeks has been completing military exercises called "Trident Juncture" with its fellow NATO members. The exercises reportedly involve 36,000 troops that are preparing to repel the same guerilla warfare tactics that Russia has used in Crimea and eastern Ukraine.
Politico has also reported recently that both U.S. and NATO officials are considering whether to rotate more American troops into the three Baltic states; currently, each state hosts approximately 150 or so troops, but with an increased presence, any Russian invasions would likely impact American service personnel and potentially trigger full-scale authorization of military action by Obama.
As such, while there is ample rhetoric and posturing by Obama's conservative critics who consider him to be weak, the fact remains that not only is the president arguably outmaneuvering Putin as far as military spending in Syria, but he has a front-row seat as Putin's hubris and delusions of grandeur set his nation on a path to economic and military demise for the second time in 30 years.
Hobbs is a trial lawyer and award winning writer based in Tallahassee, Fla. A contributor to The Hill, Hobbs has also been featured in The New York Times, the Miami Herald and the Tallahassee Democrat. Follow him on Twitter @RealChuckHobbs.