Russian President Vladimir Putin’s surprise dissertation on Russia’s new strategic weaponry, attached to Thursday’s state of the nation address, mixed some well-known technological advances with a few genuine revelations. But the technical specifics are perhaps less important than the message Putin sent to the U.S.: The cost of a conventional war remains far too high. Putin’s big point was that Russian nukes have myriad ways to penetrate U.S. missile shields, and will have many more before too long. The nuclear-capable hardware the Russian leader advertised with computer-generated videos can be ranged from the well-known and combat-ready to the iffy. The RS-28 Sarmat intercontinental ballistic missile probably has the ability to bypass existing U.S. anti-missile defense systems — if only because they aren’t dense enough. The Avangard hypersonic boost glide vehicle, known to experts as Object 4202, is designed to avoid shields by flying in the upper reaches of earth’s atmosphere at a supersonic speed. It can fly at Mach 20, “moving toward the target like a meteorite, a burning ball, a ball of fire,” Putin marveled. Both are ready or near ready to deploy. Further behind is the underwater drone Putin described, known as the Status 6 strategic nuclear torpedo, which would be much harder to track than submarines. It’s not news to Americans, though: It even got a mention in the recently published U.S. Nuclear Posture Review. “Typically the U.S. doesn’t declassify anything to complain about it until it’s already deployed,” says Michael Kofman, a military analyst who is a fellow at the Kennan Institute in Washington, D.C.
Putin’s unveiled three other weapons for the first time. The Kinzhal (Dagger), an air-launched missile constructively similar to the ground-launched Iskander; a ground-based laser weapon; and a low-flying, nuclear-powered cruise missile that can supposedly dodge both hills and missile defense systems. That inspired some disbelief — a nuclear engine is heavy and difficult to fit in a missile. Of the three, only the Kinzhal appears to be close to being commissioned. According to Kofman, Putin failed to mention two new weapons that had earlier created some buzz in the expert community: the Tsirkon anti-ship supersonic missile and the RS-26 Rubezh ICBM. “This is the concerning story: Russian weapons will disappear from the news for a long time which suggests that they’re making progress,” Kofman says. Putin’s boast about the many young scientists leaving behind Soviet designs while building next-generation technology was only partly true. There’s nothing particularly new about an ICBM such as Sarmat, and nuclear-powered missiles and torpedoes were in development both in the Soviet Union and in the U.S. in the 1950s and 1960s. Back then, however, the technology was prohibitively costly. Putin is right that only relatively recent technological advances made them, as well as hypersonic missiles, feasible. Experts can argue about whether Putin oversold the new weapons’ supposed invulnerability to U.S. missile defense systems, especially those that, like the weapons themselves, may still be in development. U.S. officials have already claimed that the country was fully prepared for whatever Putin could throw at it. The problem with these arguments is that they bring alive the terrifying reality of a nuclear war between the U.S. and Russia; they provide symmetry to Putin’s thinly veiled threats.
The nature of those threats, meanwhile, is more important than the credibility of Putin’s claims about the power of his superweapons. It would be wrong to read this part of Putin’s state of the nation address as electioneering ahead of Russia’s March 18 presidential ballot. Putin’s “victory” in the fake election is in no doubt, so he doesn’t really need a nuclear argument for Russians. Besides, he has long been more interested in foreign policy than in domestic matters. His message is aimed squarely at the U.S., which, in its recent doctrinal documents, has revived the idea of superpower competition. Says Kofman: The U.S. said across the board that we’re going to take back dominance, and negotiate only from a position of strength. [Defense Secretary James] Mattis threw down the gauntlet, and Putin picked it up saying, Thank you, I accept your challenge, here is my message back to you after reading your National Defense Strategy and Nuclear Posture Review. Putin and his generals know well that they cannot win a conventional war against the U.S. The Russian military, of course, wouldn’t be as easy to defeat as a handful of Russian mercenaries were last month at Deir-ez-Zor, but it would still be an unequal battle: Experience, superior equipment and numerical strength are all on the U.S. side. So Putin is stressing the increasing quality of his nuclear deterrent. Putin is showing his teeth from a position of weakness, seeking to make the U.S. understand that its strength is irrelevant in dealing with him. It’s unlikely, however, that the U.S. will read his message as he intends: It will want to keep its position of strength and more likely engage in a new arms race than sit down to talk about arms control and some accompanying deal to divide up spheres of influence. The new weapons are Putin’s gift to Western generals: They will show them during budget discussions, as Sir Nicholas Carter, chief of the U.K. General Staff, did with a boastful 2013 Russian video earlier this year. They’ll get more money for a war Putin doesn’t intend to fight — and his plea to be accepted as an equal, reiterated in the state of the nation speech, will likely be ignored again.