March 8, 2018
By Pavel Felgenhauer
During his annual address to the parliament, on March 1, Russian President Vladimir Putin unveiled an array of nuclear superweapons, claiming Russia has secretly overcome the mighty United States and assumed a dominant military position. Putin demanded the West now “negotiate,” which sounded more like a demand of strategic surrender (see EDM, March 1). The Western response to Putin’s presentation was disappointing at best. The Kremlin leader’s mix of threats and complaints about US (Western) intransigence in rejecting Russian (Putin’s) “constructive proposals” was conspicuously illustrated with animations of missiles flying across the world to America and brief footage of Russia’s missile testing grounds and military research facilities. Yet, none of these particularly impressed Western audiences. Are Putin’s fancy superweapons real or more of a hypersonic “pie in the sky?” Was this a serious message to Washington or an electioneering show before the March 18, presidential elections (see EDM, March 5)?
Speaking on March 1, Putin insisted the West must take him seriously: “You did not listen before—listen now!” But this passionate call seems to have been largely in vain. The somewhat mute Western (US) response to Putin’s speech is seen in Moscow as highly disappointing and inadequate. At a special background briefing for Russian journalists, a top defense ministry official scolded the West and the US for being apparently too dumb to understand that Russia has already won the arms race and there is little choice left but to follow Putin’s public offer to “sit down and negotiate” an orderly surrender. The hundreds of different US land- and sea-based missile-defense (MD) interceptors (GBI, SM-3, THAAD), “Have been rendered totally useless and have no military significance. At best, good for shooting at sparrows, because they cannot defend against the new Russian weapons,” the Russian military insists. US naval ships and newly deployed forces in the Baltics and Poland are defenseless and open to attack. “Against new Russian weapons, US MD is like a slingshot against a MiG fighter,” according to the Russian defense ministry. “No one in the world but Russia has a deployed hypersonic weapon. There is no defense or hiding from the Kinzhal airborne missile that travels at a speed of Mach 10,” the defense ministry added, assuring that all the fancy weapons Putin revealed are real and are being deployed or readied for deployment. The Russian defense ministry, backing up and following Putin, insists the US must stop squandering its fortune on MD and other weapons that have been rendered irrelevant and “recognize the new reality” (Militarynews.ru, March 3).
According to the former commander of the Russian Aerospace Forces (Vozdushno-Kosmicheskiye Sily—VKS) and chair of the Federation Council defense and security committee, General (ret.) Viktor Boldarev, “The mass production of the super-heavy silo-based Sarmat ICBM [intercontinental ballistic missile] will begin in a couple of years, but several prototype missiles may be delivered to the RVSN (Strategic Missile Forces) earlier.” Other weapons, like a nuclear-powered cruise missile with an “unlimited flight range,” mentioned by Putin in his address, and the Avangard hypersonic so-called “gliding or maneuverable warhead” (reentry vehicle) have been successfully tested in 2017. But according to Boldarev, “It will take years to mass procure and produce them, though several specimens may be deployed for service earlier in the coming decade” (Interfax, March 2).
Putin seems to have been truly overwhelmed by reports coming from his military about the new wonder-weapons. The servile Russian press, bureaucracy and expert community have been fully supportive in heaping praise about “a breakthrough in war-making without precedent in human history” (RIA Novosti, March 1). For Putin, the new weapons once more make Russia Number One in the world. Putin was jubilant: “Attempts to contain Russia have failed.” And he has been openly exposing his personal revisionist convictions, complaining during the March 1 address how much territory, manpower and GDP value Russia lost during the collapse of the Soviet Union and the emergence of the newly independent post-Soviet republics (Kremlin.ru, March 1). For Putin, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) was “Soviet Russia.” Pointedly, while speaking at an electioneering event in Kaliningrad, Putin told supporters the only thing he would have changed in history if he could was the “demise of the Soviet Union” (Militarynews.ru, March 2).
The only wonder-weapon actually deployed today (in the Southern Military District) for “preliminarily combat service” is the hypersonic Kinzhal, which is launched mid-air from a modified supersonic two-seater MiG- 31 interceptor. The MiG-31, which can fly at speeds of up to Mach 3, delivers the Kinzhal in a split second to a launch position. The missile detaches and then its engine ignites (Kremlin.ru, March 1). MiG-31s are super swift, but they are not bombers and are not designed to seek and pinpoint land or sea targets. The MiG-31/Kinzhal system would most likely only be useful against some immobile land target of immense strategic importance. Around the Southern Military District, where the MiG-31/Kinzhal currently operates, the most likely target would, therefore, be the Deveselu airbase, west of Bucharest, Romania, where a battery of SM-3 Aegis Ashore US interceptors have been deployed. Putin has been insisting his new superweapons are aimed at defeating US MD deployments. The Kremlin has charged that the SM-3 Aegis Ashore is, in fact, an attack weapon system in disguise, apparently designed to attack and kill (or threaten to attack and kill) Russia’s leader (Putin), who spends almost half the year in Sochi (see EDM, February 16, 2017). Apparently the early deployment of the super-swift Kinzhal launched from a MiG-31 is intended to deliver, in a split second, a devastating nuclear payload over Deveselu and wipe out the SM-3 Aegis Ashore facility before a single MD missile can even be launched. When the Polish SM-3 Aegis Ashore facility goes operational this year, another Kinzhal may be deployed to the Baltic.
Putin and some of his cohorts might indeed believe that an array of fancy weapons has made Russia the Number One world military power and that the US will now be forced to negotiate a strategic compromise on the basis of equality—a new Yalta of sorts—redrawing once again the borders of spheres of influence in Europe and Asia. But the basic equation of nuclear deterrence between Moscow and Washington, while possibly rattled, is still in place. Mutual assured destruction is still keeping the peace, but it also may be threatened in the coming years as the Russian rearmament program steams ahead.