Here is what experts say about Putin’s threat to aim missiles at US

His fiery speech was more about creating headlines in Russia, but that doesn't mean that there's no reason to worry.

Russian President Vladimir Putin delivers his annual address to the nation, on February 20, 2019 in Moscow, Russia. CREDIT: Mikhail Svetlov/Getty Images.
Russian President Vladimir Putin delivers his annual address to the nation, on February 20, 2019 in Moscow, Russia. CREDIT: Mikhail Svetlov/Getty Images.

Russian President Vladimir Putin in a speech on Wednesday vowed to aim missiles at Europe and the United States if President Donald Trump deploys missiles closer to Russia, in Poland and Romania.

“Russia will be forced to create and deploy types of weapons which can be used not only in respect of those territories from which the direct threat to us originates, but also in respect of those territories where the centers of decision-making are located,” said Putin, in his annual address.

While U.S. missiles already target Russia (whose weapons, in turn, target the United States), placing missiles closer, in Europe, would allow them to reach their targets in 10 – 12 minutes, a shorter strike time Putin noted as a threat.

But aside from sounding like an extended Moscow remix of “Fire & Fury” (President Trump’s own threat against North Korea), Putin’s speech didn’t actually signify a dangerous shift in U.S.-Russia relations, according to experts.


The speech, said Yuval Weber, an associate professor at Daniel Morgan Graduate School and a global fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Center, is one of a trio of major set-piece addresses by the Russian president, which included a call-in show and a Q&A with reporters “that are both very theatrical, and akin to a ‘State of the Union’ address.”

Weber said it’s important to note the domestic content of the speech. Putin’s approval ratings are dropping in the country, which has also seen “limited positive economic news.”

President Putin, he said, “needed something to create headlines and especially headlines focused on his comparative advantage, or core strength, security.”

Although Russia has been violating the the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF) and also wanted out, the United States’ withdrawal provided the perfect “ex post justification because they get to claim that they follow the rules while their opponents are dangerous and erratic,” said Weber, answering questions via e-mail.

Putin’s threat implies that new weapons are “strategic”, and not just “intermediate”, is actually intended “to reassure — albeit weakly — the Europeans that new weapons are focused on the U.S. and not them, especially if they play ball and reduce their solidarity with the Americans,” said Weber.
While Putin’s speech itself does not represent an alarming new threat to the United States, what’s troubling is how the end of the INF could shape the future of global security.
“The end of the Treaty additionally allowed Russia and the U.S. the legal permission to place intermediate nuclear weapons around China, which we should expect over the coming decade,” said Weber, adding that this is the “real reason both the US and Russia were not too upset about the end of INF.”

“What does victory look like?”

While Putin’s speech might not have started new tensions with the United States or posed any kind of new threat, what it does signify, said Henry Sokolski, executive director of the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center, is “a notch up in the rhetoric.”


And a notch up signifies a continuing move in the wrong direction. So even if the Russian president’s speech was more bark than bite, there’s still reason to be worried, said Sokolski. But we need to worry about the right things.

While the Trump administration is tearing up treaties and deals it sees as problematic (and agreements like INF aren’t perfect) all we’re left with is knowing “what they don’t like,” said Sokolski, who has also served in the past as a consultant on nuclear weapons proliferation issues to the Intelligence Community’s National Intelligence Council, as well as a member of the Central Intelligence Agency’s Senior Advisory Panel.

“We know they’re interested in competing, and they want to build certain things,” but, he wondered, what is the happy ending?

“Give us a picture of victory, please. What does victory look like?” he asked, adding, “It’s not very clear to us, and it’s not clear to our allies, and to be honest, I don’t think it’s clear to our adversaries…where do we want to be?”

Sokolski also said Trump’s critics need to figure out what they want, beyond just repairing the treaties the president has undone in the past two years.


“We are sleep-walking, politically. We are letting our hopes and fears guide our judgement. I think we need to be more realistic.”

Looking ahead is also crucial, he pointed out.

“What happens if the guy [President Trump] gets re-elected? At some point he’s going to have to explain why he spent all this money to tear down all these agreements. Where does he want to go with all this? That needs to be clear,” he said.