How Putin pumped money into Russia’s army for more than two decades, and what came of it


Putin at military exercises in Crimea in January 2020. PHOTO/

Vladimir Putin has spent more than $1.1 trillion on the armed forces in his 21 years in power. Since 2014, Russia has had one of the world’s most militarized state budgets

Many thanks to Kevin Rothrock for his help in translating and editing this article.

It’s March 2018. President Putin delivers his annual address to Russia’s Federal Assembly, two and a half weeks before the nation’s presidential election. In the Grand Manezh building, built in 1817 to celebrate the Russian Empire’s victory over the Napoleonic army, the nation’s entire elite has gathered: top officials and members of the security forces, lawmakers, heads of state-owned companies, propagandists, priests, businessmen, and many others.

Journalists (myself among them) do not have access to the room where Putin reads his speech, so we listen from the press center. For about an hour (for what seems to be the 20th time), he drones on about advancing Russia’s economic and social policies. When it seems that the matter has come to an end, the Kremlin’s press office informs journalists that they can request comments from deputies, senators, governors, and ministers exiting the grand hall. Without waiting for Putin to finish, we go where they say. And we wait again. Five minutes pass, then ten. But the speech doesn’t end.

Suddenly, strange hissing noises start coming from behind the wall, followed by thunderous applause. The journalists frantically take out their phones and switch on the broadcast. It turns out that Putin has not finished his speech; instead, he has finally reached “the main point” of his address. For the next 50 minutes, he details the new weapons that, he says, have been under development in Russia since 2002. They are “unparalleled in the world” and “invulnerable to the enemy.” The president introduces the hypersonic “Kinzhal” missile, the “Sarmat” complex with a heavy intercontinental missile (“virtually without range limitations”), the “Avangard” missile complex with a hypersonic gliding wing unit, unmanned underwater vehicles, and laser combat systems.

Putin interrupts his own speech periodically with “animations” on big screens showing Russian missiles flying towards the U.S. The audience applauds enthusiastically, sometimes in standing ovations.

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