Data visualization explores Putin’s re-election: A potential arms race?

The Russian strongman is back! Valdimir Putin reclaimed his position as Russia’s commander-in-chief in an emotional and vehement presidential victory speech on Sunday.

Fifty-nine-year-old Putin held office – as an imposing and arguably inspirational leader – between 2000 and 2008, renouncing his leadership due to constitutional limitations preventing a third consecutive term. Ally Dimitry Medvedev replaced Putin on the understanding that he would not run for a second term, therefore paving the way for Putin’s return in 2012.

Given Putin’s previous public relations tendencies – elaborately generating and maintaining an image of toughness, authority and control – is Russia’s much-talked-about military spending set to increase following his emphatic return to power?

Putin’s strong words directed at his, and Russia’s, doubters suggest that increased military spending is a possibility, as he looks to reassert his political dominance: “We showed that no one and nothing can tell us what to do. We were able to save ourselves from political provocations that have just one aim: to overturn the Russian state and usurp power. Such attempts will not succeed on our land. They won’t succeed!”

However, former defence minister, Sergei Ivanov, previously stated that restraining any increases in military spending was a priority. Speaking in 2007, Ivanov stated that Russia had no intention of reigniting a military arms race, or returning to Soviet levels of military expenditure – which were officially recorded at around 30 percent of GDP: “We don’t intend to increase the military budget to such a degree that it becomes a backbreaking burden on the entire economy, on social policy. We shall not step on this rake a second time.”

But perhaps Putin has other ideas…

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Data source

Putin takes out 2012 Russian presidential elections, emphatically and controversially

Despite protests over illegitimate voting processes, with Communist leader Gennady Zyuganov (Putin’s closest rival) refusing to formerly acknowledge the outcome, Putin’s victory was resounding.

Polling stations awarded Putin a landslide win, with 63.42 percent of the vote. Gennady Zyuganov was distant second with 17.25 percent, tycoon businessman Mikhail Prokhorov secured 7.29 percent, populist candidate Vladimir Zhirinovsky polled 7.19 percent, while former Upper House speaker Sergei Mironov received the support of just 3.72 percent of voters.

Russia’s military expenditure as a percentage of GDP in 2010

So, having vanquished his challengers and denounced his opponents, will Putin flex his restored political muscle and bolster Russia’s armed forces?

According to data provided by the World Bank (graphed above), the Russian Federation holds (as of 2010) one of the world’s highest military expenditures as a percentage of GDP. Switzerland is included in this data set because its current and historically low military spend adds a sense of perspective.

Oman, Saudi Arabia and Israel have dominated military spending as a percentage of GDP throughout the nineties and naughties. Angola’s military expenditure accounted for more than 17 percent of GDP in 1993 and 1999 due to flaring civil unrest and military rule.

However, because this data set analyzes military spend as a percentage, Putin would regard most of these military budgets as irrelevant – most of these nations’ total military disbursement and capabilities pale compared to Putin’s.

Putin’s attention will most likely rest on current and emerging military-economic powers of global scale. Developing superpowers, India and China, spend 2.6 and 2.2 percent of GDP on military exploits (as of 2010). Russia has them covered, devoting around 4 percent of GDP to military activities. However the USA, arguably the only current world superpower, still outspends Russia, committing almost five percent of GDP to its armed forces. But let’s stop talking in percentages of GDP only. What is America’s total military expenditure compared to Russia’s? And what would Putin have to put his people through to match the USA’s level of spending?

Russia’s total military expenditure for 2011

Immediately, the outlook is grim for Putin – assuming he has aspirations to compete in a military spending war (hmmm… poor choice of words).

The USA commits a staggering $698 billion to its armed forces per year (4.8% of GDP). In addition, China’s total annual military pledge is also enormous – second behind the USA in absolute terms ($119 billion per annum). Russia spends, an almost inconsequential by comparison, $59 billion per year – level-pegging with the UK and France.

To reach a comparable level of spending, Putin would have to multiply Russia’s current annual military budget by nearly 12 – that’s 48 percent of Russia’s annual GDP. That seems less than unlikely.

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