Russian President Vladimir Putin staged a grand unveiling of new “invincible” nuclear weapons that could strike at the heart of America to thunderous applause in Moscow on Thursday, pledging they’d make U.S. missile defense technology obsolete.
But the fancy new war machines, including nuclear-powered low-flying cruise missiles and long-range undersea drones, do practically nothing to change the Cold War-legacy logic of Mutually Assured Destruction, arms control experts told VICE News — largely because unstoppable nuclear weapons solve a problem Russia didn’t actually have.
Instead, Russia-watchers said, Putin's nuclear bluster was primarily a flashy campaign stunt at a time when Russia’s economy continues to slog along — and the absence of any credible challenger in this month’s presidential election risks embarrassing the Russian leader with lackluster turnout despite an inevitable victory.
“This is his campaign speech,” James Collins, former U.S. ambassador to Russia, told VICE News. “I see it in the political context of an election coming up in two weeks.”
Putin has long cast himself as Russia’s greatest defender from aggressive Western countries seeking to press their advantage after winning the Cold War, and sold himself to the Russian public as the leader capable of standing up to arrogant, hypocritical foreign powers led by Washington.
“How does that affect the strategic balance? Not at all.”
Now, as Russia’s March 18 election draws near, Putin has refused to debate his domestic opponents. Instead, he’s made his case to the public, analysts said, by campaigning against an opponent worthy of his towering stature: America.
“Putin has been running against the United States in elections for 10 years,” said Stephen Sestanovich, who was ambassador-at-large and special adviser to the secretary of state for the new independent states of the former Soviet Union under former U.S. President Bill Clinton.
“Two-and-a-half weeks before the election, the primary audience of any speech, is, of course, the voters he wants to turn out,” Sestanovich told VICE News.
Putin described the new nukes as a response to an aggressive U.S. missile defense effort, an “American machine” encircling Russia in Alaska, California, Poland, Romania, Japan, South Korea and on 35 U.S. ships “deployed to regions in close proximity to Russia’s borders.”
“If we do not do something, eventually this will result in the complete devaluation of Russia’s nuclear potential,” Putin said. “All of our missiles could simply be intercepted.”
But the truth is that Russia doesn’t need newfangled unstoppable nuclear delivery systems — because its existing arsenal of 7,000 some-odd nukes could already overwhelm American defense systems, arms control experts said.
“How does that affect the strategic balance? Not at all,” said Joshua Pollack, a nuclear weapons expert and editor of the Nonproliferation Review.
“No existing or prospective missile defense had any chance in making a dent in Russia’s ability to retaliate against the United States with nuclear weapons,” Pollack told VICE News. “From that point of view, this is pushing on an open door. It doesn’t add anything.”
Pollack said if Russia actually does field these next generation nuclear weapons, it would complicate future arms control negotiations, which rely on careful definitions of what each side can deploy as well as agreements on how those forces will be monitored.
“Putin is doubling down not just on nationalism and militarism, but on a sense that Russia is basically alone in the world, under threat, and needs to show that it has sharp, sharp teeth.”
Yet more than anything else, Putin’s speech showed just how tense relations between Washington and Moscow have become, across a wide range of issues, long-time Russia watchers said.
Putin’s announcement follows reports that U.S. forces killed and injured roughly 300 Russian mercenaries in Syria in February, and as a long-running low-grade conflict in eastern Ukraine grinds on along Russia’s border. In December, Washington angered Moscow by approving shipments of lethal weapons to the government of Ukraine to support its fight against pro-Russian separatists. The first delivery is now expected within weeks.
His unveiling of advanced nuclear weapons reveals the mindset of a leader who sees his country surrounded and locked in zero-sum competition with the west, Mark Galeotti, an expert on Russian security issues, told VICE News.
“Putin is doubling down not just on nationalism and militarism, but on a sense that Russia is basically alone in the world, under threat, and needs to show that it has sharp, sharp teeth,” Galeotti said by phone from Prague.
“For the foreseeable future, it looks that the US-Russia agenda will be limited to just one item: war prevention,” tweeted Dmitri Trenin, director of the Carnegie Moscow Center. “Good luck to us all.”