Putin's Exotic New Missiles Didn't Come From Nowhere. What Can the US Do in Response?
Image Credit: Kirill Kudryavtsev/Pool Photo via AP

Putin's Exotic New Missiles Didn't Come From Nowhere. What Can the US Do in Response?


While watching President Vladimir Putin’s State of the Nation’s speech delivered before both houses of the Russian Parliament on March 1, 2018, I was reminded of an incident that occurred several years ago when I was testifying before the U.S. House of Representatives. During the hearing, a congressman (who eventually went on to become a senator) was making some accusations about the Pentagon that he could see were upsetting me. Before I could respond, he had one of his aides hand me a note that said, “Please do not pay attention to what I am saying, I am also talking to my constituents.”

As a result, for the rest of the hearing, I ignored most of the congressman’s claims and met with him after the hearing to discuss the issues he raised. We remained friends and worked together for several more years to deal with the challenges facing the country.

There is no doubt that the speech that Putin gave was in large part intended for his constituents. But it does have some ramifications for the international community, particularly the United States. While Putin will be overwhelmingly re-elected to his fourth (and final) presidential term, he obviously felt the need to energize his base to ensure high turnout – which he believes will legitimize what he feels are his accomplishments. Therefore, he told his audience in the arena as well as those watching or listening, the problems that have plagued Russia at home and abroad since the collapse of the Soviet Union are now over. But close examination of his speech shows that most of Putin’s claims are wildly exaggerated.

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This is particularly true in the domestic area. Overall, the Russian economy is not doing well. While it grew by a modest 1.5 percent in 2017, this was the first year of real growth since 2014, and it actually contracted by 0.2 percent in 2016. About 20 million people, or 15 percent of the Russian population, live in poverty, and life expectancy is among the lowest in the industrial world. Yet, in his speech, Putin claimed that the Russian GDP will expand by 10 percent every year over the next five years. In addition, he said he would double spending on health care, increase spending on infrastructure, reduce poverty, and increase life expectancy by 10 percent.

While Putin’s address lasted almost two hours, he spent most of the time discussing domestic issues. But he seemed to reserve the most enthusiasm when speaking about his nuclear weapons, which also garnered the bulk of attention around the world. His message was that — despite the efforts of the United States to undermine Russia’s strategic nuclear deterrent by enhancing its missile defenses in the U.S., Europe, and Asia and developing new nuclear weapons — Russia is taking actions to ensure that its nuclear arsenal will be more than capable of deterring the United States and protecting Russia and its allies.

According to Putin, Russia is developing five new invincible nuclear weapons: a new heavy liquid fueled long-range intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM); a hypersonic multiwarhead air-launched cruise missile; a hypersonic ICBM; a ground-launched nuclear powered cruise missile; and an intercontinental nuclear-powered undersea drone. The Russian president claimed that these new weapons will not only negate the anti-ballistic missiles (ABMs) the United States has deployed but will now force it to listen to Russia on this subject. Putin even showed simulated videos of some of these “invincible nuclear weapons” hitting Florida.

It is not clear how much the Russians can or will spend on these new weapons or even whether they will work. In fact, the United States actually tried to develop a nuclear-powered cruise missile in the 1960s but had to cancel it and, moreover, such weapons are not even necessary to maintain strategic deterrence. There is considerable doubt about whether the ABMs that the United States has deployed can even deal with an attack from a handful of North Korean missiles, let alone the 5,000 in the Russian arsenal. A Pentagon report from last year claimed that the missile defense programs demonstrate a limited capability to defend the U.S. homeland from small numbers of medium-range missiles launched from North Korea or Iran.

But while these weapons are not necessary to ensure Russian strategic capability, and will divert scare resources from Russia’s pressing domestic needs, there is no doubt that the United States bears some responsibility for Putin’s attempt to develop his new strategic posture.

In 2001, for no good reason, the George W. Bush administration unilaterally withdrew from the 1972 ABM Treaty that the Nixon administration had negotiated with the former Soviet Union. Under this treaty, each side was prevented from deploying national defenses against long-range ballistic missiles. Bush claimed that it was necessary to withdraw from the treaty to defend against missile attacks from terrorist or rogue states, and argued that abrogating the treaty actually made no difference because the Soviet Union no longer existed. Both of these claims were, of course, bogus. The 1972 treaty prevented neither the Americans nor the Russians from developing defenses against short- and medium-range missiles. Moreover, in 1997, the United States affirmed that the ABM Treaty would now apply to Russia. Not surprisingly Putin claimed it was a mistake to abrogate the treaty but in 2001, given the weakened state of Russia, he was in no position to do anything about it. Rather than discussing the issue with him, the Bush administration simply ignored Putin’s concerns, something many experts warned could lead to a new arms race. 

Bush compounded the situation by announcing the United States would actually deploy an ABM system in Poland and the Czech Republic, theoretically to guard against missiles from Iran, and President Barack Obama eventually placed a truncated version of the system in Romania and Poland. While the reasons given for this deployment were technically correct, this is not how the Russians perceived it, particularly after the Iran nuclear deal was concluded. They believe an ABM system in Eastern Europe is there to prevent them from responding to a conventional NATO attack on them or their allies. Putin has responded to this deployment by developing ground-launched cruise missiles that violate the spirit and intent of the INF Treaty.

The Russian reaction to our withdrawal from the ABM Treaty should not have surprised Bush and his acolytes. They should have remembered how the Russians reacted to President Ronald Reagan’s Star Wars program, even though most reputable experts and scientists argued that it would never work.

The Trump administration made the situation with Russia worse when its recently released nuclear posture review (NPR) announced that it was not only modernizing all three legs of the U.S. nuclear triad but adding two new lower yield nuclear weapons that it would use not only in retaliation for a nuclear attack but even against cyberattacks. In addition, Trump refused Putin’s offer to extend the New START Treaty for five years from its expiration in 2021.

While there is no doubt that Putin’s speech played well at home, the United States should not compound the problem by overreacting any more than I did when the congressman made those claims about the Pentagon many years ago. The last thing the United States and the world need is a new nuclear arms race, something Trump claimed in December 2016 that he would be open to. Rather, Russia and the United States must work together to deal with nuclear proliferation — especially in North Korea — and use the savings from a new agreement to deal with pressing domestic issues in both countries. Trump should capitalize on his “great relationship” with Putin by both extending New START and offering to begin a new round of arms control talks in which they could make a deal to not only reduce the excessive nuclear weapons on both sides but also reinvigorate the INF Treaty.

Dr. Lawrence J. Korb is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, and served as assistant secretary of defense from 1981 through 1985.

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