During his March 1 address to Russia’s Federal Assembly, President Vladimir Putin grabbed headlines by claiming that prospective additions to the country’s strategic nuclear arsenal would render U.S. missile defenses “useless.”
Putin mentioned strategic nuclear systems in various stages of development. The best known of these is the RS-28 “Sarmat,” a new land-based heavy intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) that will be fitted with advanced technology to assure penetration of any missile defense.
This technology may include maneuverable hypersonic glide vehicles such as the one Putin mentioned on “Avangard,” Russia’s first missile system with a vehicle of this type. He also talked about a long-range nuclear-powered unmanned underwater vehicle that can be fitted with a nuclear warhead, known commonly as “Status-6.” Both systems are designed to evade any U.S. defensive measures — Avangard by presenting an unpredictable flight trajectory, while Status-6 is an entirely new sea-based way to deliver a nuclear weapon.
Putin’s presentation of a developmental nuclear-powered cruise missile was the most outlandish, though. As skeptical experts quickly pointed out, the United States explored similar technology during the Cold War but dropped the concept as impractical. U.S. analysts predicted that the missile would emit radioactive waste in flight, rendering it a potential danger to the very people it was supposed to protect. Yet Putin claimed that the “almost unlimited range” of the new Russian missile would allow it to outmaneuver any U.S. defensive systems.
2) Russia can already overwhelm U.S. missile defenses
Putin’s remarks certainly made global headlines, but Russia’s ability to defeat U.S. missile defenses is nothing new. Indeed, it is standing U.S. policy not to deploy a defensive system that could neutralize a Russian retaliatory response to a U.S. nuclear attack.
Here’s why: The prospect of such a capability would be destabilizing, sparking an arms race between U.S. defenses and Russia’s attempts to reimpose its assured retaliatory capability. While the Trump administration’s new Ballistic Missile Defense Review has yet to emerge, the February 2018 U.S. Nuclear Posture Review states that any improvements in U.S. defensive capabilities will be deployed in such a way as to “preclude an arms race with China or Russia.”
This policy aligns with the severe technical limitations of existing U.S. systems, which cannot win an offensive-defensive race with the intercontinental forces of U.S. major-power rivals. Despite the numerous iterations of defensive systems over the past six decades, this fact has been a constant since at least the mid-1960s.
The Soviet-era “Voevoda” missile that the Sarmat is designed to replace can already overwhelm existing U.S. defenses. At most, Putin’s new systems are a Russian hedge against future game-changing technologies. Despite rumored changes to U.S. missile defense strategy regarding Russia and China’s regional arsenals, U.S. officials seem to accept that a capability to protect the homeland from a sophisticated intercontinental attack is not in prospect.
3) Putin’s timing is probably motivated by domestic politics
While the nuclear portion of the speech gained the most attention in the West, Putin led off with a list of domestic achievements and promises of a brighter future. The first round of Russia’s presidential election will take place on March 18, and Putin is aiming for a fourth term, which will extend his rule to 2024.
As analysts have noted, this speech was his opportunity to make his pitch to the Russian people. With state media entirely on his side and a major opposition figure prevented from running, Putin has hardly campaigned in the conventional sense and did not take part in the recent televised debate between the other candidates.
Recent academic work has confirmed the importance of domestic audiences for many types of authoritarian leaders. In the case of contemporary Russia, research has suggested that Putin’s domestic popularity is genuine. Nevertheless, Russia’s political elite has concerns about the true strength of the president’s support.
Although nobody doubts that Putin will win, Russian officials are reportedly worried about low turnout from an apathetic public. Putin’s promises of improved transport and better health care are likely to be taken with a pinch of salt, given Russia’s sluggish economic growth.
With little on the domestic side to get voters to the polls, Putin’s nuclear claims help bolster his established narrative that he has restored Russia’s greatness after years of humiliation. In an apparent attempt to build public enthusiasm, Putin declared an open competition to name the new cruise missile and unmanned underwater vehicle.
4) Yes — this is a new challenge for arms-control efforts
Putin’s nuclear announcements were interlaced with grievances regarding the history of U.S.-Russian arms control, in particular the 2002 U.S. withdrawal from the Anti-ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty, which prohibited national missile defense systems.
According to Putin, U.S. missile defenses deployed after Washington’s withdrawal from the ABM Treaty complicate existing arms-reduction agreements such as 2011 bilateral New START treaty. Eventually, he claims, the Russian arsenal would become small enough for the United States to intercept, resulting in “the complete devaluation of Russia’s nuclear potential.”
Regardless of the technical merits of Putin’s claim, his message challenges the existing regime of U.S.-Russian strategic arms control — which since 2002 has followed the U.S. preference for offensive reductions without significant restrictions on defensive systems. By announcing capabilities that, in the case of the intercontinental cruise missile Avangard and the Status-6 underwater vehicle, are not covered by existing agreements, the Russian president has added a new edge to this challenge.
While Putin held out the possibility of talks to address these divergences, his speech puts additional stress to an arms-control regime already under pressure from alleged Russian violation of the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty. And Putin’s claims did nothing to dampen the revival of geopolitical competition between Washington and Moscow.
James Cameron is assistant professor of international relations at Fundação Getulio Vargas in Sao Paulo, Brazil. He is the author of “The Double Game: The Demise of America’s First Missile Defense System and the Rise of Strategic Arms Limitation” (Oxford University Press, 2018). Follow @cameronjjj.