Vladimir Putin delivered his annual Address to the Russian Parliament yesterday. Billed as a campaign statement directed at Russian voters, it instead turned out to be a militaristic diatribe addressed directly at Washington.
Putin devoted forty two minutes of his two hour long speech to describing brand new Russian military technology meant to intimidate the West. The statement has been proclaimed by experts as the start of a new arms race. That Cold War comparison necessarily casts Russia’s current President in the role of Leonid Brezhnev—an unflattering parallel largely unnoticed by American Russia-watchers.
Putin boasted about high-speed underwater nuclear drones that move “several times faster than submarines, the most up-to-date underwater torpedoes, and even the fastest above water vessels.” “This is just fantastic!” Putin gleefully added, sounding a little like an excited Donald Trump.1 He seemed most proud to announce a nuclear-powered and nuclear-tipped cruise missile that could be actively steered on a flight path to avoid U.S. anti-ballistic missile defense systems. He said this missile had been successfully tested and that “no one else in the world” has such a weapon.
How credible is it that Russia has leapfrogged the world? The Director of Russia’s Institute for Space Policy Ivan Moiseev sounded skeptical that nuclear-powered engines could be deployed on cruise missiles. “There is a megawatt-class nuclear engine currently under development, but it is intended for use in outer space,” he said. “And no tests were conducted in 2017. We’d be lucky to have such a system tested by 2027.” The Soviet Union worked on these issues, Moiseev admitted, but all attempts to put nuclear-powered engines on airplanes and cruise missiles were abandoned in the 1950s. The U.S. was developing similar technology in the 1960s, but the project was officially canceled in 1964.
Unnamed U.S. officials, for their part, seemed to confirm that Russia was once again working on the project, but that it was still very much in the research and development phase. A test missile had recently been observed crashing in the arctic, they told Fox News.
Putin’s presentation was designed to hype the capabilities, and for the first time, his speech was accompanied by video—an animated clip of a Russian cruise missile evading defenses and slamming into what looks like Florida. (Why Florida? It might have something to do with Putin’s own frustrations: SpaceX recently launched its Falcon Heavy rocket from Cape Canaveral. Russia’s own commercial space program is at least ten years behind, with recent test launches spectacularly failing as Putin looked on.)
The missiles themselves were not shown off at all, but the quality of the video provoked ridicule among Russian pundits. Maxim Trudolyubov, editor at Vedomosti, called it “a big, flying, unverifiable Tsar Cannon, as illustrated by a C-minus graphic designer.” The clip was widely ridiculed on the Internet as well; intrepid journalists even tracked down the original video, which was used on a 2007-vintage documentary on Russia’s Channel One television station. (As if anticipating some of the mockery, Putin went out of his way to insist that he was dead serious. “You need to comprehend this new reality, and understand that everything I just said is not a bluff. I am not bluffing, trust me.”)
Stanislav Belkovsky told MBK media that he doubted that the technology Putin was boasting about was real. He went on to note that the philosophy and psychology of war is both the last means left for Putin to consolidate the nation around him, and his only way to relate to the world’s elites. In that sense, his speech was a refinement of a trend that had been going on for more than a decade. Putin’s infamous 2007 address in Munich was the start of the trajectory. Putin is a president of war, resentment and revenge, Belkovsky said.
The New Times’ Yevgenia Albats more or less agreed. Putin was announcing the start of a new arms race with the Unites States—to the death. Keeping the national consciousness in a warlike state was very useful for the upcoming Presidential elections, Albats went on. Putin needs to be seen first and foremost as the Commander-in-Chief of the country.
Putin’s tough talk comes at an opportune time for his campaign given two recent embarrassments his government has had to endure. First, anywhere between a few dozen to a few hundred Russian mercenaries fighting for Assad were wiped out by U.S. troops as they attempted to seize an oil factory in Syria. And second, officials at Russia’s embassy in Argentina were caught smuggling 850 pounds of cocaine using the airplane of the chief of the Security Council, Nikolay Patrushev.
But though Putin’s bellicose speech did manage to push these two stories off Russian voters’ minds for the time being, it’s unlikely that it was crafted with this goal in mind. It’s more plausible that the saber-rattling was in response to enduring Western sanctions. Putin explicitly addressed the issue, calling the sanctions illegal and illegitimate from the standpoint of international law. He boasted that the sanctions were meant to contain the development of the country, including its military capabilities. The “fantastic” rockets were proof, Putin was saying, that the policy had failed.
And although the Trump Administration isn’t rushing to impose new sanctions on Russia—in fact, the U.S. Treasury announced it would not try to stop the buying of Russia’s state bonds—the absence of any new efforts is not enough for the Kremlin. Putin needs existing sanctions to be lifted, especially those imposed on the financial sector. Since this is not likely to happen any time soon, Putin is resorting to all he has left: nuclear blackmail.
As Andrei Soldatov noted, blackmail is Putin’s paradoxical way of calling the U.S. to negotiate. But of course, it can’t possibly work. “We can assume that [Putin] sees no political, economic, or diplomatic means of establishing a dialogue with the rest of the world. All these ballistic missiles only come into play when the dialogue has ended. And that’s the contradiction: you can’t call for a dialogue, when there’s already no dialogue,” he said.
Gleb Pavlovsky called the speech politically misguided, the product of an echo chamber of advisors. “The mistaken political signaling is due to an absence of serious criticism in Putin’s inner circle. Apparently, there’s just nobody who dares to say what’s good and what’s bad. Putin has surrounded himself with the kind of people where there’s nobody to copyedit him,” he said. Or, perhaps, as Vladimir Frolov suggested, the lack of accountability and transparency has allowed military advisors to convince Putin to invest money in a corrupt boondoggle to counter a security threat from the United States that does not really exist.
Whatever the thinking behind the speech, the only response Putin has thus far received has been little more than a shrug of the shoulders, delivered by a low-ranking official rather than by someone like General Mattis. The Pentagon’s press secretary said U.S. officials were “not surprised” by Putin’s comments, and reiterated an obvious point: U.S. missile defense has never been directed at stopping Russia’s existing nuclear arsenal. Making those nukes more resilient to missile defense doesn’t change America’s calculus on missile defense at all.
Like Brezhnev, who stayed in power 18 years until his death in 1982, Putin probably thinks he needs to be seen as embarking on an arms race. Unlike Brezhnev, Putin has to know that his comparatively backward country can’t possibly prevail in the long run. So instead of building high-tech missiles, Putin wants Russia itself to be seen as a missile with an unpredictable path. If so, the opening gambit of his bluff thus far has not been very convincing.
1. “Это просто фантастика” can also literally be translated as “this is just science fiction”. As we shall see, Putin was perhaps being unintentionally honest in his assessment of Russia’s new military capabilities.