Moscow has developed advanced nuclear weapons capable of overcoming any defences, Russian president Vladimir Putin said in a move that will fuel concern about a new arms race with the US.
In his annual state of the nation address on Thursday, Mr Putin said Russia was ready to deploy the results of years of “working quietly and patiently” on a response to US missile defence.
He said Russia had started mass-producing the “Avangard” or RS-26 Rubezh, an intercontinental ballistic missile that carries multiple nuclear warheads capable of flying at 20 times the speed of sound to reach its target and avoid defences deployed by the US and its allies.
He also said the military had tested a hypersonic air-launched missile, capable of carrying a nuclear or conventional warhead, called the “Dagger”. The weapon could be used to target ships or well-protected land targets — it reportedly reaches speeds of Mach 10 which would defeat any operational Nato anti-missile system.
In addition, Moscow is developing a long-range torpedo, known as the Status-6, that can carry a nuclear warhead.
Mr Putin also announced it was beefing up the country’s cruise missile capabilities, including the development of a new nuclear warhead and a miniaturised nuclear power source that would hugely increase the range of the weapon.
These types of missiles, which can fly at low level and navigate their way around contours and buildings, are designed to overcome US strategic missile defences, which are typically designed to respond to incoming missiles on a ballistic arc.
Russia’s president has raged against US missile defence with increasing intensity ever since Washington abandoned the ABM treaty, which banned many of these systems, in 2002.
Although Washington says its own systems — deployed in Romania and under preparation in Poland and Japan — are not aimed at Russia, the Kremlin claims they undermine its nuclear deterrent and therefore the existing global security order.
“Efforts to contain Russia have failed, face it,” Mr Putin said. “I hope that all that was said today will sober up any potential aggressor. And any such unfriendly step towards Russia, like the deployment of ABM systems, the closing in of Nato infrastructure towards our border etc, becomes ineffective from a military point of view and unjustifiably costly from a financial point of view, and as a result becomes simply useless for those who initiate it.”
Malcolm Chalmers, an analyst with the UK-based defence think-tank the Royal United Services Institute, said he was sceptical about Mr Putin’s claims that Russia had developed a nuclear-powered cruise missile.
But he added: “This is a very clear signal that the Russians remain determined to maintain strategic nuclear parity with the US. Part of his [Putin’s] popular appeal is that he has restored Russia’s position as a great power and their nuclear arsenal is their strongest credible indicator of that.”
Konstantin Kosachev, chairman of the Russian Senate’s foreign affairs committee, said Mr Putin’s speech “should, I believe, cool down the minds of all those who are seriously reflecting on the possibility of delivering an unpunished blow to Russia: the answer will be crushing”.
Last month, the US set out a new nuclear arms strategy that includes the deployment of low-yield atomic weapons and higher Pentagon spending on modernising its nuclear armoury.
Mr Pushkov said Mr Putin's show of military strength should not be seen as a threat by the west, but instead encourage western powers to sit down and negotiate with Moscow. “There should be a reconsideration of the western strategy of Russia's strategic encirclement,” he added.
But Beatrice Fihn, executive director of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, said Russia’s development of the new weapons “makes it clear we are in a new arms race that will put us under the terror of a new Cold War, in constant fear of death at any instant”.
The timing of Mr Putin’s announcement — less than three weeks before his likely re-election for another six-year term — sends a strong political message about his determination to continue the stand-off with the west.
Mr Putin has barely conducted any campaign activities ahead of the presidential election on March 18. Russia’s two largest pollsters, who regularly work with the Kremlin, predict Mr Putin will win around 70 per cent of the vote.
Thursday’s address, delayed from December, was the first time he had spelt out his plans for another six-year term. He spent most of the two-hour speech promising a massive spending spree in social security, healthcare and infrastructure, calling for the “breakthrough development” of Russia’s economy.
“Stability is important, but we can’t afford this stability if it holds us back from what we need to do,” Mr Putin said, in a nod to economic advisers who have urged drastic structural reforms.
However, it was his half-hour long statement on Russia’s new arms — accompanied by animated video clips — that appeared to form the core of Mr Putin’s speech.
Mr Putin asserted that only a country with cutting-edge scientific capabilities could make such developments. “We are going to put those capabilities to use to improve our citizens’ lives,” he said, in an attempt to tie this statement together with his economic policy pledges.
Additional reporting by Katrina Manson and David Bond
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