While Vladimir Putin boasted that his latest “invincible” nuclear weapons prove the U.S. and its allies have failed to contain Russia, the display of bravado risks a new arms race that his country is ill-equipped to win.
Putin earned a rare rebuke on Monday from President Donald Trump, who called him “irresponsible” for showing off the weapons in a speech to Russia’s Federal Assembly last week that was laced with anti-American rhetoric ahead of the March 18 presidential election. He played videos of warheads targeting what appeared to be a map of Florida, as he complained the U.S. repeatedly ignored Russian objections to its missile-defense shield.
“This was a signal to the West, the U.S. in particular, that Russia is ready for nuclear isolationism,” said Andrei Kortunov, head of the Russian International Affairs Council, a Kremlin-established research group. “Moscow is now openly stating that it’s prepared for the destruction of the system of strategic arms control that it and Washington built up over 50 years.”
With ties between Russia and the U.S. roiled by allegations of Kremlin meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential elections and deepening confrontation in Syria, the two powers risk a return to unbridled nuclear competition as the chances diminish of rescuing decades-old arms control agreements. Putin blamed the U.S. decision in 2002 to pull out of the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty and develop its global defense shield for prompting Russia to develop its new arsenal.
He devoted more than a third of his annual address to the weapons, using videos and animated charts to present high-speed underwater drones, cruise missiles with “practically unlimited range,” a nuclear-powered ballistic missile and hypersonic weapons capable of dodging U.S. defenses at up to 10 times the speed of sound.
Russia’s seeking to maintain strategic parity and isn’t threatening anyone, though “be sure that everything I have said today is not a bluff,” Putin said.
The State Department called the video animation “cheesy” and said it was “unfortunate” that it depicted “a nuclear attack on the United States.” The White House, which has announced defense spending of around $700 billion in the next fiscal year, said the speech showed Russia had developed weapons “in direct violation of its treaty obligations.”
While Russia may have achieved a technological breakthrough, it’s just as likely that “the Kremlin is counting on a miracle,” said Alexander Golts, an independent defense analyst based in Moscow.
The Russian military budget, reduced to 2.77 trillion rubles ($48.5 billion) this year from 3.05 trillion rubles in 2017 amid belt-tightening because of a stagnant economy, is a fraction of U.S. defense spending. Still, “it’s not important if Putin was bluffing,” said Golts.
“Everything he said, whether it was for real or not, has to be treated seriously by policy makers,” he said. “This is a very strong argument for those who want to develop the U.S. military potential.”
The U.S. unveiled a new nuclear doctrine last month that envisages building more low-yield bombs and modernizing its strategic arsenal. The Trump administration also plans to expand its missile-defense program to counter threats from Russia and China, rather than just rogue nations such as Iran and North Korea, according to a draft strategy due for release this month, The Washington Post reported Friday.
While U.S. missile defenses are unlikely ever to be enough to counter a Russian attack, the military and the defense industry have convinced Putin “that this threat does exist and you need to throw all efforts and resources on eliminating it,” said Vladimir Frolov, a former Russian diplomat and lawmaker who’s now a foreign policy analyst.
The Soviet Union — whose collapse Putin said Friday that he’d reverse if given a chance to change an event in Russian history — ran its economy into the ground in the 1980s to keep up with the U.S. in a spiraling arms race, said Dmitri Trenin, head of the Carnegie Moscow Center. “Many will push the president in this direction,” he said.
That will make the world “a more dangerous place,” said Lisbeth Gronlund, senior scientist at the Cambridge, Massachusetts-based Union of Concerned Scientists, which advocates for reducing the risk of using nuclear weapons.
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