BERLIN — When Norwegian fishermen spotted a beluga whale last week, there was nothing that immediately indicated a national security threat.
But when the whale defied normal behavior and continued to harass their boats, the fishermen spotted a strange harness wrapped around the whale’s body. “Equipment of St. Petersburg,” read an inscription on the harness they later recovered, according to Norwegian media outlets.
Researchers say that the harness could have carried weapons or cameras, triggering new speculations about a sea mammal special operations program that the Russian navy is believed to have pursued for years. Although the Russian Defense Ministry has denied the existence of such a program, the same ministry published an ad in 2016 seeking three male and two female bottlenose dolphins and offering a total of $24,000.
In this part of Europe, nobody would be surprised if the latest Norwegian discovery did indeed turn out to be the fallout of a military experiment gone wrong. Since the 2014 Russian annexation of Crimea, the Kremlin has been behind creepy reminders of the massive military apparatus lurking on Europe’s eastern outskirts: mystery submarines; unidentified jets that almost crashed with a passenger plane in at least one instance; and strange troop movements.
But numbers released by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) on Monday prompt the question of whether Russia is punching above its weight. Although the United States accounted for 36 percent of global military expenditures last year, Russia spent 3.4 percent — less than rapidly growing China, as well as Saudi Arabia, India and France.
The Russian military is still considered one of the world’s most powerful forces, which is why European defense strategists remain concerned that the country could theoretically overrun the continent within days. The Kremlin commands more than 1 million active troops, compared to Germany’s roughly 180,000, and Russia’s military spending last year was still 27 percent greater than it was about a decade ago.
But the numbers indicate that years of Russian military operations abroad, Western sanctions and falling global oil prices have left a mark. The Kremlin funded a major modernization program starting in 2010 that resulted in a surge in Russian expenditure, but annual spending has decreased substantially over the past two years after the project was completed.
Other U.S. foes often cited in Washington, such as Iran, similarly fade in comparison to the U.S. military. The United States spent 50 times as much on defense last year as Iran did, for instance.
Meanwhile, in the European Union, the recent Russian modernization drive and broader concerns about the Kremlin’s reach triggered an uptick in military spending that is only now fully materializing in statistics, the researchers said Monday.
Increased military spending in the European Union may also be a result of growing U.S. pressure to comply with the NATO obligation of 2 percent of gross domestic product, which many member states do not meet. The SIPRI figures may put countries that haven’t sufficiently increased spending, such as Germany, in an awkward position once again. In Eastern Europe, for instance, Russia accounted for almost 90 percent of all military spending last year, highlighting the dependence of that region on the U.S. military and, by extension, on NATO.
In the broader scheme of things, NATO supporters are likely to cite Monday’s figures as evidence that the alliance is keeping the peace in Eastern Europe.
And on a more granular scale, should the Norwegians want to learn more about training sea mammals such as beluga spy whales, they could do worse than asking their U.S. allies.
After all, it was the United States that spearheaded the use of sea mammals for military purposes in the 1950s, at the time backed by a budget that made its foes jealous.
According to the U.S. Navy, its dolphin and sea lion recruits are used to locate sea mines, retrieve objects from the ocean floor and scout the underwater approaches to beaches. They are not, however, involved in offensive operations.
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