Russian president Vladimir Putin stood before the country's federal assembly on Thursday to introduce an animation depicting a host of supposedly new atomic weapons that the Russian military is developing in order to boost the country's nuclear deterrence.
"Any use of nuclear weapons against Russia or its allies, any kind of attack, will be regarded as a nuclear attack against Russia and in response we will take action instantaneously no matter what the consequences are," Putin said. "Nobody should have any doubt about that."
In fact, just one of the rockets, missiles and submarines in Putin's video is really new—and it's "batshit crazy," in the words of one American expert.
The animation, which Putin presented as part of the Russian president's annual state-of-the-union-style address, features five weapons. The Samrat intercontinental ballistic missile, the Project 4202 hypersonic glide vehicle, a long-range torpedo and the Kinzhal air-to-surface missile have all been in development for years. And the United States is developing, or already possesses, rough analogues to each.
"None of this will give Russia an advantage," Hans Kristensen, director of the Nuclear Information Project in Washington, DC, told me.
But the fifth weapon—a nuclear-powered cruise missile—was unknown to the public before Putin's speech. There were no prior reports of its development. The Trump administration's recently-released Nuclear Posture Review, which details major atomic-weapons developments, makes no mention of it.
"The nuclear-powered cruise missile is new—and batshit crazy," Jeffrey Lewis, a nuclear expert at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey, told me. Not only could the missile upset the balance of power between the United States and Russia, it would also pose a major danger to its own users.
The new missile is meant to avoid American missile-defenses, which are optimized for shooting down incoming ballistic missiles that fly high in the atmosphere and thus are easy to detect on radar. "We’ve developed new strategic weapons that don’t use ballistic trajectory at all, which means that missile defense will be useless against it," Putin said.
The cruise missile with its "nuclear-power energy unit" possesses advantages over conventionally-powered munitions. "It has unlimited range, so it can keep going like this forever," Putin said as the animation depicted a missile crossing the Atlantic Ocean and changing course to avoid US Navy warships, presumably equipped with anti-missile weapons.
"This is unheard of and no one has this system in the world," Putin said of the nuclear-powered missile. In fact, in the 1960s the US military worked on a cruise missile powered by a tiny and unsafe atomic reactor. The Pentagon canceled the project in 1964.
"It was an environmental nightmare," Lewis explained. Every time the military launched a nuclear-powered cruise missile, even in testing, it would've sent a potentially unstable reactor out into the world without many safeguards to prevent accidents.
But those risks might not deter Russia from developing an atomic-powered missile. "Putin doesn't have to worry about pesky environmentalists," Lewis said.
In showcasing such a dangerous weapon, Putin appears to be flirting with a major new arms race with the United States. "This will feed directly into the US nuclear and missile-defense lobby agenda and help them make their case for boosting US capabilities," Kristensen said, adding that he's "waiting for our guys to try to outdo him."