Phantom Menaces


Guns don’t kill people, was a maxim one used to hear a lot in the United States during 1990s debates on gun legislation. It’s true. Guns don’t kill people. Idiotic governmental policies that give guns precedence over flesh-and-blood people kill people.

Last Friday, Putin assured a worried nation that he fully intends to fund much-needed programs for health, housing, unemployment assistance, and other societal needs. He pointed out that his 2009 fiscal budget includes a $1.5 billion economic stimulus package for job creation.


“Lowering social standards or social dumping must not become an anti-crisis tool,” he said.


A nice thought. It would have been more believable if, that same day, a government commission hadn’t loaned the national defense industry $56 billion in bailout money.

Arms matter a great deal to Putin. The question is, do unemployed Russians matter?
Arms matter a great deal to Putin. The question is, do unemployed Russians matter?

(photo credit:




Now it’s true that arms makers have fallen on some particularly hard times in Russia in the last year. One-third face bankruptcy, according to Russian Technologies head Sergei Chemezov, who also that one-half of those who make ammunitions or explosives are going on broke. Of all arms manufacturers throughout the military-industrial complex, only 36% are stable.


The St. Peterburg Times says that demand for Russian military goods dropped off 50%-70% in 2008. Some of this might be just your run-of-the-mill recession cutbacks. Some of it is also dissatisfaction with the products: Indian buyers complained of late deliveries, and Algeria returned 15 MiGs because of defective parts. So yes, arms manufacturers could have used some help. But $56 billion of help when the whole sum of their fellow citizens got a mere $1.5 billion bonus?


Well, then the Russian arms industry must be very huge and account for enormous sums of Russian workers and Russian capital. That would explain why it got such an obscenely large chunk of bailout cash.

Actually, it wouldn’t. Russian arms exports totalled $8.35 billion in 2008. That equals about 2% of all Russian imports that year, the sum of which was $476 billion, according to the CIA World Factbook.


Russia’s military seems to have been busy of late drumming up new business and making up for lost revenue. RIA Novosti reports that the Air Force has a joint air-defense system with Armenia in the making while the Russian Navy has been conducting joint exercises with Venezuela, India, and Turkey. The news agency states that Russia’s navy intends to build up “a constant presence in different regions of the world’s oceans.” This coincides with an increased presence in space, also, beginning with a military satellite that the Russian Space Agency, according to, launched last week.  


An industry representing 2% of Russia’s exports gets $56 billion in loans while the whole economy gets $1.5 billion. Putin must have some astonishing information indicating a major economic revival is around the corner, and so he expects that the 8.1% unemployment rate  now besetting Russia is going to just magically disappear.


He must also have reason to think that Russians don’t have more pressing problems. Funny, the rest of the world sure seems to think otherwise. For starters, there are the HIV infections that could spread to more than one in 10 Russian adults by 2010. There is also the abysmal state of children’s health: fewer than one in three Russian children are born healthy. Let’s not forget the astronomically high rates of substance abuse among Russia’s teenage population: drug-related deaths of minors are 42 times higher than they were in the 1980s. And then there are your various problems of poverty, homelessness, violent crime, etc. The list goes on and is too long for this mere blog entry.


Russian officials aren’t wrong to want to bolster their national defense. There are plenty of hypothetical threats they could encounter down the road: Islamic-extremist elements to the south, China to the east, even the United States to the west (that would be very far down the road, I trust). But surely the very real, non-hypothetical, threats that are killing and maiming Russians right now should merit more attention. When it’s people’s lives, what is has to take priority over what might be.       



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One Response to “Phantom Menaces”

  1. Jonathan Peck Says:

    Guns do kill people, but disease kills a lot more people so the problem of substance abuse, mental illness, HIV and multi-drug resistant pathogens such as TB are important both inside Russia and as exports. The low birth rate and high death rate in Russia is half of the worst case scenario (high birth rate and high death rate) that the 21st century could hold for humanity.

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