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.
“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.