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To pay for a "Russia First" agenda, Putin takes ax to military spending

Vladimir Putin, who was elected as Russian President for the fourth time on Monday, surprised many with the announcement of a "Russia First" program: a ceaseless focus on domestic development, which is partly covered by drastic cuts in defense spending. [19659002] It may sound contrary to Western notions of Russia's global intentions. But the priorities outlined in the Kremlin's new strategic program indicate that Putin has decided to use his last term of office to cement his already considerable legacy as a nation-builder.

The projected increase in spending on roads, education and healthcare needs to be paid. A major source of this funding will be the military budget, which grew by about 10 percent annually for much of the Putin era.

"The times when the external threat has been used to cut social spending are over, so we can not go on," says Pavel Zolotaryov, deputy director of the Institute for United States-Canada Studies (ISKRAN), that belongs to the Russian Academy of Sciences. "Many of the goals of military modernization have already been achieved so that we can afford to slow them down, make selective cuts to fund social goals as we continue the basic path."


Putin ordered the new government to draw up a detailed plan by October 1 targeting social goals that many respondents consider attractive. These include rising real incomes, raising pensions, improving housing, reducing poverty and increasing access to quality healthcare. He also called for plans to invest in high-tech and export-oriented industries and to create "transport corridors" to strengthen Russia's road, rail and sea links with the rest of the world.

The cuts in defense spending will go towards underwriting this agenda. In fact, Russian defense spending has already declined. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), Russian military spending fell by 20 percent last year, the first sharp decline in two decades. While critics dispute the amount and suggest that there might be domestic machinations at work, most analysts agree that military spending's share of GDP rose from 6.6 percent in 2016 to 5 percent this year and to 3 percent Putin's current term in 2024 will decline in 2016.

Recent polls indicate that Putin's change of priorities is associated with Russians' war-weariness yielding to their president as he supported Russia's great power status in the face of Western hostility and sanctions, by annexation of the Crimea and intervention in Syria. A survey by the independent Levada Center last month revealed that at least half of Russians appreciate their country's return to power status. But 45 percent blame Putin for "failing to ensure a fair distribution of income in the interest of ordinary people," compared to 39 percent in March 2015 when the last survey was conducted.

Another survey by the state-funded VTsIOM agency confirmed that Putin's personal approval rate is nearing its peak of 82 percent. Paradoxically, nearly 90 percent of respondents said that the country needed some reform, while only two percent felt that no change was needed.

Another sign that mass dissatisfaction is clearly possible was the big rallies inspired by Kremlin's opponent Alexei Navalny and the slogan "Not Our Tsar," which took place on the eve of Putin's inauguration in several Russian cities. They did not reach the scale of the rallies that shook Moscow and other cities before Putin's inauguration six years ago. Nonetheless, they were remarkable for the large number of very young participants and for the refinement of their specific grievances – such as the opposition to the Kremlin's unrestrained attempts to close the Telegram News app.

"Six years ago, Putin was forced to focus more on the external agenda, it worked for him, and Russia looks like a great power again," says Andrei Kolesnikov, an analyst at the Carnegie Moscow Center. "Now it's time for a domestic focus, the plan looks very cautious and rational, it balances various interests and appeals to different interest groups, military spending is still very important, and how these grand declarations come to life is still there an open question. "


Russia's strategic nuclear forces, which represent the nation's first line of defense, are least likely to suffer from cuts. In fact, the fight against US missile defense systems remains the central problem of Russian strategic planners. Less than two months ago, Putin revealed a menagerie of exotic new weapons designed to defeat or circumvent possible missile defense systems. But at the same time, a number of planned new conventional weapons and even some strategic weapons have been suspended or scaled down.

The comprehensive reform of Soviet military machinery in Russia has been in full swing since the short summer war in Georgia has revealed its shortcomings a decade ago. It began with a major restructuring of the armed forces to create leaner, more mobile and more professional units, followed by a ten-year procurement program to provide all services with modern, post-Soviet weapons.

Among the projects the Russian Su-57 Stealth Fighters, which will perform at the Red Day Victory Day parade on Wednesday, have been greatly reduced, but their production has been cut sharply for the foreseeable future. The shifts that plague the Su-57 can not just save you money. It is rumored that the aircraft has many technical faults. Another program that has seen enormous production restrictions is the new T-14 Armata main battle tank, which will also be seen on Red Square, but not so much on the front line of the Russian Army, where the older T-90 tanks More Years

According to Viktor Litovkin, military editor of the official ITAR-Tass news agency, there are none of the more exotic ideas that have been discussed by the military in recent years, such as the construction of a giant American-style airliner There will be no signs at all of the state procurement program for the period 2018-25.

"In the coming time, there will be minimal new purchases," he says. "The key is to master the technology and start production [of new weaponry]not to complete the rearmament, the main idea is to have" necessary and sufficient "tools to perform the assigned tasks."

& # 39; OUR NEW NORMAL & # 39;

Analysts say that Putin's new focus on internal development could have another dimension: new efforts to repair fences with the West.

"There is no doubt that Putin wants better relations, and his liberal advisors tell him that restoring economic growth requires a relaxation of sanctions and better access to Western finance and technology," says Alexei Muchin, head of the independent center for political information in Moscow.

"But this is easier said than done, what to do with Ukraine In fact, most of our leaders have already adjusted to the permanence of sanctions and the reality of isolation, and the new development program will simply be in this virtual state of war It is our new normal state. "

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