June 18, 2024

“Everything needed for the front,” Russia’s finance minister declared, echoing a Soviet slogan from World War II as he talked about the government’s latest spending plans.

The government still calls its invasion of Ukraine a “special military operation,” but the new budget figures make clear that the economy is increasingly being restructured around war.

Nearly one-third of the country’s spending next year — roughly $109 billion — will be devoted to “national defense,” the government announced late last month, redirecting money that might otherwise have flowed to health care, education, roads and other sectors. More tellingly, 6% of the nation’s total output is being funneled toward Russia’s war machine, more than double what it was before the invasion.

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Since Russia sent soldiers across the border in February 2022, its economy has had to adapt to dramatic changes with astonishing speed. The European Union, its biggest trading partner, quickly broke economic relations, upending well-established supply chains and reliable sources of income from abroad. The United States used its financial might to freeze hundreds of billions of dollars in Russian assets and cut the country off from the global financial system.

Nineteen months later, the economic picture is decidedly mixed. The Russian economy has proved to be much more resilient than many Western governments assumed after imposing a punishing string of sanctions.

Moscow has found other buyers for its oil. It has pumped money into the economy at a rapid pace to finance its military machine, putting almost every available worker into a job and raising the size of weekly paychecks. Total output, which the Russian Central Bank estimates may rise as much as 2.5% this year, could outpace the EU and possibly even the United States.

Yet that is only part of the story. As Laura Solanko, a senior adviser at the Bank of Finland Institute for Economies in Transition, said: “When a country is at war, gross domestic product is a fairly poor measure of welfare.” Producing bullets adds to a country’s growth rate without necessarily improving the quality of life.

The insistent demand for foreign currency — to pay for imported goods or provide a safe investment — has also caused the value of the ruble to sink at a precipitous pace. Last week, it fell to a symbolic break point of 100 to the dollar, further fueling inflation and raising anxiety levels among consumers.

The spike in government spending and borrowing has seriously stressed an already overheated economy. The central bank rapidly raised interest rates to 13% over the summer, as annual inflation continued to climb. Higher rates, which make it more expensive for businesses to expand and consumers to buy on credit, is likely to slow growth.

Consumers are also feeling the squeeze for daily purchases. “Dairy products, especially butter, meat and even bread have gone up in price,” said Lidia Adreevna as she shopped and examined prices at an Auchan supermarket in Moscow. She blamed the central bank.

“Life changes,” she offered, “nothing stays forever, not love, or happiness.”

Other pensioners at the store also spoke about increases in meat and poultry prices, something almost half of Russians have noticed in the past month, according to survey data from the Moscow-based Public Opinion Foundation published Friday. Respondents also noted increases in the price of medicine and construction materials.

Moscow imposed a temporary ban on diesel and gasoline exports last month in an effort to ease shortages and slow rising energy prices, but the restrictions further reduced the amount of foreign currency coming into the country.

The exodus of funds is so worrying that the government has warned of reinstating controls on money leaving the country.

With a presidential election scheduled in March, President Vladimir Putin acknowledged last month that accelerating inflation fueled by a weakened ruble was a major cause of concern. Getting a handle on price increases may discourage the government from embarking on its usual preelection social spending.

Lower standards of living can be “uncomfortable even for an authoritarian government,” said Charles Lichfield, deputy director of the Atlantic Council’s Geoeconomics Center.

Since Russia imports a wide range of goods — from telephones and washing machines to cars, medicine and coffee — he said a devalued ruble makes “it more difficult for consumers to buy what they’re used to buying.”

The United States, the EU and countries allied with Ukraine have doggedly tried to cripple Russia with sweeping sanctions.

The impact was swift and sharp in the spring of 2022. The ruble tumbled, the central bank increased rates to 20% to attract investors, and the government imposed strict controls on capital to keep money inside the country.

But the ruble has since bounced back, and interest rates have come down. Russia found eager buyers elsewhere for its oil, which was selling at vastly discounted prices; liquefied natural gas; and other raw materials. More recently, Russia has become adept at evading the $60 per barrel price cap on oil imposed by the Group of 7 nations as global oil prices have once again started to rise.

China is among the nations that have stepped up to buy energy and sell goods to Russia that they previously might have exchanged with European nations. Trade with China rose at an annual rate of 32% in the first eight months of this year. Trade with India tripled in the first half of the year, and exports from Turkey rose nearly 89% over the same period.

Meanwhile, the war is gobbling up other parts of Russia’s budget aside from direct military spending. An additional 9.2% of the budget is slated for “national security,” which includes law enforcement. There is money for injured soldiers and for families of those killed in battle, and for “integrating new regions,” a reference to occupied territory in Ukraine.

Sergei Guriev, a Russian economist who fled the country in 2013 and is now provost at Sciences Po in Paris, said accurately assessing the Russian economy is difficult. The existing economic models were designed before the war and based on different assumptions, and the published budget figures are incomplete.

What that means for Russian households on a daily basis is harder to discern.

“Overall, it’s very hard to compare quality of life before and after the war,” Guriev said. “It’s hard to know what Russians think. People are afraid.”

c.2023 The New York Times Company

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