Russia is building up a series of nuclear weapon systems, including another supersonic cruise missile equipped for beating Nato defence systems, Russian President Vladimir Putin has asserted.
In a pugnacious condition of the country discourse conveyed to government administrators, Mr Putin said the weapons are both new and special to Russia.
He confirmed tests of a new intercontinental ballistic missile complex (ICBM) codenamed Sarmat. Weighing more than 200 tonnes, the system has an increased range over its predecessor, and is able to fly at minimal altitude, he claimed.
“No anti-missile system – even in the future – has a hope of getting in its way,” said the president.
The rhetoric from Mr Putin was not unlike some of the recent boasts by President Donald Trump about the size and capability of the US nuclear arsenal. While Russia has no doubt had the announcement planned for a while, the timing of the remarks appears to be a message to Washington in the wake of the Trump administration’s recently announced plans to develop new nuclear arms and questions about the future of arms-control agreements between Washington and Moscow.
However, the US sought to play down the potential for a new arms race. “We’ve been watching Russia for a long time. We’re not surprised,” Pentagon spokeswoman Dana White said.
The US State Department also accused Russia of developing destabilizing nuclear weapons in violation of its treaty obligations, with spokeswoman Heather Nauert saying that Mr Putin’s speech showed Russia had violated the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces treaty.
She also criticised an animated video played during his remarks, saying it appeared to depict an attack on the United States.
“It was certainly unfortunate to have watched the video animation that depicted a nuclear attack on the United States,” Ms Nauert said. “We don’t regard that as the behaviour of a responsible international player.”
Igor Sutyagin, a military expert at the Royal United Services Institute, an international defence and security think tank based in London, suggested the announcements by Mr Putin amounted to little more than “horror stories”.
Issues of production lines, finance and science made many of the technical claims suspect, he said. Most of the technology was not new: “It’s a cheap marketing trip. An old product, new package, with a new price label.”
Mr Sutyagin said: “I’m not sure if he understands what he said about low altitude, but intercontinental ballistic missiles have been flying at low altitude since at least the 1980s.”
The Status-6 underwater drone, meanwhile, went against the “philosophy” of Russian military planning. “You’d lose control over the weapon for approximately one week,” he said. “The Russian thinking about nuclear weapon use is all about keeping tight control of the weapon for as long as possible.”
In the lead up to Mr Putin’s 14th state of the nation address, few commentators anticipated such a dramatic speech. Traditionally, the event has been used to outline domestic policy priorities to his regional henchmen. This year, of course, there was another dimension. With the speech delayed for three months, it had become a central event of the presidential election campaign.
With no major opponent standing against him, Mr Putin is said to be looking at turnout instead. To project the strength of his position to the outside world, he is looking for a significant number of people to head to the polls on 18 March. In the run-up to the address, presidential aides promised it would offer a vision of the future to ordinary Russians. While Mr Putin remains popular among core constituencies, most Russians are now experiencing their fourth year of shrinking real-terms incomes.
True to the promise, Mr Putin spent much of the first hour of his speech focusing on matters of domestic peace. He touched on many of Russia’s acupuncture spots. He made striking promises. He’d halve poverty. He’d double health spending. He’d increase support to parents by 40 per cent. He’d improve ecological conditions. And he’d extend life expectancy by 10 years. Even more remarkable for a president in his 18th year of power were his promises to “increase freedom and democracy” and curtail regulatory pressure on business.
But it was in the second hour, with an abrupt turn to war, that the sparks flew. The simple animations that accompanied Mr Putin’s military presentation, showing east-west trajectories for his new weapons, left little to the imagination. This speech was a bellicose challenge to Russia’s rediscovered geopolitical foe, the United States. It was the sort of gesture that wearied Russian voters tend to enjoy.
Mr Putin said Russia had stepped up military development in response to the 2002 US withdrawal from the treaty on anti-ballistic weapons systems.
“They thought we would never be able to recover economically, militarily, so ignored our complaints,” he said. “They didn’t listen, but perhaps they will listen now.”
The reality of the confrontation was somewhat more nuanced, suggested Mr Sutyagin. American anti-missile shields were “never” intended for use against Russia, since everyone understood the sophistication of Soviet weapons. He said: “The Kremlin knows this too, so why the hysteria? Perhaps it has something to do with the huge losses sustained by Russian mercenaries in Syria last month.”
For political commentator and former Kremlin advisor Gleb Pavlovsky, writing on social media, it was today, after an absent election campaign, that Mr Putin finally found his purpose.
“Only by telling everyone how he would destroy the world did the old man come alive,” he said.