In the 1960s, when Selin was issuing his mordant warning, the US had a hugely expensive arsenal of one thousand intercontinental Minuteman missiles, originally justified by the threat of a ‘missile gap’ in the Soviets’ favour, despite classified intelligence reports which made it clear that no such gap existed. At least 40 per cent of the Minutemen were equipped with faulty guidance systems; the air force generals were aware of the problem but preferred to ignore it. For many years afterwards, US intelligence agencies continued to insist that the Soviets were able to match the US and its allies militarily and even economically. This was the justification given for commensurate defence spending by the US. Half a century later, we know that the Soviet Union was even then rotting from within, with a sclerotic leadership presiding over armed forces enfeebled by drunkenness and poor training. When the end finally came, troops in the elite divisions stationed in East Germany, so long a spectre haunting Nato, were revealed as an undernourished, demoralised rabble eager to sell their uniforms to get money for food.
Today, once again, Russia is the presiding threat. Its ‘aggressive actions’, according to the closing communiqué of December’s Nato summit in London, ‘constitute a threat to Euro-Atlantic security’. Congress has voted for $738 billion in military spending for 2020: $38 billion more than Trump initially asked for and the highest ever peacetime military budget. The other Nato members, under US pressure, have pledged to maintain their own military spending at 2 per cent of GDP. This despite the fact that Russia’s overall military expenditure is comparatively tiny: in dollar terms somewhere between $45 and $68 billion (depending on the rouble-dollar conversion rate), and in decline since 2016. What’s more, it seems that much of this allocated money goes missing: in 2011 Novaya Gazeta reported that the Ministry of Defence was Russia’s most corrupt government department, ahead of strong competition from the ministries of transport, economic development, education and health. (So much of the defence budget was being stolen or spent on bribes that the armed forces had to buy Israeli drones.) But it is clearly not in Putin’s political interest to advertise military weakness.