Author: Irina KHALTURINA
Apparently, nobody had a slightest clue why the venue of the fourteenth state-of-the-nation address of President Vladimir Putin to the Federal Assembly, usually held within the St. George Hall of the Kremlin, was moved to the Manezh Central Exhibition Hall and why the president needed visualisation and infographics for his speech. Everything became clear when, after a narrative on the state of the national economy and social sector, Putin actually showcased the formerly classified systems of Russian strategic weapons capable, as he said, of overcoming the American missile defence system (MDS). “It's just fantastic,” said Putin praisefully and called the creators of these weapons “heroes of our time.”
The Russian leader preceded his presentation with statements urging for the reinforcement of his country's defence potential, about the Syrian operation, as well as the unilateral withdrawal of the U.S. from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty and the practical deployment of American MDS “both in the U.S. and beyond their national borders.” Despite Washington's repeated assurances that their MDS was not against Russia but the so-called ‘rogue states’ such as Iran, Moscow considers the ongoing events as a threat to its national security. According to the Kremlin, by developing a MDS capable of intercepting Russian missiles, Washington violates the balance of strategic nuclear deterrence. Moscow also believes that the U.S. continues the development of new strategic weapons. Putin particularly emphasised that Russia’s “growing military strength” was not threatening anyone; nor did Russia intend to attack first. But if it is attacked, said Putin, retaliation will be immediate. In other words, Russia has prepared something else “apart from protesting and warning”. “What have we done? How will Russia respond to this challenge? This is how! Nobody really wanted to talk to us, and nobody wanted to listen to us. So, listen now,” said the Russian leader.
So, what did Putin present to the world?
Sarmat intercontinental ballistic missile (RS-28)
This cutting-edge liquid-fueled intercontinental ballistic missile should replace the Voyevoda system also known by its NATO reporting name as Satan. According to Putin, weighing over 200 tonnes, Sarmat has a short boost phase, which makes it more difficult to intercept for even the most advanced missile defence systems. It can also evade missile defence thanks to its range: apart from following the shortest trajectory to the target, it can be launched over the areas not covered by missile defence. Its payload is unknown but if it is not less than that of the Voyevoda, Sarmat can carry a large number of false targets, which will also complicate its interception. It is expected that Sarmat will go into service by 2020.
“A small-scale heavy-duty nuclear energy unit that can be installed in a missile like the latest Russian X-101 air-launched missile or the American Tomahawk but with a range dozens of times longer, basically an unlimited range”. Not only has it an unlimited range but it is also highly manoeuvrable, as it can bend around the Earth evading various radar and defence systems. The unit was successfully launched at the end of 2017.
Unmanned underwater vehicle - nuclear torpedo
According to the Russian president, this unit is “unique for its small size while offering an amazing power-weight ratio. It is a hundred times smaller than the units that power modern submarines, but is still more powerful and can switch into combat mode, that is to say, reach maximum capacity, 200 times faster.” In the video that accompanied Putin’s narrative, one torpedo exploded in the centre of a carrier group, and the second one hit the port buildings. The vehicle has a maximum range of 10 thousand km, high speed reaching up to 185 kph and immersion depth of up to thousands of meters. If it is equipped with a hydrogen bomb, it can cause a huge tsunami.
The hypersonic high-precision aviation missile with speed about 12,000 kph and a range of over 2,000 km can carry nuclear and conventional warheads and perform evasive manoeuvres. It is a completely upgraded version of the Iskander tactical ballistic missile planned to be launched from MiG-31 fighters. This system began its trial service at the airfields of the South Military District. During Putin's presentation, a MiG-31 aircraft launching the missile was shown on the screen.
Avangard is a strategic military system with a new combat equipment, a gliding cruise bloc that, according to Putin, “flies to its target like a meteorite, like a ball of fire”, but “is reliably guided”. It is launched from a ballistic missile designed to accelerate Avangard to a hypersonic speed. Then, the glider flies to the target engaging in intensive manoeuvring (by several thousand kilometres). Avangard is already in serial production. According to Kommersant, RS-28 Sarmat will be a regular carrier for this weapon.
Reaction of the West
In fact, there are few tech-savvy comments about the details of these military systems. For instance, some say that Putin did not tell anything about such a drawback of Sarmat as its complex maintenance due to highly toxic fuel. In addition, such missiles can be stationed only in stationary underground mines, which makes them more vulnerable. In addition, the hypersonic glider is not without such flaws either – it heavily depends on the accuracy of satellite data and is prone to significant speed reduction on approach to target. In general, many such attributes are very difficult to perceive, let alone note any inconsistencies between them.
As to the Western media, Sarmat was not apparently something new for the West compared to the hypersonic Kinzhal, which was taken into account more seriously. According to Foreign Policy and National Defense Magazine, almost immediately after Putin's address, the director of Pentagon's Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), Stephen Walker, made a statement about their plans to intensify the development of such systems in the U.S. In addition, ten days after Putin's presentation, Moscow reinforced the doubts of the West with the tests of the Kinzhal launched from a MiG-31 fighter in the South Military District. The Russian Ministry of Defence published a video of a successful combat training launch when the missile hit the target on the test polygon, which confirmed the tactical, technical, and timing performance of the unit.
But above all, it was the still unnamed nuclear-powered missile that triggered the most scepticism and a nervous surprise in the West. In fact, such units were developed both in the Soviet Union and in the U.S. back in the 1950s and 1960s, but the projects were abandoned as impractical. In addition, the experts believe that a cruising missile should throw out radioactive waste, which makes it just dangerous. In other words, if Russia has really tested the missiles, there could be radioactive emissions that can be traced. Incidentally, The Independent Barents Observer (Norway) reminds about “tiny amounts of radioactive iodine-131 of unknown origin measured in the last few years in Europe, especially in Scandinavia.” The authorities emphasise that the concentrations are almost indistinguishable and do not pose any danger to public health. Recently, Russian social networks were actively discussing another chemical element, ruthenium-106, which covered the Chelyabinsk Oblast, followed by Volgograd and even Tatarstan at the end of September last year. Yet it is impossible neither to confirm nor to deny any association of these discussions with missile tests.
New arms race?
Equally interesting is the geopolitical reaction to Putin's speech, because he has definitely impressed the audiences. According to a number of Western media outlets, “even the Soviet leaders would not behave like that.” “It is hard to imagine any U.S. president in modern history, including even the current incumbent, depicting nuclear attacks on Russia on a large-screen display,” reports Bloomberg, referring to one of the videos showing a missile launch from a mobile platform and the missile approaching a target suspiciously similar to Trump's residence in Florida, as well as to other cities in Florida, which is the permanent deployment site of the U.S. Central Command.
Britain's Defence Minister Gavin Williamson called Putin's statements threatening: “Russia is choosing a path of escalation and provocation. We are facing intensifying threats to our way of life.” The White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders accused the Kremlin of “direct violation” of the agreements reached on arms limitation.
The West believes there are two reasons for such a “hyper-presentation” of Russian military achievements. The first and utmost is the upcoming presidential election in Russia and the incumbent president wanted to say: “If you vote for me again, you will vote for national security.” According to Bloomberg, “Russians, like people everywhere, enjoy nothing so much as a big spectacle on a huge stage. Add to that a good bashing of Russia’s enemy No. 1, and you have a sure winner.” It is noteworthy that Putin made his address a little less than a month after the publication of the Nuclear Policy Review by the Trump Administration, where Russia has been officially named a main strategic rival of the United States. Americans believe that Russia and China “want to change the international order and norms of behaviour,” and therefore are actively engaged in upgrading their nuclear strength.
But in addition to addressing to internal audience, the Kremlin also sent an explicit message to its Western “partners”: Moscow is able to fight back any enemy in any conflict. There is no doubt that the message got through, was digested appropriately and will not be left unanswered. Donald Trump discussed Putin's speech with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron. What exactly they discussed is not publicly disclosed for obvious reasons. Washington stated that President Trump was aware of the threat posed by Russia, and the U.S. was ready to respond appropriately, if necessary. The White House spokesperson Sarah Sanders said that the U.S. military budget was ten times higher than the Russian one.
So, what we are facing now – yet another arms race and Cold War? Indeed, if Putin’s goal was to persuade the West to engage in dialogue by demonstrating the potential of the Russian military, he ought to understand that the U.S. will most likely retain the position of force, and rather boost a new arms race, than negotiate and remove the existing sanctions. Many Western experts have already stated that the Pentagon needs to develop similar weapons in order to maintain a balance of deterrence.
Indeed, the great game goes on, no matter how we call it though – a new cold war or something else. On the other hand, it is clear that despite a close proximity of American and Russian troops fighting in Syria, and a dangerous distance between their aircraft and ships manoeuvring in the Black and Baltic Seas, neither side will make a nuclear strike first. The deterrence regime, which guarantees mutual destruction, will continue to protect the planet from the Third World War.
However, conversations about the Apocalypse can cover up other very real things. In fact, it is the development of Russian hypersonic weapons that created the current hype in the West. Therefore, apart from being a message to voters and a warning to the West, Vladimir Putin's presentation can also be considered as... a trivial advertising campaign that can significantly increase the sales of Russian weapons abroad. It is not surprising why so many media outlets compared the Russian president with the late Steve Jobs during his famous presentations. The Russian military industry ranks the second in the world in terms of sales and clearly seeks to surpass the United States. At the same time, it is not only the competition that makes Washington nervous – it apparently realises that the proliferation of such weapons can significantly reduce America's military potential around the world. The stakes are much higher and certainly real, while the overused horror stories about the global nuclear war remain weak and faint.