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Russia’s ‘Satan 2’ missile changes little for U.S., scholars say

Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said April 20 that Russia properly notified the United States about its recent intercontinental ballistic missile test. (Video: Reuters)
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Russian President Vladimir Putin announced Wednesday that his military successfully test-launched an intercontinental ballistic missile with the potential to carry a large nuclear payload, but the Pentagon said it was not a significant threat to the United States.

“This truly unique weapon will strengthen the combat potential of our armed forces, reliably ensure Russia’s security in the face of external threats, and will provide food for thought to those who in the heat of frenzied aggressive rhetoric try to threaten our country,” Putin said in televised remarks.

The RS-28 Sarmat, which NATO has dubbed “Satan 2,” is considered Russia’s most powerful ICBM: a super-heavy, thermonuclear-armed intercontinental-range ballistic missile.

The missile that was introduced during a 2018 Russian state-of-the-nation address was the “next generation” of weaponry that could breach “any missile defense” system, Putin claimed at the time.

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Pentagon spokesman John Kirby told reporters Wednesday that the United States did not consider the weapon a threat to Washington or its allies. Defense policy and strategy scholars told The Washington Post that although the weapon sounds intimidating, the escalating threats Putin has made since his unprovoked Feb. 24 invasion of Ukraine should be more concerning.

The Sarmat was intended to replace the Soviet-designed Voevoda, which was designed in 1962 with the capability to carry three warheads. The Sarmat weighs 200 metric tons (220 tons) and has a longer range, allowing it to fly over the North or South poles and strike targets anywhere in the world, Putin said in 2018. He added that the Sarmat carries a larger number of more powerful nuclear warheads. The Pentagon minimized the features of the weapon and said that “the American people should rest assured that we are fully prepared.”

Russia initially planned to finish Sarmat trials in 2021 and begin deploying it to the army soon after, but several test launches, considered late-stage trials in arms development, were postponed until 2022, the state-run Tass news agency reported last year.

“Sarmat is the most powerful missile with the longest range of destruction of targets in the world, which will significantly increase the combat power of our country’s strategic nuclear forces,” the Russian Defense Ministry said Wednesday, announcing a successful test launch from the Plesetsk Cosmodrome in the Arkhangelsk region.

Putin praised the Sarmat engineers in his speech Wednesday for creating a purely “domestic” product. Rounds of economic sanctions imposed on Russia over the years, most recently for its invasion of Ukraine, have essentially barred Russia from importing any dual-purpose goods that could help advance its military complex and have left many key industries that rely heavily on imports, such as aviation, vulnerable to production and maintenance disruptions.

The United States and Canada this week pledged to send more heavy-duty weapons to Ukraine, and other nations have sent more tools to fight Russia’s invasion.

Russia has always had a substantial number of ICBMs that could strike the United States and Europe, said John Erath, senior policy director for the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation.

Putin’s recent threats are more worrisome than the weapon itself, Erath said.

“We should be very concerned about this practice of making threats as an instrument of Russian policy [that] is gaining currency,” Erath said.

The Kremlin’s strategy of “escalate-to-deescalate” has included threats to use nuclear weapons since the early 2000s, according to Matthew Kroenig, deputy director of the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security and the director of its Scowcroft Strategy Initiative.

Putin was making nuclear threats in his 2014 invasion of Ukraine, warning other nations about the consequences of interfering, said Kroenig, who is also a Georgetown University professor.

“Every time Biden says he doesn’t want escalations with Russia … the strategy is working,” Kroenig said. Putin “is making us cautious and limiting our activities to try to avoid nuclear war. The flip side of that is that he doesn’t want a nuclear war either. It’s bad for Putin, Russia and the war effort.”

After Russia’s February invasion of Ukraine, the United States postponed and subsequently canceled a planned test of the Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missile, a decision made to ensure that Russia would not misconstrue such a display of firepower — or use it as justification to escalate the hostilities in Ukraine.

Kirby, the Pentagon spokesman, said Russia had notified the United States in keeping with Russia’s obligations under New START, an arms-control treaty governing such nuclear-capable weapons that expires in early 2026. The United States was not surprised by the test, he added.

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