Jonathan Marshall is author or co-author of fivebooks on international affairs, including The Lebanese Connection: Corruption, Civil War and the International Drug Traffic (Stanford University Press, 2012). Some of his previous articles for Consortiumnews were “Obama Flinches at Renouncing Nuke First Strike,” “Dangerous Denial of Global Warming,” “How Arms Sales Distort US Foreign Policy,” “The US Hand in the Syrian Mess”; and “Hidden Origins of Syria’s Civil War.”
“The country has never had a presidential candidate who lies the way that [Donald Trump] does,” remarked New York Times editor David Leonhardt after Sunday’s presidential debate. Yet his impressive list of 20 Trump lies is notably silent about one unchallenged whopper: that Russia is gaining military superiority over the United States.
Trump told debate watchers that Hillary Clinton “talks tough against Russia. But our nuclear program has fallen way behind, and they’ve gone wild with their nuclear program. Not good. Our government shouldn’t have allowed that to happen. Russia is new in terms of nuclear. We are old. We’re tired. We’re exhausted in terms of nuclear. A very bad thing.”
Donald Trump speaking with supporters at a campaign rally at Veterans Memorial Coliseum at the Arizona State Fairgrounds in Phoenix, Arizona. June 18, 2016. (Photo by Gage Skidmore)
Hillary Clinton didn’t rebut him. The moderators didn’t rebut him. The Clinton campaign’s fact checkers didn’t rebut him. Nor did those of the mainstream media — perhaps because more than a few reporters and editors assume Trump is right.
In recent months, Trump has repeatedly peddled the same myth of Russian nuclear (and conventional military) superiority. It’s a familiar and politically potent lie dating back to 1950s, when militarists warned of alleged bomber and missile “gaps” favoring the Soviet Union.
At a rally in Atlanta last June, Trump complained that “Putin has built up their military again and again and again. Their military is much stronger. He’s doing nuclear, we’re not doing anything. Our nuclear is old and tired and his nuclear is tippy-top from what I hear.” (President Trump would presumably order the Pentagon to come up with some kind of nuclear Viagra to make our forces young, virile, and “tippy top” again.)
Speaking to supporters in Ashburn, Virginia, in August, the Republican candidate said, “Look at Russia, how they’ve built up their military… How they’ve built up their military and how we’re so far behind. And our equipment is obsolete in many cases… We’re falling way behind.”
And in the first presidential debate in September, again unrebutted by Clinton, Trump reiterated that Russia’s nuclear forces “have a much newer capability than we do… We are not keeping up with other countries.”
After that first debate, a brief Associated Press fact check did note that “Russia has indeed been expanding its military and increasing spending on weapons and equipment. But the U.S. still has far more advanced military aircraft, weapons and capabilities than Russia. In addition, the Pentagon plans to spend $108 billion over the next five years to sustain and improve its nuclear force and is developing the next generation bomber.”
But the U.S. nuclear modernization program is much bigger even than AP indicated. As reported here, “the Obama administration plans to commit the nation to spending at least $1trillion over the next three decades to improve our ability to fight a nuclear war.” The Pentagon’s blueprint calls for building 12 new nuclear-armed submarines, 100 long-range strategic bombers armed with a new class of bombs, at least 400 silo-based ballistic missiles, and 1,000 nuclear-tipped cruise missiles.
The United States currently has more deployed nuclear missiles and heavy bombers than Russia: 741 versus 521. The United States also has almost as large an inventory of nuclear weapons as Russia: 7,000 versus an estimated 7,300. The difference is meaningless: detonation of even a fraction of that total would annihilate not only both countries, but kill a large portion of the world’s population.
Washington can potentially also count on the United Kingdom and France for another 400 deployed nuclear warheads to make the rubble in Russia bounce higher in case of an all-out war.
The two countries’ nuclear arsenals are nearly matched by design — the result of many rounds of nuclear arms negotiations and treaties. By contrast, the U.S. military far outpaces Russia’s in most conventional categories.
US Spends Way More on Military
Washington spends 12 times more on “defense” than Russia, whose military budget ranks behind China, Saudi Arabia, and the UK. According to the website Global Fire Power, the United States has more than twice the population of Russia, 80 percent more active military personnel, and 285 percent more military aircraft. The U.S. Navy also outpaces Russia in aircraft carriers 10 to 1. (Russia has more tanks and artillery.) And that’s before counting the contribution of all our NATO allies.
The Pentagon, headquarters of the U.S. Defense Department, as viewed with the Potomac River and Washington, D.C., in the background. (Defense Department photo)
James Hasik, an analyst for the Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security,observes that “The good news . . . is that the Russian Army today is a small fraction of the size of the Red Army of the Cold War. Russia is also almost bereft of allies, as Belarus and that collection of frozen-conflict oblasts don’t really add much. Thus, NATO’s ground forces actually outnumber the Russians several times over.”
Another prominent military analyst, Kyle Mizokami, notes that Russia’s military modernization plans have been severely crimped by falling oil prices and Western economic sanctions, sending Moscow’s defense budget “into a tailspin.”
“Russian forces are also, generally speaking, not as well trained as NATO forces,” he adds. “Russian forces performed badly in Chechnya… In its 2008 war with Georgia, Russian ground forces moved painfully slowly… Most NATO countries could have done a better job.”
Despite these facts, numerous Pentagon officers and armchair warriors today warn about NATO’s deficiencies in facing the growing Russian threat. But look closely and they all relate to scenarios of Russian forces moving en masse next door into the small and weakly defended Baltic States. That’s a far cry from what NATO feared when the alliance formed in 1949 to prevent a Soviet invasion of Western Europe. Now that the Baltic States are part of NATO, Moscow would be risking World War III by invading them — for what purpose no one ever spells out.
Fear-mongering about Russia’s military and the Baltics reflects a classic imperial mentality — that the United States must be capable of prevailing militarily anywhere on the globe, no matter how far removed from our real security interests.
It’s time to recognize that relentless calls for greater military spending, constant agitation for a new Cold War, and the staging of provocative military exercises so close to Russia’s borders are creating the real threats to U.S. security and well-being.
Donald Trump’s lies about Russia’s military superiority are feeding those threats. It’s long overdue for his opponent and the news media to call him out.