Russia, who even knows; better than the Soviet Union, but we now get a better sense of how they’re fudging the numbers.

– overheard

It’s not very hard to get a number, or a couple numbers. I found close to a dozen sources that would state a budget or a spending number. Those are not necessarily the same thing. There were more that discussed percentages increase or decrease, and then went on to discuss what that might mean either for the Russian economy, procurement goals or both. Of the nine websites discussed below, some cited Jane’s as a source, others mentioned articles in Russian news outlets Kommersant or SputnikSIPRI data was used more than once as well. I also found a recent press release by the Russian Ministry of Defense about the budget for the 2018-2027 period. Just as often as I saw numbers for a single year, I saw numbers spanning 10 year periods. 
Also, it takes a little experimentation to figure out the right way to look for information. The latest budget to come out is regularly referred to as “SAP 2018-2027,” because Russia refers to it formally in English as the “State Armaments Program (SAP).” In romanized Russian it looks something like Gosudarstvennaya Programma Vooruzheny which yields a romanized abbreviation of “GPV.” So one might see SAP or GPV as an abbreviation.

Here are seven websites that published a real number about the size of the Russian defense budget or spending and a bit about each to illustrate the variation in reporting.

SIPRI

Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) is great for all kinds of IR stuff, but their Military Expenditure Database is longitudinal and free of charge for download as an Excel spreadsheet, PDFs, or even a beautiful interactive visual form. As you can see in the screen capture below their interactive graph shows that Russians spent $70,345,000,000.00 in real 2015 USD. One of their PDFs shows the same number for 2016 in billions of roubles and that number is 4645. So the 2016 Russian defense spending was 4.645 trillion roubles, or 70.345 billion US$.

Graph showing rising Russian military spending data from SIPRI
Russian military spending data from SIPRI

IHS Jane’s Defence Weekly (Jane’s)

In front of the spendy Jane’s paywall is a tiny reference to the 2018-2027 SAP/GPV. They point to the Russian Ministry of Defense as as having published the 20 trillion rouble figure in January of 2018, and go on to convert that into “(USD 357 billion).”

Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD)

The official English-language version of the MoD site must be the source of the Jane’s data, as both sites show that 19T roubles is slated for procurement and 1T roubles is slated for construction. Did I mention that рублей is written roublesrubles, or ₽. Enjoy.

Mark Galeotti and Michael Kofman

Both Galeotti and Kofman, respected Russia experts, wrote in depth articles about how an earlier Jane’s piece had botched the math when analyzing a change from the 2016 to 2017 budgets. Jane’s apparently published that Russia spent 3.8T roubles in 2016, and had allotted 2.8T roubles for 2017. Jane’s suggested that Russia had experienced a 1 trillion rouble drop in spending. Both Galeotti and Kofman wrote lengthy explanations as to why a 25% cut is a misleading oversimplification of the delta.

The truth about Russia’s defence budget“, by Mark Galeotti
The Russian Defense Budget and You“, by Michael Kofman

Russian Defense Policy blog

While the writing on Russian Defense Policy blog seems balanced and intelligent, I have no idea who is writing it and where exactly they are getting their data. What is interesting is that they discuss the budget in terms of periods. A budget published for 2011-2020 period was 19T roubles, and they speculated that the 2018-2025 budget would be 17T roubles. The post was published in September of 2017.

Dmitry Gorenburg/CNA

Gorenburg frequently posts his work for PONARS @ CNA on his own website, which is where I first saw his November 2017 prediction. He noted that the last program (2011-2020) had 19.3T roubles allotted and that this new one should be 19T roubles. His policy memo is also a great place to explore the break-down of spending expectations for this year and the next few.

Honorable Mentions

Forecast International (FI) and IISS both published articles in February about 2018-2027 spending plan. The differences in reporting are indicative of the nature of this problem. FI states that “Russia will spend over $300 billion on the procurement of new military hardware.” They provide no rouble figure from which they convert that $300 billion. IISS writes that the new SAP “earmarks 19 trillion roubles (US$295 billion) for defence procurement and equipment support.” Read literally, somehow equipment support costs 5 billion dollars less over ten years than simple procurement. To add much needed confusion here, the Sputnik News article that FI cites as a source writes that “the program stipulated spending 19 trillion rubles ($325 billion) on military equipment procurement.”

In sum, if we now have a better sense of how they’re fudging the numbers, god help us, because we’re fudging the hell out of the reporting.