Putin speech was less about Russian weapons and more about Trump

Putin may be testing out aggressive messaging to see how President Trump responds.

Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks during his annual state to the nation address, on March 1, 2018 in Moscow, Russia. CREDIT: Mikhail Svetlov/Getty Images.
Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks during his annual state to the nation address, on March 1, 2018 in Moscow, Russia. CREDIT: Mikhail Svetlov/Getty Images.

Speaking before Russia’s March 18 election — which he’s widely expected to win — President Vladimir Putin on Thursday unveiled a number of new nuclear weapons, a nuclear warhead that could fit onto a cruise missile, including underwater nuclear drones, supersonic weapons, and laser weapons.

In a speech that could be straight out of a Cold War-era movie, Putin said Russia’s new weapons were unstoppable, and said that the West needs “to take account of a new reality and understand that everything I have said today is not a bluff.”

Advertisement

“Unfriendly steps towards Russia such as the deployment of the (U.S.) anti-missile system and of NATO infrastructure nearer our borders and such like, from a military point of view, will become ineffective,” he said, adding that the use of any nuclear force against Russia or its allies would be met with an “immediate response.”

“The Russian Federation can already destroy the United States any time it feels like it.” — Thomas Nichols, professor of national security affairs, U.S. Naval War College

President Donald Trump has yet to respond to Putin’s speech, although, in his National Security Strategy, he said Russia (and China) “challenge American power, influence, and interests, attempting to erode American security and prosperity.”

Yuval Weber, a fellow at Daniel Morgan Graduate School and a global fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Center, said that the speech was meant to rally domestic support as well as test the U.S. response.

Advertisement

“Americans don’t really consume a lot of foreign news, but Russians consume a lot of American news. So part of making these boasts is to get coverage in the West and show that they’re being taken seriously — that’s the communications message,” said Weber.

The Russians have long claimed that they needed to upgrade their nuclear capabilities after the United States exited the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty in 2002, and in his speech, Putin said the United States would not speak to Russia about that in 2004.

“So listen to us now,” he said, clearly addressing the United States.

Putin might also be responding to what Weber describes as “bold” and “aggressive” rhetoric and documents (such as the 2018 Nuclear Posture Review) that have moved Russia into “a pretty negative space.”

But Trump, said Weber, has a different kind of relationship with Russia — one that sees things from the Russian perspective. This counters the military establishment’s view.

Advertisement

“That’s why the gap between the president and the national security community has grown over the past year; they see a threat from Russia — as evidenced in the various strategy documents produced over the past year — and it’s not clear at all whether Trump shares their views or can explain why he doesn’t.”

This gap is what Putin is trying to test – if Trump ignores it, the Russian military establishment will then figure that its efforts are for domestic consumption.

“That’s what they’re trying to figure out: Whether Trump actually cares about the threat of new nuclear weapons coming from Russia,” said Weber.

Calling Putin “a Soviet nostalgist,” Thomas Nichols, professor of national security affairs at the U.S. Naval War College (who emphasized that he was speaking in a personal capacity) said that parts of the speech might have been intended for Trump, “who really doesn’t have a very good grasp on any of this stuff.”

But there’s no threat of a renewed arms race with Russia.

“Although Trump is easily fascinated by these symbols of power … we do not live in a monarchy. The president cannot storm down the hall and say, ‘Build me a nuclear-powered cruise missile,'” said Nichols.

Advertisement

But just how real are these weapons, which were not actually shown in Putin’s video presentation? (The bulk of the visuals were computer generated images, or CGIs.) And to what extent do they represent a new threat to the United States?

“I think it’s silly. I think it’s bluster,” said Nichols. “The Russian Federation can already destroy the United States any time it feels like it,” he added, explaining that Russia can launch a nuclear submarine within minutes and take out Washington, D.C.

“This is like a speech right out of the late 1970s, extolling the achievements of nuclear science,” he told ThinkProgress. The CGI used in the presentation, he said, is “vintage 1980s stuff … that terrain-following stuff. This is what cruise missiles do. That’s a 35-year-old technology.”

“They’ve been talking about a cruise missile or a missile-defense-evading missile for like 15 years. So from a strategic point of view, to put a nuclear source of power in a cruise missile is like trying to put a nuclear source of power in a bomber — it doesn’t make any sense. It’s not going to fly that much faster … it’ll still take hours to get where it’s going,” said Nichols.

He added that the United States does not have a functioning ballistic missile shield and is unlikely to have one at any point during Putin’s lifetime, “if ever.”

The other weapons unveiled by Putin, such as underwater nuclear drones, leave Nichols baffled and amused. The only new “threat” he sees articulated in Putin’s speech is to the Russian budget, as developing and testing these weapons — which seem superfluous given present Russian capabilites — would be a massive expenditure.

“If they’re actually trying to build these things, best of luck,” he said.