A New Arms Race?

Speaking last Thursday at the annual state of the nation address, Vladmir Putin boasted that Russia now possesses unstoppable nuclear weapons that are capable of hitting almost any point in the world and evading traditional missile defences. In an effort to bolster his words, images and video clips of some of the new missiles were projected onto a large screen behind where he stood. Among the array of nuclear weapons he announced were a nuclear-powered cruise missile, nuclear-powered underwater drone, as well as new hypersonic missiles. Deploying emotive language, Putin asserted that the West “have not succeeded in holding Russia back” and that confronted with this evidence “now… need to take account of a new reality and understand that everything I have said today is not a bluff.” “No one listened to us,” Putin declared, “listen to us now.”

The salient target of this challenge was evidently the United States. As has been observed, relations between Russia and the United States have deteriorated significantly over the last several years during the Obama administration – despite the former president’s initial efforts to mend the tensions between the former Cold War rivals. The pair have been at odds with respect to prominent international conflicts at present, such as the ongoing civil war in Syria, where Russia has sought to uphold the Assad regime while the U.S. supports certain rebel groups. Recently, Russia has also been confronting accusations that it sought to influence the outcome of the most recent presidential elections in the United States, denigrating the candidacy of Hilary Clinton in favour of now-President Donald Trump.

The move, a notable escalation in Russia’s martial rhetoric, was unsettling to many in the international community, as it incited concern that Putin’s speech may spark a new Cold War style global arms race. Reuters reported that President Trump spoke in separate phone calls to French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel on Thursday, with both leaders expressing “serious concerns” with regards to Putin’s comments on his country’s nuclear weapons. This perspective was echoed by senior Australian military figures, who told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation that if Putin’s comments were truthful that Russia’s new nuclear capabilities would indeed be a “game-changer.” Malcolm Davies, a senior analyst at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, noted this and said that if Russia had indeed made significant advancements in its arsenal that “you could potentially back into a more competitive US-Russia nuclear relationship.”

Despite the apparent impact Putin’s words made on its allied, Washington has greeted his remarks with considerable skepticism. Officials cast doubt on their veracity, not convinced that Russia had in fact added any new capacities to its nuclear arsenal beyond those already known by the U.S. military and intelligence agencies. “We’ve been watching Russia for a long time” said Dana White, a spokesperson for the Pentagon, “we’re not surprised.” Without addressing any of the specific claims made by Putin of new capabilities, White told a news briefing that “these weapons that are discussed have been in development a very long time.” John Rood, the U.S. undersecretary of defence for policy, similarly downplayed Putin’s presentation when addressing a forum in Washington. “I think it’s broadly consistent with things that have been stated before [by] Russian officials,” he said.

In the aftermath, Russia has also sought to moderate the reaction to Putin’s speech. Kremlin spokesperson, Dmiry Peskov, told reporters in a briefing call on Friday that “the president said this should absolutely not be seen as the beginning of an arms race” and that “it would be wrong to interpret it as some militarist statement.” Indeed, at the very least from a logistical standpoint, Russia is ill-positioned to compete in a traditional arms race scenario given its far smaller defence budget when compared to that of the U.S.. Instead, Peskov asserted that the unveiling of the weapons was “nothing but a response” to the United States’ decision to withdraw from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty in 2002 – a remnant of the Cold War era that prohibited the deployment of ballistic missile defence systems. Consequently, the view put forward by Moscow was that it was seeking to “neutralize” its opponents’ strategic nuclear forces, rather than challenging parity between the two nations.

Apart from this official narrative, it is important to keep in mind the domestic situation in Russia. The country’s presidential elections are set to take place on March 18. Vladimir Putin is expected to win his fourth six-year presidential term due to what is reportedly a rigged vote and meaning he could rule Russia until 2024. Anticipating victory, a salient motivation behind the address may then be the desire to increase voter turnout as a means to reinforce the legitimacy of his leadership after nearly 20 years in power. Indeed, earlier in the speech, Putin struck a different tone as he discussed his intention to halve the number of Russian citizens living in poverty and promised to double government spending on healthcare, roads, and regional development. The contrast of flaunting high-tech weapons, according to analysts speaking to the Washington Post, may then be to appeal to those voters who are looking to Putin to take a firm stance on security, even if there do remain important, unresolved domestic problems.

That it makes Russia appear tough thanks to his leadership is therefore an important explanation as to why Putin was so aggressive towards the West. As put by Alina Polyakova, a Russia expert at the Brookings Institution, “the regime needs to consistently maintain its fear-mongering that the US and NATO are out to get Russia” to keep the populace on their side. As echoed by Mark Galeotti, a senior researcher at the Institute of International Relations Prague and the head of its Centre for European Security, “Putin’s new credo [is that] the world has become a dangerous place for Russians, they are only respected and safe when they are strong, and he is the only figure that can guarantee that.”

To conclude, while the prospect of the new weapons and a nuclear arms build-up are understandably daunting, it is important to maintain a sense of perspective. Putin’s recent statements were probably mostly intended to play to a domestic audience, incentivized to encourage enthusiasm among the electorate ahead of the presidential election that is scheduled to occur in just over a week. Furthermore, most U.S. officials speaking to the subject have not expressed significant concern and don’t consider Putin’s missiles will really change the dynamics of current U.S.-Russia relations. Keeping this in mind will be important, as foreign officials and policy makers must exercise caution in the extent to which they allow Putin’s comments to materially affect military decision-making.