Surprise is a political technique Russia’s President Vladimir Putin excels at, and he did not miss the occasion to spring some notable surprises during his annual address to the parliament, on March 1 (see EDM, March 1). The first half of the speech contained a rich menu of economic and social promises, but Putin’s delivery was uninspired, as if he was merely going through the motions before arriving at his preferred focus—new and developing Russian missile programs. Nobody had expected him to elaborate at such length on this matter, despite the fact that nuclear and missile stockpiles have been a traditional marker of Russia’s strength (Kommersant, March 1). Putin attacked the theme with passion resembling Nikita Khrushchev’s braggadocio and presented video animations that outshone even the Cold War–era Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI, or “Star Wars”) proposals of the Ronald Reagan administration (Rosbalt, March 1). The audience of about a thousand, most of whom were hardly specialists on missile technology, awarded the Kremlin leader with a rousing ovation.
The expert community, meanwhile, is puzzled rather than surprised. Most of Putin’s pompous revelations referred to old and not particularly successful projects, like the heavy ballistic missile Sarmat, which had only one ejection test last December (Moskovsky Komsomolets, December 27, 2017). Other projects Putin “revealed” are still under-developed designs, like the truck-mounted laser gun, or figments of nuclear-engineering imagination, like the extra-fast and super-quiet nuclear torpedo or the nuclear-propelled cruise missile (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, Vedomosti, March 1, 2018). All these fanciful weapons systems were “invented” back in the 1980s, when the Soviet Union was desperately working on asymmetric responses to Reagan’s SDI (New Times, March 1). Even if some of them are actually deployed in the near future, it will make essentially no difference for mutual deterrence, because nothing resembling a comprehensive or foolproof anti-missile shield is going to appear in the United States anytime soon (Russiancouncil.ru, March 2). The question then, is what prompted Putin to unleash this pseudo-offensive now?
Some commentators presume the answer can be found in Putin’s concluding jab at the heretofore inattentive West: “So listen now” (RBC, March 3). The problem, however, is that Moscow has recently shown no interest in pursuing arms control negotiations of any kind with the West. And Russia remains in total denial regarding accusations it has been violating the 1988 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty (Interfax, March 2). Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov focused his presentation at a recent disarmament conference in Geneva on the bewildering topic of US preparations for nuclear war in Europe (RIA Novosti, February 28). Additionally, Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov refused to engage in the planned consultations on strategic stability with US Under Secretary of State Thomas Shannon last Friday (March 2) (TASS, March 2). Talking is clearly not on Moscow’s agenda. So why, then, is Putin boasting about missiles?
It is plausible that Syria produced one strong incentive–Putin clearly wanted to make the “victory” in this protracted war a key topic for his election campaign, but he has had to drop this theme and only mentioned in his address the heroic death of Roman Filipov, a pilot who was shot down over Idlib province last month (see EDM, February 8). The Kremlin remains mum about another setback to its intervention: the devastating US air and artillery strike that destroyed a band of pro–Bashar al-Assad forces reinforced by Russian mercenaries, which attempted to attack to the east of the Euphrates (Novaya Gazeta, February 20; see EDM, February 15). The US forces gathered such an overwhelming combination of assets—from B-52 strategic bombers to Reaper drones—that the capabilities of the Russian air grouping, even reportedly strengthened with the newest and untested Su-57 fighters, appear rather feeble (Kommersant, February 26).
The main incentive, however, probably comes from the deep-seated fear of an explosion of domestic unrest after Putin’s pre-determined victory in the March 18 presidential elections. Putin’s campaign has been deliberately dull, and public mobilization has been reduced to bureaucratic manipulation, with the imagery of missiles used to rekindle stale patriotic pride (Novaya Gazeta, March 1). The proposition of deterring the specter of “color revolution” with missiles and nuclear weapons might appear absurd, but if it is underpinned by the belief that this looming “chaos” is orchestrated by the hostile West, a certain amount of sense can be discerned. Putin brandishes his virtual missiles in order to warn off the US leadership. But the defiant stance can hardly hide his anxiety and weakness (Snob.ru, March 2).
There is, nonetheless, one more striking twist in Putin’s missile tale, and it concerns Europe more than the United States. The day after the presidential address, Gazprom announced that all natural gas export contracts to Ukraine and gas transit through the Ukrainian pipeline system were to be canceled (RBC, March 3). This radical step was triggered by the decision of the Stockholm arbitration court in favor of Ukrainian Naftogaz, even though the contracts stipulate that the arbitration rulings are final and mandatory for both parties (Kommersant, March 3). In the course of the evolving confrontation caused by the annexation of Crimea four years ago, Russia has abstained from any use of the “gas weapon”; but now, Putin—and Gazprom is certainly following his orders—has found the timing opportune to proceed. Europe is freezing under a spell of severe winter weather, so the psychological impact of a possible gas blockade is certain to be heavy. But this energy blackmail, against the background of missile threats, will undermine Putin’s promise of a domestic economic breakthrough, if he indeed means it (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, March 1).
Putin is by no means a natural militarist, and he knows that his lieutenants and subordinates are too corrupt for Russia to be able to engage in a real arms race. He surely feels the political need to assert Russian “greatness.” This greatness has lagged and decayed under his ineffectual leadership—and only missiles are left for Putin to rely on. Yet, the missiles that really matter in today’s world are the kind designed by SpaceX, and Russian rocket scientists have no answer to Elon Musk’s challenge. Putin’s boasts of cruise missiles and torpedoes driven by nuclear reactors, which in fact cannot even be tested due to their deadly radioactive emissions, are for all intents and purposes making Russia’s strategic aspirations look even more dangerous for global peace than North Korea’s nuclear ambitions. The capacity to destroy the world comes with the responsibility to keep it safe. But Putin has developed a dangerous habit of denying every responsibility of the office he cannot escape from.