WASHINGTON: Russia’s claim to have developed new strategic weapons impervious to Western defenses seems unlikely to change the balance of global power. Russian nuclear missiles already have the ability to annihilate the United States, and U.S. defense strategy is based mainly on the deterrent threat of massive nuclear retaliation, not on an impenetrable shield against Russian missiles.
Some analysts said Russian President Vladimir Putin’s statements about the new weapons may speed up what they see as an emerging arms race with the U.S. Just last month the United States cast Russia as the main reason it needs to develop two new nuclear weapons: a lower-yield warhead for a submarine-launched ballistic missile and a sea-launched nuclear cruise missile.
The Trump administration has vowed to expand U.S. nuclear strength while criticizing Russia’s buildup. Putin’s remarks seem unlikely to change that equation or divert the Trump administration from its path toward modernizing the full U.S. nuclear arsenal at a cost of hundreds of billions of dollars while also expanding missile defenses.
Putin, in a state-of-the-nation speech Thursday in Moscow just days before he is expected to win another six-year presidential term, said his new weapons include a nuclear-powered cruise missile, a nuclear-powered underwater drone that could be armed with a nuclear warhead, and a hypersonic missile that has no equivalent in the world.
The Pentagon recently mentioned Russia’s work on two of those weapons: the underwater drone with intercontinental range and a hypersonic “glide vehicle,” which is a weapon that Washington and Beijing also are working on. The Pentagon has not publicly talked about the nuclear-powered cruise missile mentioned by Putin. It is reminiscent of U.S. work in the 1960s on a similar weapon, dubbed “The Big Stick,” but ultimately scrapped.
The White House dismissed Putin’s comments. “President Putin has confirmed what the United States government has known all along, which Russia has denied: Russia has been developing destabilizing weapons systems for over a decade in direct violations of its treaty obligations,” Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the White House spokeswoman, said in response to Putin’s announcement.
State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert noted that Putin was speaking ahead of the March 18 election. “We think he was playing to the audience,” she said, adding that Putin’s boasts were irresponsible. She said it was “unfortunate” to watch a Russian video animation Putin showed during his address that she said depicted “a nuclear attack on the United States.” She called the animation “cheesy.”
Although Putin said his announcement was intended to get America’s attention, he also said he was open to talks with the U.S. “We aren’t threatening anyone, we aren’t going to attack anyone, we aren’t going to take anything from anyone,” he said.
Putin claimed his new weapons would render U.S. and European defenses useless, suggesting an escalation of the stakes in a long-running struggle for stability in the post-Cold War world. Moscow has long threatened to find technological ways around Western missile defenses that it sees as threatening and that the West denies are aimed at Russia.
Thomas Karako, a missile defense expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said Putin’s statements are consistent with a larger pattern of Russian thinking about nuclear weapons and Russia’s role in the world. The Trump administration interprets Russian statements and actions over the past several years, including its annexation of the Crimea and military incursions into eastern Ukraine, as requiring a stronger U.S. nuclear deterrent.
Pentagon spokeswoman Dana W. White said the U.S. would stick to its insistence that U.S. missile defenses are not a threat to Russia. “This is not about defense; it’s about deterrence,” she said, adding that the Defense Department was not surprised by Putin’s weapons claims.
Michaela Dodge, a Heritage Foundation missile defense expert, said Putin’s statements confirm that the Trump administration was right to build its recent review of nuclear weapons policy around concerns about Russia. The administration’s view is that Russian policies and actions are fraught with potential for miscalculation leading to an uncontrolled escalation of conflict in Europe. It specifically points to a Russian doctrine known as “escalate to de-escalate,” in which Moscow would use or threaten to use lower-yield nuclear weapons in a limited, conventional conflict in Europe in the belief that doing so would compel the U.S. and NATO to back down.