President Vladimir Putin threatened the United States with an expanded array of strategic weapons on Wednesday, announcing a new hypersonic missile and the early deployment of nuclear submarines equipped with long-distance underwater drones.
He warned that Russia’s new weapons would target the US if it deployed missiles to Europe. “We will be forced to take both reciprocal and asymmetrical measures,” he said. “Let them count the range and speed of our weapons. This is all we ask.”
Mr Putin’s harsh rhetoric, delivered in his annual state of the nation address, was a return to familiar territory. Exactly one year ago he used the same speech to unveil a new generation of six nuclear weapons, and deployed an animated video showing a direct strike on Florida to emphasise his point.
Russia’s new “invincible” weapons would force the west to finally listen, he told the assembled political dignitaries that day.
This year – amid falling presidential ratings – many expected a different, less belligerent approach, focussed on everyday concerns of ordinary Russians. Ahead of the speech, sources within the president’s own administration briefed that the president would offer an “optimistic” vision.
For a while, Mr Putin lived up to those expectations. This would be a speech that concerned the welfare of Russians alone, he began. He presented himself as the guardian of the welfare of the nation. There would be more money for clinics, for schools, for hospitals. Benefits would be increased. Mortgage holidays introduced. There would be more organic food.
He even rallied against the excesses of his own system. He would fight, he said, against the “arrogance” of his own bureaucrats, who often failed to “empathise, understand and respect” ordinary people. He would side with “honest businessmen” who shouldn’t face the threat of criminal persecution. And he would continue to “intervene” against the out of town landfill sites that have been scourging many people’s lives.
At times, Mr Putin’s speech seemed to be directed to an alternate reality. It was not immediately clear, for example, from where the money for his kinder social system would come – especially given the country’s struggling, sanction-hit economy. The president’s investment-friendly rhetoric likewise sat in contrast to last week’s arrest of a top foreign investor – on what appeared to be fabricated fraud charges. And protesters against toxic landfill sites across Russia would be forgiven for thinking the president didn’t exactly have their back when his security services were pressuring, intimidating and arresting them.
It almost seemed as if Vladimir Putin had adopted the manifesto of his fiercest critic, Alexei Navalny, and was agitating to “overthrow himself”, quipped Roman Dobrokhotov, an independent Russian journalist.
Just over an hour in, with a turn to defence and missile technology, Russia’s longstanding president hit a more familiar groove.
To increasing applause in the hall, Mr Putin read out a list of Russia’s recent accomplishments in the field. The army had already taken delivery of the Avangard nuclear-capable hypersonic glide vehicle, he said. The new technology, which allows missiles to make evasive inflight manoeuvres, was a breakthrough as momentous as “sending a satellite into space”.
The president had announcements up his sleeve as well.
The military would soon be taking delivery of a new hypersonic cruise missile called Zircon, he said. The new weapon, which has an advertised range of more than 600 miles and top speed of Mach 9, is compatible with vessels outfitted with the Kalibr cruise missile system used extensively in the Syrian conflict. In addition, two of the systems unveiled last year would also get an earlier-than-expected outing. The Poseidon underwater nuclear drone would appear "in Spring." A new laser weapon called Peresvet would become operational “by December”.
And Mr Putin said Russia reserved the right to use the new weapons to target were the US to decide to deploy new intermediate-range missiles to Europe. The Cold War-era treaty on short and intermediate range missiles now appears to be dead in the water given that both sides have confirmed their intention to leave it.
In a statement given to the Interfax news agency, a Nato spokesman described Mr Putin’s “threats” as “unacceptable”. But how much the new weaponry actually changes the strategic balance is another matter.
At least part of Mr Putin’s calculations on Wednesday were geared towards rousing the patriotic vote in Russia, suggested Justin Bronk, a research fellow at RUSI, an international defence and security think tank based in London.
“The effectiveness of Russia’s strategic nuclear arsenal against the United States and Nato, in the event of nuclear war, is assured and has never been in doubt,” he said. “Internationally, of course, the new weapons serve as a reminder of Russia’s status as a massive nuclear power.”
While the major headlines were made abroad, Mr Putin’s speech was most closely watched in Moscow. Many inside the political leadership have privately expressed concerned about the fragility of the system, and were looking for evidence of systemic reform.
The president offered them few indications of a change in direction, concluded Konstantin Kalachyov, head of the Political Expert Group and an occasional Kremlin adviser.
“Those who believed there could be another Putin were left disappointed," he said. "And judging by the final text, the lobbying ability of the ministry of defence has trumped all else.”
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