Russian defense budget is classified, unlike in the U.S., EU member states countries and Ukraine, where such documents are frankly discussed and endorsed in a transparent manner. In the Russian case, there is a practice traditional for totalitarian regimes, the same as applied in China and the DPRK: when their defense budget is published, no one can know for sure whether it is about the actual figures or simply created to manipulate people. And precisely because most of the expenditures in the Russian defense budget are classified, hidden (not only from us, foreign observers, but also from own citizens), we have enough grounds to suggest that the published figures are false, so we can simply pay no attention to them.
Instead, we should carefully analyze the expenditures of Russia's defense budget, which we saw at the end of 2017.
The reality is that Russia’s Rearmament Program, adopted in 2011-2012 and drawn until 2020, has failed. It is already clear that the program objectives have not been achieved. After all, it had been adopted before Russia started its war against Ukraine, amid high oil prices. Today, after the war against Ukraine began and sanctions were imposed, which allegedly “do not affect Russia” (spoiler: they do, especially its defense industry) the situation has changed drastically.
Russia’s Rearmament Program, adopted in 2011-2012 and drawn until 2020, has failed
When Russia began its active rapprochement with the West in 2010, European technology simply overwhelmed Russia's defense sector. In particular, entire factories purchased production of unmanned aerial vehicles in Israel and armored vehicles were procured in huge batches - hundreds of units. However, in 2014, technology stopped coming to Russia. And since then, problems with the implementation of the program started.
Now, in order for Russia to create new armored vehicles that were initially planned using Western technology, it is necessary to spend much more money. Now they can’t buy a license in France or Germany, they need to develop new arms on their own. Accordingly, this stretched over time and also increased financial pressure.
In addition, when the war began, Ukraine also stopped supplying its components to Russia, in particular, gas turbine engines for warships, after which the shipbuilding program in Russia was blocked.
Thus, now Russia needs a lot more money to reach the goals set in their rearmament program. To date, this program has not been implemented, the development of their latest models, which Russian propaganda boasted, like the Armata main battle tank or new missiles and military transport aircraft systems have been suspended. Even if they do exist, it’s about individual pieces. It is clear that Russian technologies do not manage to completely replace Ukrainian or Western ones...
Recently, Russia has developed a new rearmament program, which they hope to implement by 2025, but this will obviously not be done because this is simply too difficult to accomplish technologically and financially. It is worth mentioning that the ruble exchange rate against the dollar was totally different when the progam was approved in 2012. After that the rate plunged by more than 2.5 times, and Russia did not issue more money. Accordingly, this program has decreased by 2.5 times, too.
Therefore, defensive budgets that are adopted today are "emergency measures" because they are adopted to "stitch holes" and avoid the failures that arose as a result of problems mentioned above - technological lag and lack of funds precisely in connection with the fall of the economy and the ruble.
Recently, Russia has developed a new rearmament program, which they hope to implement by 2025, but this will obviously not be done because this is simply too difficult to accomplish technologically and financially
So, in fact, Russia returns to the strategy proclaimed in the 1990s, when tactical nuclear weapons were supposed to replace the scarcity of conventional weapons. According to Russian doctrine, tactical nuclear weapons can be used in cases where conventional means available cannot achieve the Kremlin’s military-political goals. This means that the role of nuclear weapons will further increase. Tactical nuclear weapons during the "West-2017" military exercises were considered as "means to de-escalate the conflict." That is, when Russia conducts its offensive military campaign and the enemy repels Russian aggression, Moscow may threaten their adversary with the potential use of tactical nuclear weapons to make the enemy cease resistance and opt for negotiations on the Kremlin’s terms.
We can state that most of Russia's defense budget for 2018 will be aimed at the development of tactical nuclear weapons. These include the latest land, air, and sea-based cruise missiles, which will primarily target NATO troops in Europe - in the Baltic States, Poland, and Ukraine. Thus, tactical nuclear weapons will play an increasingly important role for Russia.
Mykhailo Samus is a Deputy Director on International Affairs at the Center for Army, Conversion and Disarmament Studies