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No, Putin Isn’t Bluffing on Nukes

Trump says no one wants an arms race, but the Russians are already out of the gate.
putin point

Earlier this month in his State of the Nation address to the Russian legislature, President Vladimir Putin unveiled several new strategic weapons designed to nullify any missile defense shield the United States has deployed, is currently deploying, or will seek to deploy in the next 10 to 15 years.

Putin said these new Russian weapons were necessitated by former president George W. Bush’s 2002 decision to unilaterally withdraw from the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) treaty, thereby beginning a process that has led to the deployment of ballistic missile defenses on American territory, in Europe, and in Asia. He proclaimed that “Russia’s growing military power is a solid guarantee of global peace as this power preserves and will preserve strategic parity and the balance of forces in the world, which, as is known, have been and remain a key factor of international security after WWII and up to the present day.”

Putin—who just won re-election in Russia, securing another six-year term—went on to note:

Those who in the past 15 years have tried to accelerate an arms race and seek unilateral advantage against Russia, have introduced restrictions and sanctions that are illegal from the standpoint of international law aiming to restrain our nation’s development, including in the military area, I will say this: everything you have tried to prevent through such a policy has already happened. No one has managed to restrain Russia. Now we have to be aware of this reality and be sure that everything I have said today is not a bluff—and it is not a bluff, believe me—and to give it a thought and dismiss those who live in the past and are unable to look into the future.

In the aftermath of Putin’s address, the world was left wondering what to make of his brash declarations.

In remarks directly citing Putin’s speech, President Trump noted the dangers of an arms race, and then went on to a little boasting himself, saying America “was spending $700 billion a year” to make ensure that the United States remained “stronger than any other nation in the world by far.”

So was Putin’s own foray into post-Cold War superpower gamesmanship merely a bluff? The New York Times certainly thought so. A front-page article co-authored by two of the Gray Lady’s preeminent national security correspondents, Neil MacFarquhar and David Sanger, emphasized what they called “bluff theory” when citing expert opinion on Putin’s speech. One such “independent” analyst, Alexander Golts (notable for his anti-Putin commentary), noted that Putin, in his speech, was describing a totally new generation of weapons. “The question is,” Golts asks, “is this true?”

MacFarquhar and Sanger mined social media, pulling up the Facebook commentary of another expert, Douglas Barriea senior fellow for military aerospace at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London, whose analysis on Russian military capabilities runs heavy on skepticism. Barrie noted that the weapons Putin described “could alter the balance of power.” However, MacFarquhar and Sanger noted, Barrie questioned whether Russia was even close to deploying such systems: “Does reality mean you have an item in the budget saying, ‘Develop nuclear propulsion for a missile’? Or does it mean, ‘We’re going to have one ready to use soon’? I’d certainly want to see more evidence to believe that.”

The doubting Thomases quoted in the New York Times were matched in their nonchalance by the senior-most advisors to President Donald Trump on matters of national defense and security, Secretary of Defense James Mattis and CIA Director Mike Pompeo. Calling Putin’s announced weapons programs “an arms race with themselves,” Mattis declared that Russia “can sink all of that money in,” noting that “it does not change my strategic calculation.” Pompeo told Fox News that “We are following and tracking all of this closely,” and that “Americans should rest assured that we have a very good understanding of the Russian program and how to make sure that Americans continue to be kept safe from threats from Vladimir Putin.”

The intellectual stasis displayed by both Mattis and Pompeo is disturbing. These are not so-called “experts” drummed up by the New York Times to further the anti-Putin narrative that has become the centerpiece of the Times’s coverage over the years, but rather serious professionals who hold the security of the United States in their hands. Putin’s pronouncements during his State of the Nation address weren’t a spur-of-the-moment articulation of fantasy, but rather, as he made quite clear, the byproduct of more than a decade of focused intent to counter the threat posed to Russian national security by America’s ballistic missile defense programs. Not only had Russia not masked its intentions in this regard, it had gone out of its way to make sure that the United States was aware of what it was doing and why. In 2007, Russia purposely leaked details about the RS-28 “Sarmat” heavy missile that featured prominently in Putin’s 2018 State of the Nation address to the CIA in a futile effort to get the United States to seriously engage in arms control negotiations.  

The RS-28 is a direct descendant of the R-36 heavy ballistic missile, better known by its NATO reporting name, the SS-18 “Satan,” which over the course of its nearly 45 years in service has been an acknowledged game changer in terms of American-Russian strategic balance. The R-36’s large throw-weight (almost 20,000 pounds) allowed it to carry either a single extremely large warhead of 20 megatons or 10 independently targetable warheads of 500 to 750 kilotons each (by way of comparison, the American atomic bombs used to destroy the Japanese cities of Nagasaki and Hiroshima at the end of the Second World War possessed yields of 21 and 15 kilotons, respectively). When the R-36 became operational, it gave the Soviets a genuine first-strike capability, able to eliminate over 60 percent of American missile launch control facilities and missile silos while retaining the capability to launch another 1,000 warheads as a second strike, should the United States choose to retaliate.  

From its inception, the United States considered the R-36 the single most destabilizing strategic weapon in the Soviet arsenal and eliminating and/or limiting it became a focal point of American arms control efforts. The START I Treaty saw the number of R-36 missiles deployed reduced from 308 to 154, and the entire R-36 arsenal was scheduled to be eliminated under the terms of the START II Treaty. The decision by the United States to withdraw from the ABM Treaty in 2002, however, resulted in Russia withdrawing from the START II Treaty in response, and as such maintaining its fleet of R-36 missiles. Russia had planned on allowing the R-36 missile to be retired through obsolescence with no intended replacement; this was the intent behind its START II negotiating position.

According to the Russian narrative, the unilateral American withdrawal from the ABM Treaty changed this calculus, prompting Russia to embark on an expensive service life extension program to keep the R-36 operationally viable through 2020. Russia, according to Putin, had hoped to re-engage with the United States on meaningful arms control negotiations, but the refusal on the part of the Americans to scale back their plans for ballistic missile defense made such efforts stillborn. The Russian defense industry began researching new ballistic missile technologies that could overcome American missile defenses in 2004; this decision was made in public, Putin claims, in the hope that the United States would recognize the inherent dangers posed by such a system and re-engage on meaningful arms control. One of the new missile technologies that was being explored was a follow-on to the aging R-36, known as the RS-28 “Sarmat.”

The RS-28 is far more than a follow-on to the aging R-36 missile—it is, fundamentally, an entirely new weapon the likes of which the United States has never before seen. The “Sarmat” retains its impressive throw-weight while reducing its overall weight by nearly 50 percent by using advanced composite materials for the missile airframe and employing a new type of liquid-fuel propulsion system—the PDY-99 “pulse detonation” engine—that hyper-accelerates the RS-28 into orbit, reducing the infrared signature of the launch as well as the time available to American early-warning satellites to detect such a launch. The RS-28 is designed to either be armed with 10 750-kiloton independently targeted maneuvering warheads, each of which can destroy an American ICBM silo or launch control facility, or between 16 and 24 new hypersonic glide vehicles, each tipped with a 150-kiloton nuclear warhead, and likewise capable of taking out any hardened site on American soil. Either configuration provides Russia with the means to avoid launch detection, evade all missile defense systems, and destroy America’s land-based intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) nuclear force. In short, with the RS-28, Russia possesses a genuine first-strike capability that nullifies one third of America’s nuclear triad.  

Contrary to Secretary Mattis’s dismissive commentary, the RS-28 does, in fact, fundamentally alter the strategic balance between Russia and the United States. Moreover, Mike Pompeo knows full well that the Russians are not bluffing. Both Mattis and Pompeo had been laboring under the false impression that Russia could not afford to field a follow-on to the R-36 missile, especially considering that that missile had been built in the Ukraine during Soviet times, and as such those capabilities were lost to Russian defense industry. The RS-28, however, is a reality—the Russians simply reconfigured their own indigenous missile production capability and will have at least 50 of the new missiles operational by 2020. It’s a reality that America’s leadership might want to factor into any future policy toward Moscow.

Scott Ritter is a former Marine Corps intelligence officer who served in the former Soviet Union implementing arms control treaties, in the Persian Gulf during Operation Desert Storm, and in Iraq overseeing the disarmament of WMD. He is the author of Deal of the Century: How Iran Blocked the West’s Road to War.