Putin's boast of new nuclear weapons has little impact on balance of power

In this video grab provided by RU-RTR Russian television via AP television on Thursday, March 1, 2018, Russia's new Sarmat intercontinental ballistic missile blasts off during a test launch from an undisclosed location in Russia. (RU-RTR Russian Television via AP)

After Russian President Vladimir Putin claimed last week to be testing and deploying new nuclear weapons, experts say the U.S. likely could not have prevented their development but the Trump administration already appears to be adapting to combat them.

In a two-hour address to Russia’s Federal Assembly Thursday, Putin said Russia has developed or is developing weapons that could “reach anywhere in the world” and that U.S. missile defenses would be powerless to stop.

President Donald Trump has not spoken publicly on Putin’s boasts, but according to a readout of their phone call, Trump and British Prime Minister Theresa May agreed Sunday that Putin’s claims were “irresponsible.”

According to CNN, Putin detailed several new nuclear weapons that could purportedly threaten the U.S:

  • The Sarmat, a new model of heavy intercontinental ballistic missile
  • A low-flying nuclear-powered cruise missile supposedly “invincible” against missile defenses
  • An unmanned nuclear-armed autonomous torpedo that can move much faster than submarines
  • Air-launched missiles capable of flying several times the speed of sound
  • A hypersonic glide vehicle that Putin said could fly “like a meteorite”

Putin’s presentation also included an animation of Russian missiles seemingly raining down on Florida.

While the prospect of new Russian nuclear weapons that the U.S. is incapable of intercepting is troubling, experts say Putin’s claims do little to upset the balance of power because he already has nuclear weapons the U.S. is incapable of intercepting.

“I think we have to step back and understand that prior to this speech, Russia has and will continue to have the capability to attack the U.S.,” said Mark Simakovsky, a non-resident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council and former Defense Department official.

Even if the missile defense system worked flawlessly--and it does not---Russia has long had far more nuclear weapons than the U.S. has interceptors that could stop them.

“Without any of these new toys, they could easily overwhelm our missile defense systems as they are today,” said Ian Williams, an associate fellow and associate director in the International Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

These new weapons would have minimal impact in the short term, but according to Michael Kofman, a fellow at the Wilson Center’s Kennan Institute and a research scientist at CNA Corporation, Russia’s military acquisitions are driven by what the strategic balance will look like 20 to 30 years from now. In that context, Putin may be hedging against the possibility that U.S. missile defenses advance far beyond their current state.

“We can destroy each other today, we could destroy each other yesterday, and looking 30 years ahead, I am confident we will still be able to destroy each other,” Kofman said.

Former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice called Putin’s boast of being able to bomb Florida “absurd,” and she said she told him personally that the U.S. has never had the ability to deter an attack by thousands of Russian missiles.

“He apparently had pictures of being able to hit Florida--they’ve been able to hit Florida since 1980,” Rice said on “Fox & Friends” Friday. “So sometimes he says really absurd things and we just need to call him on it.”

Experts stress that Putin’s claims should still be taken seriously even if these weapons do not represent an immediate increase in the threat Russia poses.

“Believe it or not, I actually would take him quite seriously. I don’t think anything he revealed there was science fiction,” Kofman said, adding that Putin may be overstating how far along the development of these weapons is but Russia-watchers have been aware they were in the works for years.

Putin’s speech came less than three weeks before an election that he is certain to win, but he may still be aiming to drive up turnout.

“I think most importantly this needs to be seen as part of Putin’s butter and guns speech as part of his, I wouldn’t say election, but re-accession to the Russian throne,” Simakovsky said.

The announcement also follows the release of two documents, the U.S. Nuclear Posture Review and National Defense Strategy, that look to reorient the focus of American national security efforts on “great power competition.” Simakovsky observed that some of the technologies Putin discussed were mentioned or implied in the NPS.

“This is a Russian response to some of the Trump administration’s efforts to take steps to deter Russia, so in many ways, the two sides are talking past each other,” he said.

Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association, called Putin’s speech “counterproductive and irresponsible.”

“Responsible leaders do not flagrantly and gratuitously flaunt their country’s capacity to launch nuclear strikes that would inflict catastrophic destruction on a global scale,” he said in an Arms Control Now blog post. “Responsible leaders of nuclear-armed states go out of their way to reduce nuclear tensions and map out pragmatic realistic pathways and proposals that enhance mutual security.”

He also laid some blame for the escalation on President Trump’s nuclear rhetoric.

“Russia and the United States are heading down a destabilizing and unnecessary path,” he wrote. “Both sides are in the process of extraordinarily expensive campaigns to replace and upgrade Cold War nuclear weapons systems at force levels that vastly exceed common sense requirements for nuclear deterrence.”

At a briefing Thursday, State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert told reporters it was “unfortunate” to see an animation depicting a nuclear attack on the U.S.

“I mean, that’s something that we certainly did not enjoy watching,” she said. “We don’t regard that as the behavior of a responsible international player.”

Later in the briefing, Nauert said Putin’s claims confirmed the U.S. government’s belief that Putin has been developing destabilizing weapons for more than a decade and the Trump administration is increasing military funding to address this and other threats.

“We believe that our military will be stronger than ever,” she said. “The president’s Nuclear Posture Review addressed some of this. It made it clear that we’re moving forward to modernize our nuclear arsenal and ensure that our capabilities remain unmatched.”

The Trump administration has signaled a desire to enhance capabilities for future conflicts with rival powers like Russia and China, but the president’s own behavior and public statements have raised doubts about his willingness to confront Putin.

“I think the Nuclear Posture Review is both the tactical and the strategic response, not only to Russia but to China, but I do think the administration should answer and address publicly these Russian claims,” Simakovsky said, adding that he doubts Trump will call Russia out on it because he values his relationship with Putin.

While Trump has been complimentary of Putin and he has resisted efforts to hold Russia accountable for interfering in the 2016 election, his administration has taken a firm stance against Russian interests in Ukraine and elsewhere. Simakovsky sees Putin’s speech in part as a warning to Trump that further deterioration of the relationship between the U.S. and Russia will harm U.S. interests.

“This speech would not have been given if the perceived warming of U.S.-Russian ties after Trump came into office came to fruition,” he said.

Critics have often accused the Obama administration of failing to recognize Putin’s ambitions or rein in his aggressions, but experts are skeptical that Obama or his predecessors could have done much more to curtail Russia’s nuclear program.

“There’s very little we can do about what other countries do in terms of military investment,” Kofman said.

Putin described the new weapons development as a response to the George W. Bush administration’s abandonment of the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty.

“There are some folks out there who will say this is our fault, we’ve been aggressive, we’ve been deploying missile defense systems, we started this arms race and this is the climax,” Williams said.

He does not believe that is the case, and he noted that the Obama administration pressed hard for mutual reductions in nuclear arsenals, making significant concessions to get Russia to sign on for the New START agreement in 2010. In 2013, Russia rebuffed attempts to negotiate further cuts.

“The rhetoric from Putin, ‘No one’s listened to us, they’ll listen to us now’ completely nonsense,” he said.

To the extent that Russia could have been deterred from developing more weapons, Simakovsky said a healthier relationship with the U.S. might have diminished Putin’s belief that he needed such an imposing arsenal. However, he added that when he was in the government, it was impossible to discourage the Russians from being suspicious of U.S. missile defenses.

“They remain convinced that US missile defense is a threat to them...and I don’t think we could convince them otherwise,” he said.

The New START agreement is set to expire in 2021 and the Trump administration has made no indication it wants to renew the deal, meaning the U.S. and Russia could be barreling toward a standoff where neither country’s strategic nuclear forces are under any restrictions.

The Nuclear Posture Review indicates the Trump administration is looking to modernize its nuclear deterrent abilities after decades of divesting strategic and tactical nuclear weapons. Trump has spoken publicly about wanting to improve and update the nuclear arsenal.

“It is time that both sides stop their nuclear boasts and start talking about how to halt and reverse their accelerating technological arms race,” Kimball wrote.

In the weeks ahead, the Trump administration is expected to release a Missile Defense Review that takes into account Russia’s capabilities and intentions. Putin’s development of new weapons could accelerate a transition toward countering a Russian threat.

“That’s the big question: are the Russians potentially instigating wider U.S. investments in missile defense that could indeed threaten and harm Russia?” Simakovsky said.

According to Williams, Russia’s work on nuclear-powered cruise missiles could also raise awareness of the limitations of U.S. capabilities to detect such weapons.

“As kind of a general rule of thumb, ballistic missiles are easy to see and hard to hit. Cruise missiles are easier to hit but harder to see coming,” he said.

The Joint Land Attack Cruise Missile Defense Elevated Netted Sensor System had been intended to address that issue, but Congress shut it down after a radar blimp broke loose and floated from Maryland to Pennsylvania in 2015. The Army has tried to revive it repeatedly, and Williams said the existence of these Russian weapons could help make the case that it is needed.

“It might raise awareness of the problem of detecting cruise missiles,” he said.

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