Rusian President Vladimir Putin delivered his State of the Nation Address to the Federal Assembly, yesterday, and while his lengthy remarks covered the gamut of policy issues in Russia, it was his remarks on nuclear policy and weapons that garnered headlines around the world.
"I believe it as my duty to say this: any use of nuclear weapons of any yield – small, medium or whatever – against Russia or its allies will be regarded as a nuclear attack against our country. Retaliation will be instant with all the ensuing consequences," Putin said to draw loud applause from the audience. He warned that "nobody should have any doubts on that score." At the same time Putin cautioned against creating new threats to the world, "but on the contrary to come to the negotiating table to give thought to an updated, future system of international security and the civilization’s sustainable development."
Though the new weapons that Putin described were not a response to the U.S. Nuclear Posture Review, released last month, he directly attack aspects of that document. "Some of the provisions of the updated US nuclear strategy review, which reduces the threshold for using nuclear weapons, trigger tremendous concern. One can try to calm down anyone behind the scenes as one chooses, but we read what has been written. It is written in such a way that it can be used in response to a conventional weapon strike or even in response to a cyberthreat," Putin noted. He stated that in its military doctrine, Russia "reserves the right to use nuclear weapons only in response to the use of nuclear and other types of weapons of mass destruction against it or its allies or in the event of aggression with the use of conventional weapons, when the very existence of the state is jeopardized."
Then Putin went on to describe a number of new systems that Russia has had under development, systems, with one exception, that have not been previously officially described. He stressed, however, that these new systems were a response to the 2002 U.S. unilateral withdrawal from the ABM treaty of 1972 and the subsequent deployment of U.S. missile defense systems both inside and outside of the U.S. he said that all of Russia's suggestions on joint work have been rejected by the US, explaining that Moscow has tried to convince Washington not to violate the anti-missile defense treaty, but all this has been in vain. According to Putin, the US military build-up will eventually render Russia's nuclear arsenal pointless unless Moscow acts, specifying that all agreements under the New Start Treaty are gradually being undermined and devalued.
Putin explained that Russia has started the development of weapons that do not use ballistic flight paths, "which means that the missile defense systems are useless in struggle against them." In late 2017, he said, Russia successfully tested a completely new type of armament "unmatched in the world" — a nuclear-powered missile, with virtually unlimited range that can, therefore, attack from any direction. He also announced that the beginning of the active phase of testing of the RS-28 Sarmat heavy, liquid fueld ICBM, saying that it would be invulnerable to interception as its capabilities allow it to bypass any missile defense. In addition, Moscow has developed underwater drones capable of operating at enormous depths and intercontinenal distances, as well as creating hypersonic weapons.
"No one listened to Russia before we created new armament systems, so listen to Russia now," Putin said (emphasis added), saying that the country is one step ahead of other states.
The response from the Pentagon, so far, has been to say that these weapons are not a threat and that US missile defense is not aimed at Russia. "We're not surprised by the statement [by Putin], and the American people should rest assured that we're fully prepared" to defend against attack, Dana White, the Pentagon's chief spokesperson, said at a briefing, yesterday afternoon. "We're prepared to defend this nation no matter what" Putin might add to his arsenal of nuclear weapons."
"They know very well that it's not about them. Our missile defense has never been about them," White went on, referring to US nuclear deterrence policy. "We need to ensure we have a credible nuclear deterrent, and we are confident that we are prepared to do — and we are prepared to defend this nation no matter what."
While the Pentagon dismisses these new weapons, and even questions their viability, some experts are more serious. "I'm still kind of in shock," Edward Geist, a researcher specializing in Russia at the Rand Corp, told NPR in reference to the nuclear powered cruise missile. "My guess is they're not bluffing, that they've flight-tested this thing. But that's incredible."
Experts consulted by The National Interest's Dave Majumdar, including Russian nuclear expert Pavel Podvig and Micheal Kofman of the Center for Naval Analysis have little doubt that the systems described by Putin are viable. "They apparently tested all that Putin showed, so it is all feasible," Podvig said "Whether these things would make sense is another matter. I don't think any of these are really necessary if we are talking about countering missile defense." Kofman agreed that all of the systems are feasible and real. "Most of this is reality, it's just a question of near or distant reality," Kofman said.