Less than three weeks before voters go to the polls in an election widely believed to have already been decided in his favour, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s March 1 speech to a legion of regime loyalists was his most bellicose in years, harkening back to the darkest days of the Cold War when Mutual Assured Destruction, or MAD, was the order of the day.
Standing in front of a giant video screen that showed clips of new ballistic missiles, Putin diverted from his annual state-of-the-union address to give a highly choreographed multi-media presentation that acted as a direct warning to the West that Russia’s newly deployed nuclear deterrence capabilities were equipped “to hit any point in the world and could not be intercepted”.
Greeted by thunderous rounds of applause from Putin’s hardline political elite – images that harkened back to a time when Soviet leaders Joseph Stalin and Leonid Brezhnev addressed Communist Party congresses that brandished the Soviet Union’s geopolitical reach – Putin added a cryptic message that a nuclear strike on any of Moscow’s allies would be regarded as an attack on Russia itself and would draw an immediate countermeasure by the Kremlin’s strategic rocket forces.
Included amongst Moscow’s closest allies are North Korea and Iran – two nations that are frequently at odds with the international community over their weapons programmes and support for groups that are listed as terrorist organisations.
“I want to warn all those who have fueled an arms race over the last 15 years, who sought to win unilateral advantages over Russia and introduced unlawful sanctions aimed at containing our country’s development, your attempts to contain Russia have failed,” Putin said in a direct reference to the West, “”None of you listened to us. You will listen to us now.”
Among the cutting-edge weapons systems unveiled by Putin were a newly-designed intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), nuclear-powered underwater drones, and a new hypersonic missile that travels five times the speed of sound.
In recent months, reports indicated that Moscow had successfully tested a new heavy ICBM, known as the RS-28 Sarmat. The missile is believed to have the capability of flying 11,000 kilometres, with a maximum payload of 15 warheads – a range and armament that far exceeds its Soviet-era predecessor, the R-36, dubbed “Satan” by NATO in the 1970s.
Putin revealed that a “low-flying, low-visibility cruise missile armed with a nuclear warhead and possessing a practically unlimited range, an unpredictable flight path and the capability to impregnate practically all interception lines, invulnerable to all existing and future anti-missile and air-defence weapons” was tested late last year and had already been deployed ahead of Thursday’s conference held in central Moscow.
Putin also said a second weapons system, called the SA-15 “Kinzhal” after a long dagger that is native to the Caucasus Mountains, already has been deployed in the Southern Military District – covering Russia’s Black Sea and mainly Muslim North Caucasus regions.
Since first coming to power as acting-head-state for ailing former Russian President Boris Yeltsin in 1999, Putin has spent the majority of his 19 years in power reconstituting Russia’s powerful security and secret police services and rebuilding its vast military-industrial complex
A former KGB colonel and the son of devout Stalinists, Putin has viewed the West with increasing hostility since coming to power. Having once described the collapse of the Soviet Union as “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century”, Putin has skillfully channelled Russians’ anger over the chaotic privatisation process of the 1990s that was dominated by crass robber baron cronyism practised by a small number of well-connected individuals known as “oligarchs”.
The oligarchs’ many dubious ties to Western economic institutions, ability to travel and invest abroad, and the vast wealth they accumulated in the years after the Soviet collapse left most Russian citizens in poverty and disillusioned with what the majority of the population believed to be the core tenets of “free market capitalism” and “liberal democracy”.
Putin’s inherent hatred of the West, cultivated during his years as a KGB officer in what was then-East Germany, as well as his own anger and complexes over Moscow’s loss of international influence in the decade after the Soviet Union’s dissolution has helped fuel his drive to re-establish Russia as a major global player. With the world’s largest nuclear arsenal and its third largest standing army at his disposal, Putin has successfully co-opted the Russian population’s longing for a return to great power status and for stability on the domestic front to help further his ambitions of finding political and military parity with the United States.
Russia’s successful deployment of a large expeditionary force to Syria, a traditional ally of Moscow, as well as his invasions of both Ukraine and Georgia and military seizure of Crimea, have solidified his popularity amongst average Russian citizens, most of whom agree that the West took advantage of the country’s weakness two decades ago when the EU, US, and the UK expanded NATO to Russia’s borders and supported the 2008 independence of Kosovo, despite Moscow’s objections.
The decade-long overhaul of Russia’s armed forces from the corrupt, poorly-trained shell of a superpower army that saw itself defeated by Chechen rebels in the mid-1990s, to a highly sophisticated conventional force that has turned the tide of the Syrian Civil War in favour of that country’s brutal dictator – a close Moscow ally – Bashar al-Assad, has caught Western military planners off-guard after they spent the last 15 years overly focused on developing military strategies aimed at combatting Islamic extremists in the Middle East.
Moscow’s vastly improved military capabilities and the reach of its intelligence services through sophisticated cyber-war tactics – as seen by the Kremlin’s campaigns to influence the UK’s Brexit vote and the 2016 US presidential election – have forced the NATO alliance to reassess its approach towards Russia’s offensive tactical reach.
During his speech, Putin emphasised that the new weapons that were on display have no equivalent in the West and were designed to counter the US’ potential withdrawal from a key Cold War-era treaty banning missile defences as well as Washington’s effort to develop a missile defence system in Eastern Europe.
The US and the then-Soviet Union began negotiating strategic arms reduction deals in the early 1970s, culminating in a series of initiatives between US President Richard M. Nixon and Soviet Premier Brezhnev in 1972 known as SALT – Strategic Arms Reduction Treaties. Those initiatives were followed by landmark agreements dubbed START – Strategic Arms Reduction Treaties – in the 1980s, negotiated by presidents Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev, which were later ratified and significantly extended by Reagan’s successor, George H.W. Bush, and Gorbachev shortly before the Soviet collapse in 1991.
With the initial agreements set to expire in 2009, former presidents Dmitry Medvedev and Barack Obama negotiated and signed the New START in 2010, aimed at cutting the number of strategic nuclear missile launchers by half. The treaty officially remains in force, but US President Donald J. Trump reportedly attacked the provisions of the treaty in his first 60-minute telephone call with Putin in February 2017, after the Russian president inquired about extending the agreement. According to a Reuters report at the time, Trump claimed during the call that the treaty favoured Russia and was “one of several bad deals negotiated by the Obama administration”.
The timing of Putin’s speech may be tied to counter a new round of harsh sanctions that Washington is expected to announce in the coming weeks. It is also likely that Putin was looking to send a message to the international community that he is willing to respond to any move by the US or NATO to appear to have the upper hand in what is rapidly developing into a second Cold War.
On February 2, Washington announced that it could adopt a more assertive nuclear posture and would look into the possibility of a preemptive strike in the event of a major threat to its deterrence capabilities, including the use of newly designed low-yield weapons.
Experts are still unclear as to whether Putin’s claims correspond to reality, as many of the systems mentioned in Thursdays speech have yet to be seen by international arms specialists. Putin was, however, forceful in his message to the enthusiastic audience that the new weapons made NATO’s Europe-based missile defence shield “useless”.
Among the more provocative moments of Putin’s sabre-rattling speech was a series of computer-animated videos of unnamed prototype weapons that included a nuclear-powered cruise missile navigating anti-air defence systems along the Atlantic coast of South America, then heading for the shores of Florida before the video faded to black, followed by an applause from the Russian lawmakers in attendance.