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Vladimir Putin’s new nuclear weapons are aimed at the March 18th elections – and Washington’s revised nuclear posture

Dwarfed by the launch of intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) on the screens behind him, Russian president Vladimir Putin gave his 14th state of the union address on March 1st. The two hour long televised speech started with the promise of a better future and ended with the threat of nuclear Armageddon. Three weeks ahead of presidential elections, Mr Putin need not fear for his job: In a carefully vetted field of contenders whom he declined to debate on TV, he is all but sure to come out on top. But he also knows that that with an economy fresh out of recession, growing at just 2% in 2017 and stagnation ahead, he has little to offer to ordinary Russians. Their standard of living has not improved in a long time, and the president’s promise of a 50% increase in GDP over the next six years must have seemed like mockery to some. An hour into the address, the main event of his subdued election campaign, the message switched to defiance, and things took a far darker turn.

Video footage, accompanied by sometimes clumsy animations, showcased five nuclear armed systems in different stages of development: First, enter the RS-28 Sarmat. The hulking intercontinental ballistic missile, a successor to the Soviet-era Satan, can not only carry an array of different nuclear warheads, but also park them in orbit for later deployment. Described as in the final phase of testing, it is intended to function as the first stage of another prospective addition to the Russian arsenal, the hypersonic Avangard delivery vehicle. At ten times the speed of sound, this weapon could cover the distance from Moscow to London in a little under 15 minutes. Animations showed multiple warheads on their final descent to the southern half of Florida. (Seen by some as a deliberate snub to Donald Trump, whose favourite getaway Mar-al-Lago is close by, the animation was actually taken from a 2007 documentary.) Then came Kinzhal – dagger – a cruise missile to be launched from fighter jets against ground targets or ships. Like Avangard, it races towards its targets at hypersonic speeds, thereby avoiding missile defence systems. Next up was Kanyon, a nuclear powered, long-range underwater drone. Armed with warheads of unprecedented destructive power, it has since been described as the ‘doomsday torpedo’. Last on the list was a nuclear-powered cruise missile with “unlimited range”, making its way to the Californian coast. Then, the screens turned black.

Mr Putin deliberately left unclear how close to operational status most of the announced systems are, but what is certain is that the Kremlin has not for the first time invoked bellicosity to bolster national pride. The Russian public was clearly the main audience, to avoid an embarrassingly low turnout at the upcoming polls. But the speech was also a direct answer to the revised Nuclear Posture Review published by the Pentagon in February. Seen from inside the Kremlin, it is also economically rational: a credible nuclear deterrent buys a country with an economy the size of Manhattan’s an outsized influence on the world stage.

Europeans find themselves on the sidelines of this geopolitical shouting match. They should be alarmed: With many of the Cold War’s deconflicting mechanisms and communications channels discontinued, the risk of accidentally sliding into armed conflict is largely unmitigated. Accordingly, the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists has set its Doomsday Clock, a measure of how close the world is to nuclear devastation, to two minutes before midnight for 2018.

The Kremlin’s message may have been intended for voters at home, but the noise was audible far and wide.

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About the Autor
Bernhard Völkl

Bernhard Völkl

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Bernhard is a communications professional and military officer. He graduated from Vienna University of Economics and Business and University College Dublin, with a focus on the inception and diffusion of technology, business modelling and organisational change. After a deployment to Syria, Bernhard now serves in a infantry battalion.

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