By Anirban Bhattacharya
As of Thursday, the world has officially devised new ways of killing itself. President Vladimir Putin has announced an array of new nuclear weapons in one of his most bellicose pre-election speeches in years, saying that they could hit any target anywhere, and more worryingly, are capable of evading a US-built missile shield.
Putin’s nuclear curse
At his marathon State of the Union address ahead of this month’s presidential elections, the Russian Premier led the proceedings with an ominous “nobody listened to us, so listen to us now“. In a move of military posturing that threatened to send US-Russia relations spiralling back to Cold war era levels of hostility, President Putin unveiled the latest additions to his country’s already formidable arsenal- a nuclear powered underwater drone and a nuclear-powered cruise missile that was difficult to detect and “impossible to intercept“. The missile is purportedly capable of flying low, close to the ground and cannot be hit by existing missile defence systems. This coupled with its range and speed can put coastal cities like New York, Boston and Washington at risk.
President Vladimir Putin, however, reiterated that Russia would never be the aggressor in a nuclear war and puts the blame for this disturbing new development squarely on America’s head, citing American withdrawal from a 1972 anti-ballistic missile treaty and President Trump’s decision to build defence installations close to Russia’s borders. President Putin also clarified that Russia would regard an attack on its allies as an attack on itself, and would respond accordingly.
An unnecessary move?
That the bellicose language comes just 17 days before an election that is almost certain to hand him victory in a virtually one-candidate race and a new 6-year term, is a bit peculiar. Political analysts have surmised that it could be strongman politics aimed to reassure the Russian people that the Premier remains fit to lead them despite nearly 20 years in power. Alongside military developments which monopolized the lions’ share of the speech, President Putin announced a slew of ambitious economic goals aimed at improving living standards, healthcare, education and boosting infrastructure, vowing to make Russia’s economy one of the mightiest in the world.
According to Alina Polyakova, a Russia expert at the Brookings Institution, a think tank in Washington, this is sheer propaganda aimed primarily at a domestic audience. This is straight out of a Cold War narrative where the US and NATO are enemies out to get Russia, as part of a state-sponsored program of fear-mongering, and it is only Putin who can, single-handedly, protect the Russian people from their depredations. The new and scary weapons are part of a subliminal facade designed to signal to the Russian demographic and foes abroad that Russia is strong and cannot be ignored in Putin’s era.
The future state of US-Russia relations
On the face of it, Russia’s new toys are frightening, but they’re still unlikely to change the dynamics of the US-Russia standoff. Because America’s existing missile defense systems have a fifty percent success rate in controlled tests anyway, that means that significant spending on flashy “invincible” cruise missiles is a bit overkill, a “Ferrari” to the “Toyota” required to get in (Vipin Narang, nuclear expert, MIT) because the conventional nuclear-tipped ones can already get through defenses with relative success. En masse, Russia’s arsenal of 7000 nuclear weapons and 2000 missiles can already overwhelm American defences before America launches its own in response. Full of bravado and rhetoric, the speech could have been a targeted response to the release of the American Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) in February that aimed at redesigning America’s nuclear arsenal into newer, smaller, more manageable bombs. Concerned with US encirclement in Europe and sanctions levied against it by a US-led alliance, Russia has in the past actively tried to destabilize Western democracies with sophisticated online campaigns and hacking exercises. It has conducted military exercises near NATO territory, threatening NATO territory in the Baltics or even non-NATO countries like Moldova and Sweden. Russia is far from the blameless wronged lamb it would like to portray itself as, having control of Crimea which it seized in 2014, and remains in Ukraine to this day.
To sum up, Thursday’s news harkens back to the days of the Cold War with typically nationalist aggression being the word of the day. It indicates among other things that President Putin’s continued rule after the elections will be no less a problem for the West than it is now- albeit an ever-more belligerent one.
Featured Image Source: Pixabay
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