Although the United States and its allies devote a great deal of money and effort to countering and deterring Russia’s military presence around the globe, there’s a reasonable argument to be made that it’s Russia’s stagnant economy, not the threat of kinetic force, the keeps Russian aggression at bay. With a paltry $61 billion per year devoted to defense (as compared to America’s more than $700 billion), Russia is forced to devote their resources to programs that offer the best return, in terms of international prestige, on investment. This focus manifests in high profile programs like Russia’s new nuclear weapons that dwarf America’s in destructive yield, while other elements of their defense infrastructure, like their sole aircraft carrier, remain underfunded and poorly maintained.
There’s no denying that Russia’s government could use an influx of some cash in order to better fund Vladimir Putin’s long-touted modernization efforts, but with longstanding sanctions in place as a result of the nation’s military annexation of Crimea in 2014, along with new sanctions falling into place with some regularity as a result of Russia’s hybrid warfare efforts against the United States and its allies, there seems to be little hope for economic reprieve on the Russian horizon — that is, until a South Korean company recently released footage of what appears to be the shipwreck of the Russian cruiser Dmitrii Donskoi — a ship that vanished beneath the Pacific some 113 years ago carrying a claimed 200 tons of gold.
That massive payload is said to be worth more than $132 billion on today’s market — assuming it’s real — and based on international law, the Russian government may have the right to claim as little as half or as much as all of that projected bounty. That would mean the Russian government stands to secure more than twice their entire annual defense budget in one fell swoop if this discovery proves as lucrative as the Shinil Group, the South Korean company that announced the discovery, claims.
Of course, there are still a number of significant ifs involved. First and foremost is the legitimacy of this find. Over the years, many Russian researchers have been skeptical of their government’s claims that the Dmitrii Donskoi went down with that massive fortune on board. Many have suggested that those claims were a part of a larger misdirection campaign. The ship itself, which was steam powered and armed with four eight-inch guns, 14 six-inch guns, and four torpedo tubes, was said to have participated in the battle of Tsushima against Japanese forces in 1904, sustaining damage and fleeing north with its treasure on board. A day later, under pursuit from Japanese ships, the ship’s commander, Captain First Rank Ivan Lebedev, gave the order to scuttle the vessel, to keep it from falling into enemy hands. The crew evacuated to the nearby island of Ulleung.
Further fueling skepticism of this new claim is the revelation that another South Korean firm reportedly found the same shipwreck in 2003, though they opted not to pursue it claiming to have found no traces of the gold. What really separates the Shinil Group from others in this instance, it would seem, is their willingness to go about recovery operations despite the risks associated with its depth (some 1,423 feet) and the understanding that the South Korean government will claim 10% of anything recovered and the Russian government could feasibly take them to court over the rest.
At with more than $130 billion on the line, one can be sure the Russian government will be interested.
You can watch footage from the submersible that explored the wreck of the Dmitrii Donskoi below: