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 behaviour 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 harness they later recovered, according to Norwegian media outlets.
Researchers say that the harness could have carried weapons or cameras, triggering new speculations over a sea mammal special operations program the Russian navy is believed to have pursued for years. While the Russian Defense Ministry has previously denied the existence of such a programme, the same ministry published an ad in 2016, seeking three male and two female bottlenose dolphins, offering a total sum of US$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 a series of 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 on Monday prompt the question if Russia is punching above its weight. While the United States accounted for 36 per cent of global military expenditure last year, Russia only spent 3.4 per cent - less than rapidly growing China, as well as Saudi Arabia, India and even France.
The Russian military is still considered to be among 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 over 1 million active troops, compared to Germany's roughly 180,000 and Russia's military spending last year was still 27 per cent higher than 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, which resulted in a surge in Russian expenditure, but annual spending has substantially fallen over the last two years after the project was completed.
Other US foes often cited in Washington, such as Iran, similarly fade in comparison to the US military. The United States spent 50 times more on defense last year than Iran, for instance.
Meanwhile, in the European Union, the recent Russian modernisation drive and broader concerns over the Kremlin's reach triggered an uptick in military spending that is only now fully materialising in statistics, the researchers said Monday.
Increased military spending in the European Union may also be due to growing U.S. pressure to comply with their NATO obligation of 2 per cent of GDP, which many member states do not meet. The SIPRI figures may put countries that haven't sufficiently increased spending, such as Germany, once again in an awkward position. In Eastern Europe, for instance, Russia accounted for almost 90 per cent of all military spending last year, highlighting the dependence of that region on the US 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 like beluga spy whales they could do worse than asking their US 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 its foes continue to be jealous of until today.
According to the US 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.