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Economy forces Russia to cut military spending for first time in 20 years

A closer look at the day's most notable stories with The National's Jonathon Gatehouse.

Newsletter: A closer look at the day's most notable stories

A Russian S-400 air defence missile truck in Moscow's Red Square on May 7, 2017. Vladimir Putin's government cut its military spending by 20 per cent last year, the first reduction in two decades, under pressure from sanctions and a soft economy. (Alexander Zemlianichenko/Associated Press)

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  • Russia's military spending dropped for the first time in 20 years in 2017, according to a new global report, but other nations boosted their defence budgets 
  • Turkey's opposition parties are set to form an unprecedented alliance to fight President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in upcoming presidential and parliament elections
  • China's high-speed rail network is growing steadily, but the pace of adoption in the rest of the world is crawling by comparison — particularly in North America
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Russia's slimming military

Russian military spending fell by 20 per cent last year, even as European nations hiked their defence budgets for fear of Vladimir Putin's expansionist ambitions.

The cut — the first decrease in Russia's military spending since 1998 — drops the superpower to fourth place on the list of the world's biggest military spenders behind the United States, China and Saudi Arabia.

The 2017 spending data was compiled by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), a Swedish think-tank. SIPRI says the Kremlin has been forced take austerity measures by a combination of Western economic sanctions and lagging global oil prices.

Russian President Vladimir Putin watches a Russian jet fighter escort as he heads to the Hmeymim air base in Syria on Dec. 11, 2017. The Kremlin's military budget in 2017 was $66.3 billion US. (Mikhail Klimentyev/Sputnik/Reuters)
In his re-election campaign this winter, Putin promised to improve the quality of life for ordinary Russians by massively increasing spending on education, infrastructure, health care and social security. It appears that the Kremlin's military budget — $66.3 billion US — was trimmed to help pay for those promises.

And further cuts are probably in store if Putin is to reach his stated goal of limiting military spending to 3 per cent of GDP — down from the current 4.3 per cent — amid sluggish economic growth.

Overall, the world's nations spent $1.739 trillion US on their militaries in 2017. That works out to $230 for each person on the planet, an increase of 1.1 per cent over the previous year.

A J15 fighter jet lands on China's sole operational aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, on April 24. A flotilla of Chinese naval vessels was holding a 'live combat drill' in the East China Sea, the latest show of force by Beijing's burgeoning navy in disputed waters. (AFP/Getty Images)
The United States, with $610 billion in defence expenditures, continues to lead the pack, spending more than the next seven countries combined. That figure is roughly the same as what the U.S. spent in 2016.

China, meanwhile, increased its military budget by 13 per cent to $228 billion in 2017, continuing a two-decade-long upwards trajectory. The country has been building up its presence in the South China Sea region in particular, and launched its first domestically built aircraft carrier in 2017.

Saudi Arabia spent $69.4 billion on defence last year, a 9.2 per cent hike and 10 per cent of its GDP. It has been leading a coalition of African and Middle Eastern nations supporting Yemeni President Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi in that country's civil war.

India, with $63.9 billion, rounds out the global top five military spenders.

A Trident II D5 missile is test-launched from the Ohio-class U.S. Navy ballistic missile submarine USS Nebraska off the coast of California on March 26. The U.S. military budget was $610 billion US in 2017. (Ronald Gutridge/Reuters)
Fears over Russia's 2014 annexation of Crimea and its intervention in Syria's civil war helped drive Central European defence budgets up 12 per cent in 2017, while Western Europe spent 1.7 per cent more on its militaries.

NATO's 29 members spent $900 billion on their armies, navies and air forces — or 52 per cent of global military expenditures.

Canada, which devoted $20.6 billion US to defence in 2017 — or 1.3 per cent of GDP — ranked 14th in the world, behind Australia ($27.5 billion) and ahead of Turkey's $17.2 billion.

Exhibitors stand next to rifles at DefExpo 2018, a large defence exhibition showcasing military equipment on the outskirts of Chennai on April 11. Overall, the world's nations spent $1.739 trillion US on their militaries in 2017. (Arun Sankar/AFP/Getty Images)
Brazil, which spent $29.3 billion, ranked 11th, virtually tied with Italy's $29.2 billion defence budget.

The SIPRI report does not include data on North Korea's undisclosed military budget, which is estimated to be around $10 billion, or more than 20 per cent of its GDP.

While the 20 per cent decrease in Russian military spending was the most notable drop, it was by no means the biggest:

  • South Sudan — also the target of international sanctions — was forced to cut its military spending by 56 per cent to $72 million.
  • Chad trimmed 33 per cent off its $210 million defence budget.
  • Myanmar managed to spend 28 per cent less — $1.7 billion — while forcing 700,000 Rohingya from their homes with an orchestrated campaign of arson, rapes and murder.  

Despite spending less on defence, it was just two months ago that Putin unveiled what he claimed was a new generation of "indestructible" nuclear weapons, including a hypersonic missile and stealth underwater drone.

In this video grab provided by RU-RTR television, a Russian MiG-31 fighter jet is reportedly releasing a Kinzhal hypersonic missile during a test at an undisclosed location in Russia. (RU-RTR Russian Television via AP)
"I want to tell all those who have fuelled the arms race over the last 15 years, sought to win unilateral advantages over Russia, introduced unlawful sanctions aimed to contain our country's development: all what you wanted to impede with your policies have already happened," he said in an address to the nation. "You have failed to contain Russia."

Perhaps. But if Russia is winning the new Cold War, it is doing it on the cheap, spending about one-ninth what America devotes to flexing its muscles.

Taking on Erdogan

If you can't beat him, join against him.

At least that appears to be the new philosophy of Turkey's opposition parties, who are set to form an unprecedented alliance to fight President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in upcoming presidential and parliament elections.

The broad coalition, which was reported by local media this morning, brings together the secular Republican People's Party (CHP), the Islamist Saadet [Felicity] party (SP), centre-right Democrat Party, and the Iyi [Good] party.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan meets with South Korean President Moon Jae-in in Seoul on Wednesday. Back home, Turkey's opposition parties reportedly formed an unprecedented alliance to fight him in upcoming presidential and parliamentary elections. (Getty Images)
The deal will be formally announced at a press conference tomorrow.

The combined opposition will face off against Erdogan's ruling AKP and their allies, the Nationalist Action party, in the snap June 24 elections that the Turkish president called two weeks ago.

The opposition coalition will run a combined slate for parliament — where the seats are awarded via proportional representation — but each will field their own candidate for president.

Opinion polls suggest Erdogan is out in front in the race to keep that job, and assume the broad new political powers that voters narrowly approved in a 2017 referendum.

Police grab a demonstrator during May Day protests in Istanbul, Turkey, on Tuesday. Police detained several demonstrators as the crowd tried to march toward Istanbul's Taksim Square, which is symbolic as the centre of protests in which dozens of people were killed in 1977. (Lefteris Pitarakis/Associated Press)
Erdogan kicked off his reelection campaign last Thursday with a large outdoor rally in the seaside city of Izmir, a CHP stronghold.

Even before a deal was struck, he denounced the prospect of an opposition coalition.

"Those who are against us are working in the dark by winking at each other," the Turkish president said. "They are trying to form an alliance whose only purpose is enmity for Recep Tayyip Erdogan."

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Slow spread of high-speed rail

China has begun testing trains along a new, 343 kilometre high-speed rail corridor near its border with Siberia.

The Harbin to Jiamusi line will be the country's longest ultrafast rail link when it opens in July. It will cut four hours off the travel time between the two remote, northeastern cities.

Work on the railway began in the summer of 2014 and posed numerous challenges, not the least of which involved the bitter winters in the region — temperatures sometimes plummet below -30 Celsius.

Technicians check CRH bullet trains at a maintenance base in Wuhan, China. The Harbin to Jiamusi line will be the country's longest ultrafast rail link when it opens in July. (VCG/Getty Images)
Meanwhile, construction is well underway on another high-speed line that will link Beijing and Zhangjiakou, the two sites for the 2022 Winter Games. Olympic plans call for newly designed trains with a top speed of 350 km/h along the route, reducing travel times from three hours to one.

A decade ago, China had a single, 113-km-long high-speed line that was purpose-built for the 2008 Beijing Summer Games. Now it has more than 25,000 kilometres of them, and is near its goal of a national "4+4" network — with four north-south and four east-west ultrafast lines.

An additional 13,000 km of high-speed tracks are planned to come into service by 2025.

A display shows the speed aboard a bullet-train in Hebei province south of Beijing. (Ed Jones/AFP/Getty Images)
As it stands, the country already has more kilometres of high-speed rail than the rest of the world combined.

Europe, by comparison, will have almost 9,000 km by the end of 2018, mostly in Spain, France and Germany.

North America will have ... zero kilometres.

There are efforts afoot to change that.

California has begun construction of a high-speed link spanning 840 km between Los Angeles and San Francisco, scheduled to go into service by 2029. But costs are ballooning from the original $33 billion US price tag, with the total cost now estimated at somewhere between $77 billion and $98 billion. The U.S. government recently commissioned a Department of Transportation audit of the troubled project.

There are also longstanding plans to bring high-speed rail to the Washington-New York-Boston corridor. The trains will be ready in 2021, even if the track isn't.

A high-speed train in Anshun, China. The country has more than 25,000 kilometres of high-speed rail, more than the rest of the world combined. (STR/AFP/Getty Images)
And Canada may eventually join the high-speed club as well. The Ontario Liberals earmarked $11 billion in their 2018 pre-election budget for preparatory work on a line linking London and Toronto, a distance of about 190 kilometres.

Agricultural groups and rural municipalities are already registering concerns about the plan, although the government says no decisions have been made about the route or design.

The official announcement last month suggested high-speed service might begin "as early as 2025" — an optimistic timeline, given that it took three years to build a new 23 km conventional rail line linking Pearson Airport and Toronto's downtown.

Maybe the idea is to have the Chinese build it.

Quote of the moment

"Thank you and your delicious wife for your warm welcome, the perfect organization of this trip."

French President Emmanuel Macron, either getting tongue-tied or playing to stereotype, during a visit with Australian PM Malcolm Turnbull and his wife Lucy.

France's President Emmanuel Macron, centre, with Australia's Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and his wife Lucy Turnbull, outside the Sydney Opera House in Sydney on Tuesday. (Ludovic Marin/AFP/Getty Images)

What The National is reading

  • Calgary daycare operator sentenced to 3½ years in toddler car seat death (CBC)
  • Protests bring Armenia to a standstill after opposition leader rejected as PM (CNN)
  • IBM awarded $36.5 million more to 'stabilize' failed federal pay system (CBC)
  • After pedestrian attacks, some cities loosen rules for police shooting at cars (Washington Post)
  • FIFA proposes new 'mini-World Cup of soccer' every two years (Reuters)
  • Montreal-area high school gives students expired condoms (CTV)
  • Manhunt underway after wild RV chase across LA (LA Times)
  • Warning over carrot-crazed kangaroo attacks (BBC)

Today in history

May 2, 1967: Leafs win Stanley Cup


Stanley Cup awarded to Toronto Maple Leafs in 1967

Digital Archives

2 years ago
Clarence Campbell presents the Cup and players are interviewed in the dressing room after their victory. 20:38

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Jonathon Gatehouse

CBC Investigative Journalist

Jonathon Gatehouse has covered news and politics at home and abroad, reporting from dozens of countries. He has also written extensively about sports, covering seven Olympic Games and authoring a best-selling book on the business of pro-hockey. He works for the national investigative unit in Toronto.