The Progressive


A project of Common Dreams

For Immediate Release

Darcey Rakestraw,

The Costs of Threat Inflation

New Report Cautions Reacting to Russian Aggression with More U.S. Militarism Could Lead to Nuclear Confrontation


If the U.S. and NATO increase their military spending and conventional forces in Europe, the weakness of Russian conventional military forces could prompt Moscow to rely more heavily on its nuclear forces, cautions a new paper from the Costs of War Project at Brown University's Watson Institute.

The report was covered exclusively today by Business Insider.

While the Russian military maintains the world's largest stockpile of nuclear weaponry, the Russian defense budget amounts to less than 1/10 of the U.S. defense budget, just 1/5 of NATO (non-U.S.) spending, and just 6% of the NATO defense spending on aggregate, according to the report.

"In other words, because the Russian military is relatively weak, an over-reaction to Russian aggression could push the Russian leadership toward nuclear escalation," says report author Lyle Goldstein, a Watson Visiting Professor and the Director of Asia Engagement, Defense Priorities. "As we approach this sixtieth anniversary of the Cuban Missile Crisis, it is imperative to mitigate Cold War-type tensions with Moscow and prioritize reducing nuclear risk."

"Contrary to conventional wisdom, the U.S. defense budget does not need to continue to grow. Rather, cognizant of Russia's conventional military weakness, the U.S. military budget can instead be trimmed," writes Goldstein.

De-escalatory approaches would include, at a minimum: direct talks, reviving the arms control agenda, and pursuing military confidence building measures between NATO countries and Russia. The paper also argues that an energized European defense within NATO could herald more fair Trans-Atlantic burden-sharing and lead to better outcomes and more peace over time.

Russia has invested far fewer resources in its military than the U.S. and views its own military strength as lagging very significantly behind the U.S., writes Goldstein, a military strategy expert who drew his analysis from Russian-language sources. "One of the main reasons for Russia's military underperformance compared to pre-war expectations is economic in nature: namely that the Russian military is simply trying to do too much on a comparatively paltry budget. In addition, the Russians have invested heavily in nuclear weapons, leading to a comparatively weaker investment in conventional forces, equipment and training."

Though U.S. military spending has long surpassed Russian military spending, it escalated dramatically above Russia's spending in the post-9/11 era.

Western strategists have a long tradition of overinflating Russia as a threat, according to the report. One example is the promotion by U.S. politicians of a false "missile gap" with the USSR in the early decades of the Cold War, which accelerated an arms race that resulted in wasteful and dangerous arsenals of tens of thousands of nuclear weapons on both sides.

"Russian aggression in Ukraine requires an international response. However, it does not justify increased U.S. military budgets, which could ultimately escalate tensions with Russia and once again lead us down a dangerous path," says Stephanie Savell, co-director of the Costs of War Project. "The U.S. military budget is poised to surge above $800 billion, in part due to the conflict in Ukraine. But higher spending isn't the solution. This research lays the foundation for a more honest conversation in the U.S. about what's truly going to promote peace for people in the region, and for the world."

The Costs of War Project is a team of 50 scholars, legal experts, human rights practitioners, and physicians, which began its work in 2010. We use research and a public website to facilitate debate about the costs of the post-9/11 wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the related violence in Pakistan and Syria. There are many hidden or unacknowledged costs of the United States' decision to respond to the 9/11 attacks with military force. We aim to foster democratic discussion of these wars by providing the fullest possible account of their human, economic, and political costs, and to foster better informed public policies.