Russian President Vladimir Putin boasted Thursday that Russia has developed a new generation of nuclear weapons capable of bypassing any missile defense system — a claim that drew a rebuke from the White House and raised the specter of a rekindled Cold War-style arms rivalry.
Some analysts said the bellicose tone of Putin’s state of the nation speech appeared mainly meant to bolster a tough image in advance of this month’s presidential election, in which his victory is a foregone conclusion. Others questioned whether the new Russian weapon, if it exists, would represent a genuine threat to American security.
Putin’s rhetoric, replete with warnings that the Kremlin would respond accordingly to any nuclear attack on Russia or its allies, marked some of the most aggressive language he has deployed in the 13 months that President Trump has been in office.
“No one was listening,” the Russian leader declared. “Now you will listen.”
The White House, in turn, called Putin’s comments a vindication of Trump’s pledge to modernize the U.S. nuclear arsenal and beef up defensive capabilities.
“President Putin has confirmed what the United States government has known all along, which Russia has denied — Russia has been developing destabilizing weapon systems for over a decade, in direct violations of its treaty obligations,” said White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders.
Trump, she said, “understands the threats facing America and our allies in this century, and is determined to protect our homeland and preserve peace through strength.”
Putin’s annual address to the Federal Assembly, which encompasses both houses of Russia’s parliament, was marked by not only rhetorical flourishes, but also eye-catching visuals. As he stood at the podium, animated videos and graphics were projected onto the large screen behind him, aiming to illustrate the might of the new weapons, which he said included the nuclear-powered, nuclear-armed cruise missile, an underwater drone and a hypersonic missile.
The new weapons would render NATO’s U.S.-led missile defense system “useless,” Putin intoned as a video behind him showed a graphic of a missile weaving around purported missile defense systems on a spinning model of the Earth.
In Washington, State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert called the simulated attack “cheesy,” adding, “We don't regard that as the behavior of a responsible international player.”
The Putin presentation marked “a mix of old and new news,” said Malcolm Chalmers, the deputy director-general of the Royal United Services Institute, a British defense think tank.
”This is an election speech he was making,” said Chalmers, noting that the United States and Russia have for decades had the ability to overwhelm each other’s defenses with a massive nuclear strike aimed at multiple cities — but with the deterrent factor that such a strike would be met in kind while missiles were still in the air.
Nonetheless, he and others said the new cruise missile, as described by Putin, reflects Russian fears about U.S. defensive capabilities. The Trump administration last month released a Nuclear Posture Review that says the U.S. “now faces a more diverse and advanced nuclear-threat environment than ever before,” which it vowed to contain.
Some analysts said the Putin speech reflected an increasingly muscular posture by Moscow that is already playing out on the ground.
Thomas Karako, the director of the Missile Defense Project at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, said Putin’s speech demonstrates a desire to “come up with new and innovative ways to deliver nuclear weapons,” but also fit a larger pattern of menacing neighbors and North Atlantic Treaty Organization allies.
“This is an example of Russia being provocative,” Karako said. “We have to take that seriously.”
In his speech, Putin accused other nations of fueling the arms race by trying to outdo Russia’s weapons and imposing sanctions meant to hinder Russia’s weapons development.
“All [that] you wanted to impede with your policies already happened,” he said. “You have failed to contain Russia.”
The new cruise missiles, which Putin said were tested in the fall, have unlimited range and the ability to operate at high speeds, allowing them to avoid any missile defense system. The Russian leader also devoted nearly 40 minutes to touting development of underwater drones, hypersonic warheads and “menacing" intercontinental ballistic missiles.
Putin blamed the U.S. for abandoning the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, from which President George W. Bush withdrew the United States in 2002, and subsequently refusing to cooperate.
“At some point, it seemed to me that a compromise [on missile defense with the U.S.] could be found. But no,” Putin said.
Because of this, he said, Russia was forced to create new weapons to respond to U.S. actions that deployed missile defenses on the territory of other countries. Putin was probably referring to NATO’s defense systems in former Warsaw Pact countries that Russia has said threaten regional stability.
Some observers saw an increasingly dangerous dynamic.
“For the foreseeable future, it looks that the U.S.-Russia agenda will be limited to just one item: war prevention. Good luck to us all,” Dmitri Trenin, an analyst with the Carnegie Moscow Center, tweeted after Putin’s address.
Only three weeks before the March 18 presidential election, Putin’s annual address was meant to outline his vision for the country for the first time since announcing his bid for reelection in December. With an 80% approval rating, Putin — who has been either prime minister or president since 1999 — is expected to easily win a fourth term and remain in power until 2024.
Until Thursday’s speech, Russian voters had heard very little about the president’s goals for the next six years. With the outcome of the election all but guaranteed, the buildup to the vote has been met with very little excitement from the Russian public.
Seven other candidates are competing for Putin’s post, although none are considered to be in real opposition to the Kremlin.
Putin predictably focused the first hour of the speech on domestic issues, such as poverty reduction and improving the country’s health and education infrastructures.The Kremlin leader said Russia’s economic growth, which was 1.6% in 2017, should exceed the expected global level of growth of 3.1% in 2018 — a forecast some analysts deemed overly rosy.
“He seems to be talking about something wildly optimistic,” said William Courtney, a Rand Corp. analyst and a former ambassador to Georgia and Kazakhstan, both ex-Soviet republics. Nationalist rhetoric on weaponry, he said, may have been intended to paper over sagging economic prospects.
The annual national address has in the past been held at the gilded Kremlin Palace. Thursday’s speech was relocated to the Moscow Manege, a 19th century exhibition hall just outside the Kremlin’s red-brick walls.
The audience included both houses of parliament, regional governors and members of the Cabinet and administration. Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev sat in the front row close to the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Kirill, whose presence in Russian politics had played a key role in Putin’s nationalistic response to what the Kremlin sees as Western attempts to undermine Russia’s emergence.
In a seemingly lighthearted echo of Trump’s populist showmanship, Putin announced a name-the-weapon contest for Russia’s new cruise missile and unmanned underwater drone. Participants can log onto Russia’s Defense Ministry website to enter their ideas, he said.
“We are waiting for your responses,” Putin said to applause.