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The countries that are in my inquiry list are:

--------+----------+-------------+-----------+---------
    SN  | Country  | Population  |    GDP    | DefExp
--------+----------+-------------+-----------+---------
    0   | Russia   | 143,439,832 | 1,267,750 | 66.4 bn
    1   | Germany  |  80,682,351 | 3,494,900 | 39.4 bn
    2   | UK       |  65,111,143 | 2,649,890 | 55.5 bn
    3   | France   |  64,668,129 | 2,488,280 | 50.9 bn
    4   | Turkey   |  79,622,062 |   755,716 | 22.6 bn

My questions are:

  1. Given that France, Germany and the UK have larger economies than Russia does, why do they spend less on defense than Russia does, yet always seem to be scared of Russia?
  2. Why does Russia maintain so massive a military when these countries can't?
  3. How can Russia spend so much on defense?
  4. Given that these countries spend so much on defense, why do they seek US help/alliance to counter Russia?
  5. Why is NATO still so important to them even though they spend so much on defense? Aside from the USA, these four countries' combined spending far exceeds Russia's, and Russia still can bargain with them in Syria.

11 Answers 11

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This is a great question about both politics and history. It relates directly to the changing nature of what a "country" is. First, let me directly answer your questions:

  1. Given that France, Germany and the UK have larger economies than that of Russia, why do they spend less in defense than that of Russia and always seem to be scared of Russia?

There are two easy answers for this, namely a) Because the US military is present in the region, so the people feel secure from Russian attack and b) because the voters in these countries vote for social services like health care instead of military spending.

  1. Why does Russia maintain so massive military when these countries can't?

Germany, UK, France, and other western European countries are more than capable of spending a ton of money on military. They choose not to because they are working as a team within the Nato alliance - and they do this for a couple of reasons that will be elaborated below.

  1. Why can Russia spend so much on defense?

Because Russia can do as it pleases within its means!

As for why it does, the reason is the same as for other countries: they spend the amount they can afford for its constituent population to feel "secure". Russia is a huge country with strong neighbors. In the past 100 years, they have fought wars along most of these borders. While the western European invasion during WWII was significant, it is notable that there was a small hot war with China in the '60s and '70s, and war with Afghanistan. They still have territorial disputes with Japan - and they are slowly being intimidated by an expanding Nato that is vocally hostile to the Russian state and hence the Russian population.

  1. Given that these countries spend so much on defense, Why do these countries seek US help/alliance to counter Russia?

This is the most critical question you ask, I will answer with a counter question: do these countries have a choice?

At the end of WWII, Europe was largely occupied in the west by the US military, and in the east by the Soviet military. One could say that all the countries in the East became client states of the Soviet Union, and that those in the West became client states of the USA. Both the Soviet Union and especially the USA, maintained large military bases in these states. The US still has numerous bases. Could we call the US an occupying power? What would it take for Germany to end the presence of the US military on its soil?

However, most Americans and Western Europeans bristle at the idea that they are involuntarily "occupied" by Americans, they are instead "Allies"! And it is good, of course to be best friends with the rich American business interests. Trade and mutual economic benefits keep Germany, France, and the UK, most of Europe, in this alliance. Indeed, besides a handful of nations like Iran, North Korea, Syria, Cuba, Venezuela, and Bolivia, everyone tries to stay on the good side of the Americans. Both for commercial reasons, and because the US, frankly, has a dominant military presence just about everywhere. Perhaps a commenter can correct me, but I think for some reason the US has ~5000 military bases overseas.

  1. Why is NATO still so important to them even though they spend so much on defense? Aside the USA, these four countries' combined spending far exceeds Russia and Russia still can bargain with them in Syria.

NATO is important because it indicates what relationship these countries have with Washington. Russia is in Syria for a variety of reasons; it has more interest in the area than Syria's former colonial masters, the UK and France.


An important point to note is that the concept of a country is fairly new; I have read, and agree, that modern states did not become such an important unit of human organization until the Great Depression in the 1930s; at that time the problems facing them - broken economies and socialist movements - the country level government was the only organization existing that could solve these problems while the existing power structure stayed in power. Since then, states are portrayed as "immortal" and "ever lasting". But in truth, they are not. Competing levels of organization - family, village, community, province, supranational, class, or something else - can eventually take primacy in terms of absolute power. What will happen is a matter of conjecture, but the point is clear: countries are not the only level of organization.

For example, what is the EU? Are Germany and France and UK independent countries, as the UN says, or are they members of a single supranational organization? Both really, for example, the UK will have to negotiate its secession or pay a heavy price. While everyone can agree that in name these countries are independent, they do heavily coordinate most of their economical and political activity. This includes military activity.

Summary:

The level of military coordination between western European countries and the US means that spending on military need only match Russian military spending on a collective basis. I think with data about US spending and presence in and around Europe, the collective manpower and economic investment will be far greater than that of Russia.

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    It is not without irony that the country which spends the most on defence, namely the USA, is the one which does not have a universal free public health care system. What we are starting to see is a realisation by America that if it is going to provide its citizens with the health and social care standards accepted as the norm in Western Europe, they will have to persuade the Europeans to pick up a bigger share of the defence budget. – WS2 Feb 8 '17 at 23:10
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    Re (4): I was born in Normandy (France). The US tactics during the D-Day and following fight was to bomb everything before advancing its troops, destroying much of the buildings. The town I was born in (Saint-Lo) was destroyed at 80% by the Americans... now, guess who helped rebuild after the war? Western Europe was a wreck after WWII, but American soil had never been invaded so its economy was strong. The US were very careful about "helping" their allies rebuild, and doing so installing commercial ties. – Matthieu M. Feb 10 '17 at 7:47
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    "that is vocally hostile to the Russian state and hence the Russian population" The latter part of that sentence is clearly false. The West has a number of issues with the Russian state, most notably human rights abuses, the lack of free and fair elections in a country which is an oligarchy, the rise of paramilitary organisations intimidating or assassinating political opposition, even political assassinations in other countries, wars of aggression with several neighbours... I could go on, but you get the picture. The West supports the Russian population against the Russian state. – Graham Feb 10 '17 at 11:18
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    @Graham Are you 100% certain the west is never, and has never been an aggressor? Really, the most war-mongering nation in recent history was the UK; there are very few places they did not invade and exploit. Look at aggressive economic and military behavior by the US, it is not so far fetched that the US military is feared by many the world over. This includes the Russian people, of course. I can never understand how it is not obvious to everyone that the potential of US war planes on bombing raids is a scary idea? – axsvl77 Feb 10 '17 at 13:14
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    @axsvl77 In recent history, like the last 10-20 years? Even if we stretch back 50 years, you're clearly wrong about the UK. The US has many problems, but assassination of political opposition and journalists is not one of them. It is routine in Russia. (I can cite examples if you want.) As for the 90s, the West probably could have done more, but the direct cause of the economic collapse was Russian oligarchs plundering the country's resources and finances with the connivance of the Russian state (hell, many of them were the Russian state). – Graham Feb 10 '17 at 14:42
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It is impossible to understand Russia's preoccupation over seven decades with military power without understanding the country's experience in WW2.

The war had a huge impact on the national psyche of all participants, including the US, Britain and France. But if you look at the cost in terms of lives lost, the western losses bear no comparison whatever to the Soviet Union.

For example, America saw one in every 300 of its population killed in the war, Britain one in every 100. France was one in every 69. But that figure for the Soviet Union was one in every 7. They lost nearly 30 million people, many of them deliberately slaughtered during occupation by the Nazis, many from starvation.

In my view it was this cataclysmic experience by the peoples of the USSR which informs the history, especially the Cold War period, of the last 70 years. Russia continues in a state of xenophobic paranoia towards the west.

That in my view is the essence of their military preoccupation.

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    That is actually a very good answer that deserves more upvotes. WW2, the great patriotic war in Russia, is to this day a defining experience to Russia. Google the "Immortal Regiment", which still today is a cornerstone of the yearly Victory Day parade in Moscow. e.g. bbc.com/news/in-pictures-36249817 – Tom Feb 9 '17 at 14:21
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    @Tom, in my opinion and my own observations (from inside Russia), the experience of the WW2 is not so important nowadays for the majority of russian people. To a great extent, the xenophobic paranoia towards the west is artificially maintained by the government in order to support an idea of an "external enemies" who is allegely responsible for all the problems. Among others, this is not the least of the excuses that is used to justify the stern oppression of political opposition. What about "Immortal Regiment", it has became mostly a hollow ritual that is organized and financed by officials. – m. vokhm Feb 13 '17 at 8:22
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    @m.vokhm I certainly do not believe that the current regime is a paragon of virtue - far from it. However the question asked why the other European countries spent vastly less on defence than Russia. The substantive answer undoubtedly lies in the post WW2 history of the country. However I am also not in disagreement with the point of your argument. It suits Putin's purposes to maintain the spectre of western monsters, just as it did the Soviet leaders. But the military tradition owes it's origins to the climate of the late 1940s. – WS2 Feb 13 '17 at 12:49
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    WWII no doubt set up some of the geopolitical landscape for the cold war, but even without the experience Russian had in WWII, It would only be natural for them to want to have a military that can stand up to their rivals in the west. The reason other European countries don't have as large of a military is because the US will come to their aid if need be. This answer proposes an alternative explanation to that, but it doesn't do anything to convince me that the alternative explanation is more valid than the obvious one. – Sam I am says Reinstate Monica Feb 13 '17 at 21:10
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    @m.vokhm my experience from talking to actual Russians is that WW2 is still much more present there than it is in the West. Everyone has a story to tell of their parents or grandparents, many of which don't end well. Many Russians can name some of the heroes of the Red Army and their stories - and their heroes are not the ones that killed 20 Nazis, but the ones the threw themselves on a machine gun to buy ten seconds for their comrades to survive. The difference in what defines the war and the heroes is astonishing. – Tom Feb 14 '17 at 13:05
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Given that these countries spend so much on defense, Why do these countries seek US help/alliance to counter Russia?

Because Russia has a cheaper military than Europe does. According to Wikipedia, Russia has 3,364,000 members of the military. By your numbers, the United Kingdom is second in military spending in that group, but they only have 248,250 members of the military. France is further behind in spending but has 355,250 members of the military. Turkey spends the least on that list but has 991,500 members of the military.

By spending, these European countries are not that far behind Russia. And combined, they spend more. But by personnel, all four combined are still smaller than Russia.

It's unclear on what Russia gets out of having such a large military. By personnel, it's sixth (and larger than the United States). Perhaps it is as simple as that they can. Because they spend less per person, they can get more bang for their buck (or ruble).

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    It's also possible that while, for example, the UK equips each soldier to the tune of say £20,000, while Russia may only equip to say £1000 – SGR Feb 8 '17 at 15:08
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    During both World Wars, Russia has relied on a tactic of superiority through overwhelming numbers. There have been stories of the Russian Army sending soldiers in pairs into Stalingrad, where the second soldier was intended to pick up the rifle off the first soldier should they fall. The Russian Army being so big simply is a leftover effect from those days. – Nzall Feb 8 '17 at 15:11
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    It's a different military doctrine (in large part, stemming from cultural and socioeconomic objective conditions). Small,, well equipped, professional army vs. large, conscript, less well equipped one. Slightly out-of place when talking about military, but think k-strategy vs. r-strategy in reproductive biology – user4012 Feb 8 '17 at 15:12
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    @Nzall A quick google search indicates that didn't actually happen, despite its depiction in a movie. – stannius Feb 8 '17 at 17:46
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    Another reason Russia might favor quantity over quality is the sheer size of territory they have to protect. Being able to station less well-equipped soldiers around the whole country is likely considered preferable to being able to station more well-equipped soldiers to only specific parts of the country. – IllusiveBrian Feb 13 '17 at 1:28
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Russia is a much larger country, geographically. It has more border to defend and wants to maintain the capability to fight on two fronts.

The UK and France maintain strategic nuclear defence capabilities, which are the final safeguard against an invasion.

Despite the absolute spending values, the EU militaries are generally higher-tech than the Russian military. Russia spends a lot more on conscripts, so it has a numerically larger force that may not be as effective.

Examples: https://news.usni.org/2017/01/06/russia-pulling-carrier-admiral-kuznetsov-mediterranean "The loss of the fighters [in accidents] and the lack of any real military effect from the carrier highlighted problems with Russia’s sole carrier and gaps in its naval aviation abilities".

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2016/10/21/russian-carrier-plagued-by-technical-problems/ (yes, probably a biased source, but still)

  • Russian carrier plagued by 90s. Up-vote for finally taking into account geography. – Sanctus Feb 13 '17 at 20:32
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In the specific case of Germany, they are still bound by the Treaty on the Final Settlement with Respect to Germany

Some examples of the limitations set:

  • Armed Forces of no more than 370,000 personnel - of whom at most 345,000 were to be in the Army and Air Force
  • No manufacture, possession or control of NBC weapons
  • Full application of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty to the whole of re-united Germany
  • No foreign armies and/or nuclear weapons may be stationed in the area of the former GDR and Berlin
  • 4
    The Bundeswehr (armed forces of Germany) currently has only 180,000 soldiers, so they are far below that 370,000 soldiers limit. The number was higher until 2011 when Germany suspended mandatory conscription, but still far below the limit. – Philipp Feb 8 '17 at 12:55
  • > No foreign armies and/or nuclear weapons may be stationed in the area of the former GDR and Berlin: wouldn't that counter your own argument (for why germany cannot spend more on defense)? as that limitation calls for the defense in the former gdr to be provided by native germans. so it should cause MORE defense spending rather than LESS defense spending. – dannyf Feb 8 '17 at 13:24
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    What is NBC?... – Reinstate Monica Feb 8 '17 at 14:34
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    @David Grinberg, Nuclear, Biological, Chemical – BobT Feb 8 '17 at 14:38
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    @dannyf The GDR is a relatively small area bordering mostly with Poland, who are Germany's ally. On the other side of the country, they mostly have a border with France, who since WW2 have been one of West/United Germany's closest Allies. As such, Russia would have to invade Poland first before reaching the GDR area of Germany, or go through the Czech Republic/Slovakia, where they would hit a non-GDR area first that allies can be stationed in. – SGR Feb 9 '17 at 8:45
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There are several possible reasons

1) Military spending may not be a good indicator of military capability and it is not necessary easy to directly compare domestic spending between different countries, especially when currency values are volatile and relationships between state and private business are non-transparent.

2) Most European countries do not see all out war with Russia (or anybody) as a viable strategy eg even if you spend enough to guarantee that you would win any hypothetical conflict it is still something to be avoided at all costs ie the economic and human cost would be unacceptable regardless of who 'wins'.

3) Headline military spending may have political implications and governments may wish to inflate or deflate apparent military spending for reasons of political expediency.

4) Arms races end up being a wasteful battle of economic attrition. There is a strong argument that the USSR ended up being economically crippled by trying to keep up with the USA in a meaningless battle of weapons spending. Many governments may decide that adequate military resources are better value for money than a futile pursuit of overwhelming dominance.

5) There is a growing feeling that military brute force is at best a very unreliability means of achieving strategic objectives in the modern world for example the invasion of Iraq was a strategic failure despite an overwhelming military advantage.

6) GDP does not necessarily indicate how much cash any given government has available to spend as this depends on factors like taxation levels and government debt.

7) Governments may decide that 'smart' spending on intelligence, strategic deterrents and high quality rapid deployment forces is better value for money than vast legions of mediocre mechanised infantry for a hypothetical war which nobody wants.

  • Not to mention that the more openly violent the government is, the more violence it needs to maintain that state of things. You wouldn't want a rebellion that's stronger than your armed forces (or even a decent fraction of your armed forces). – Luaan Feb 9 '17 at 13:03
  • @Luaan, sure, USA is top-feared – Sanctus Feb 13 '17 at 20:37
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I suspect military spending is based more on geography than on GDP or population. Take a look at a map. UK, France & Germany are (relatively) small countries surrounded by close allies. Turkey is much worse off, sharing borders with Syria, Iraq and Iran. Russia is a huge country surrounded by former Soviet republics (many of whom it has a strained relationship with) and potential nuclear enemies (China and North Korea). If I were them, I'd want a large military too.

4

Why don't the other countries of Europe maintain massive military as Russia does?

Which non European country provide practically free defensive services in Europe?

If you get someone dumb enough to do it for yo for free, why spend your treasure and blood?

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    The US has historically (since Suez) preferred for Europe to depend on it for defense rather than build up a force that might independently challenge US interests. – pjc50 Feb 8 '17 at 14:36
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    US defense of Europe isn't about "buying off" Europe, it's part of the US's postwar approach to multipolar international relations. Russia and China consider themselves superpowers and are not amenable to being "bought" and certainly not to having US troops stationed in them. Have you considered why the US "defends" Vietnam, South Korea and Taiwan? – pjc50 Feb 8 '17 at 15:37
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    (I'm not saying I agree with US hegemonisation but at least it's an ethos) – pjc50 Feb 8 '17 at 15:40
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    Nothing is free. The US didn't do this out of the goodness of their heart. Their military protection let them get away with many things that might otherwise not have been supported by other countries. Spending this much on military power was always a business decision in the end. – Sebastiaan van den Broek Feb 9 '17 at 1:08
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    It is rather arguable that the US provides free defense. Among other things, it is now a not-so-very-secret that during the Cold War, US strategy was to sacrifice almost all of Germany and stop the invading Red Army at the Rhine river. The "defense of Europe" is a heroic tale, but the actual reason for the US interest in Europe is geo-political - if it can tie down Russia in Europe, it can act more freely elsewhere around the world. Which is exactly what happened. – Tom Feb 9 '17 at 14:15
2

One aspect that hasn't been mentioned in other posts: There are historic and economic reasons for Russia to maintain a large military. During the cold war, up until around 1990, both sides in Europe maintained large military forces in the face of a mutually perceived threat. That perception aligned nicely with power and economic interests, in their specific form, on both sides. Western peace researchers coined the word of the military-industrial complex to describe the power and influence network lobbying for military spending in the West; in the Soviet Union the Red Army was held in high public regard in Russia, having heroically saved the country in WW II, and wielded significant power in the political system. The high cost of maintaining such a large military posed a significant burden on the comparatively badly developed and inefficient Soviet economy.

With the end of the cold war and the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact there was a general expectation of a "peace dividend": Finally, some of the enormous funds previously needed for the vast army could be redirected to more productive ends.

Unfortunately things are not quite so easy. It turned out that maintaining an army is just one form of consumptive spending. The army is economically not much different from other inflated administrations. It is, if you want, social aid, paid for people who polish tanks and man essentially useless military bases. Much the same can be said for the industrial infrastructure needed for the military. Stephen J. Blank from the Strategic Studies Institute described the trouble of unwinding the military economy of the Soviet Union/Russia in 1995 as follows:

We must also consider that many defense industries are company towns with responsibilities for the full range of social amenities that their workers and staffs enjoy. If they crashed due to an explosion of economic rationality, massive unemployment and immediate impoverishment would take place, undermining local governments and Moscow.Other countries pay unemployed people to pick up garbage in parks, instead. The effect is the same.1

When the Eastern European Soviet bases were disbanded, thousands of military personnel went home, without really having anything to do, without good education or experience outside of being a grunt who did what they were told. They were not assets; they were liabilities, socially and economically. It turned out that, as often is the case, the disruptive effects of a quick economic change were larger than the positive net effects the eventual equilibrium was predicted to have. Even in West Germany there were palpable local economic effects in places where U.S. bases were closed and abandoned. Mayors would lobby for keeping them open, as economical assets to their region.

But it was obvious that the well-developed, efficient economies in Western Europe were better able to absorb hundreds of thousands of released ex-military within a decade or so.

I'd say the negative effects of scaling down the Russian armed forces for the economy, for the support of the president in the political system, and for public morale are main factors why Russia still has an inflated military.


One remark about military strength. Is it militarily necessary to maintain armed forces of a million soldiers? Almost certainly not. The idea of hundreds of thousands of soldiers marching through Europe, or into China, or defending against a massive land attack by the NATO borders on the absurd. This is not the modern threat scenario. This is not what modern warfare looks like, if one considers the conflicts past WW II. Modern defense of national or supranational interests is typically a small-scale, targeted, asymmetrical affair. Even a comparatively massive operation like the invasion of Iraq in 2003 involved just 160,000 Western soldiers. The half million poorly equipped Iraqi soldiers never had a chance; the immediate military aspect of the operation was decidedly asymmetric. The long-term aftermath was asymmetrical as well, if differently. Armed forces of a million are essentially useless in the 21st century. They are maintained for social and internal power reasons more than anything else, and of course because of Parkinson's law: An administration stays inflated even past the original reason for its existence. Interestingly, Parkinson quoted the number of the British Navy's military and civil workforce before and after the First World War as evidence for his theory.

It is also probable that the cost and strength in numbers of the Russian army leads to an inflated threat perception. All the problems we know exist in Western armies, like unqualified personnel, problems with new weapons, problems keeping equipment operational etc, all exist on the other side as well. To what degree? How would less transparency, worse education, more corruption and less public control influence the quality of an army and its equipment? It's anybody's guess.


1Stephen J. Blank: REFORM AND THE REVOLUTION IN RUSSIAN DEFENSE ECONOMICS. 1995. (Retrieved from strategicstudiesinstitute.army.mil/pdffiles/PUB166.pdf).

  • Don't have the cites, but there definitely were open discussions in Russia in the past around negative economic impact of scaling down the military. – user4012 Feb 13 '17 at 16:02
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Because the states you list have very expensive socialistic welfare states and democracy; and therefore politicians in those states have deemed entitlement spending to be more pressing then defense spending. While Russia has a patina of democracy, it's better understood as an oligarchy that serves and protects the rich. They need the defense.

To illustrate this point

Russia spends about $900 per capita on health services for Russians. France, close to $5000.

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    How do you extend this argument to the US, which has a much larger perange capita spend on the military and a much larger per capita spend on health care? – Ben Feb 8 '17 at 21:22
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    @Ben you are missing a few things. First, the US spends more on healthcare, but the US government doesn't. It's coming out of the citizens pockets. The amount the US government spends per capita is much less than say France, a significant amount. And the GDP per capita of the US is more. – K Dog Feb 8 '17 at 21:56
  • @KDog And the government spending doesn't come out of the citizens pockets? How does GDP per capita enter into this at all? If you want to make a meaningful comparison, take a look at the total taxation (including inflation and other sneaky taxes) compared to expenditure. France has higher taxation per capita than the US (and if you care so much about GDP, a much higher taxation as a proportion of GDP - around 50% and 30%, respectively), and that ignores money printing. – Luaan Feb 9 '17 at 13:01
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    The European "welfare states" have cut almost all of their social spendings in the last 20 years, and instead of being wasteful as neocons paint it, those social spendings are what gave Europe peace and prosperity for the past 70 years. More importantly, Russia has extensive social spendings that are simply not so visible, like for example the pension age being as low as 50 if you work in the military or oil industry. – Tom Feb 9 '17 at 14:18
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    @KDog "but the US government doesn't." Very funny! "At $5,960 per capita, government spending on health care costs in the U.S. was the highest of any nation in 2013, including countries with universal health programs such as Canada, Sweden and the United Kingdom." – NPSF3000 Feb 9 '17 at 20:44
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Russia sees NATO advancing east in violation of agreements they thought they had at the end of the Cold war.

Russia is doing quite well from its oil and natural resources (except for the recent oil price crash) and has no interest in using the wealth to annex and prop up former soviet states in eastern Europe (although they do want their port in Crimea). The Europeans understand this and so do not consider Russia a threat.

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    I think, even you don't believe what you have said here. – user4514 Feb 9 '17 at 6:53
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    Actually, there's a lot of truth to it. Russia has a history of being invaded by Europeans, but aside the Hitler-Stalin Pact, has never invaded Europe unprovoked. Their army is less suited to offensive warfare than the mobile, fast-intervention army of NATO. There's nothing to gain for Russia by starting a war in Europe, and any fearmongering of them planning to do so is always, inevitable, by someone who profits from higher military spending. – Tom Feb 9 '17 at 14:27
  • @Tom - There's roughly 0 truth in the second paragraph. The Russian economy is so bad they've been celebrating recent 1% growth numbers, they have invaded 2 neighbors in the last 10 years, and are threatening several others. Europeans are quite scared. – T.E.D. Feb 10 '17 at 16:56
  • "aside the Hitler-Stalin Pact, has never invaded Europe unprovoked" What "provoked" Russian invasion of Finland and Poland in 1939 then, or say invasion of France in third anti-Napolen coalition? – mvmn Feb 13 '17 at 13:32
  • @mvmn, you can start with en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Munich_Agreement and then check other sources – Sanctus Feb 13 '17 at 20:44

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