Putin’s Soviet Throwback: Build More Nukes, Blame the West

Photo: Mikhail Klimentyev/AP

On March 1, Russian President Vladimir Putin boasted of new nuclear-capable weapons that could overcome any U.S. missile defenses, in a feisty pre-election “state-of-the-nation” speech. He presented Russian military force as a “guarantor of peace on our planet,” and also made some over-the-top economic and social promises, just 17 days before Russia’s March 18 poll, where Putin will seek a fourth term in an electoral contest that has already seen a major challenger excluded.

We asked our experts to comment on Putin’s speech. Comments are adapted below for print.

Adm. (ret.) James Stavridis, former Supreme Allied Commander, NATO, & Dean of the Fletcher School

Putin’s public announcements about new Russian weapons systems sounded like Q explaining to James Bond all the goodies in the MI6 locker, or a bit like the North Korean annual “big missiles” parade. Nonetheless, we should take him seriously for three reasons.

First, U.S. intelligence has been tracking these systems for years and this provides us useful information to consider; second, this illuminates his “go big” strategy for dealing with the U.S., including an aggressive stance backed up by destabilizing weapons; and third, it should spur us to develop counters to what he is describing. The history of warfare is the history of offense versus defense, with first one, and then the other in ascendency. We need to do the research and development, testing, fielding and training to deal with the new battlefield he is describing, with both offensive and defensive capabilities.

I’d say take him very seriously as he is a serious person with deep and abiding antipathy toward NATO in general and the U.S. in particular. He is also backed up by capable scientists. We should not overreact, but we need a strategy for Russia that includes diplomatic, economic, cultural and military elements. With this announcement, Vladimir Putin is forcing us to adjust our strategy in all dimensions.

Rob Dannenberg, former Chief of the Central Eurasia Division, CIA

I’m not surprised at all that Putin used his annual “state of the nation” speech (moved from its traditional December timeframe to March, just ahead of the Russian presidential election) as a platform to highlight Russia’s military prowess. This is consistent with his pattern in his nearly 19 years of running Russia (he is now Russia’s longest serving leader since Stalin) striving to regain for Russia a prominent position on the world stage. Putin surely knows Russia can never compete with the U.S. and the West economically so his only option is through demonstrating military power—and the willingness to use it, as in Crimea and Syria. I don’t think his speech revealed anything that wasn’t already known to the U.S., and after the release of the U.S. Nuclear Posture Review, it’s no surprise Putin used the speech pulpit to look tough in front of the Russian people.

There is certainly some grandstanding for the Russian people in Putin’s speech and accompanying digitally-enhanced video, but more importantly, there is a message to the U.S. that there is a new arms race underway—and Putin may have stolen a march on us as we have underinvested in strategic weapons for at least the past decade. Moreover, as Putin threatened nuclear weapons use if Russia or its allies are attacked, how does that factor into a U.S. “bloody nose” strike against North Korea or another U.S. strike against Bashar Assad’s forces in Syria? I would also note Yevgeny Prigozhin’s Wagner force mercenaries (allegedly hired by Putin) certainly suffered their own bloody nose in their ill-fated attack on U.S./anti-Assad forced in Syria in early February.

Frankly, the U.S. needs in my view to re-evaluate completely its approach to Russia. First, we need to recognize Putin is the arch enemy of the West. He and the clique of former KGB officers that run Russia hate everything for which the West stands: market economy; rule of law; freedom of choice and freedom of expression. These concepts are threatening and loathsome to Putin and his gang. That understood, we need to recognize there is no negotiating with him. (He will lie and cheat on any negotiated agreement—look at the Minsk agreements that are supposed to lead to peace in Ukraine, for example.) Our graduated approach toward sanctioning Russia for misbehaving has patently failed.

Have our sanctions persuaded Putin to renounce the annexation of Crimea or reduce support for secessionists in the Don Basin? Has our CAATSA sanctions package—slow in coming—caused Russia to cease its cyber malfeasance? Russia’s behavior will not change until the regime is changed. That should be our focus and strategy. Putin has turned Russia into a pariah and rogue state and he should be treated as a pariah. We should relentlessly expose to the Russian people the corruption and cynicism of Putinism. Look at the work of [opposition activist] Alexei Navalny in exposing corruption and the impact it has had in Russia, especially among young people. We should support, expand upon and replicate that work. Lastly, we should go after the money of the oligarchs that support and benefit from the system Putin has created.

Adm. (ret.) Sandy Winnefeld, former Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff

These “new” weapons come as no surprise to the U.S. intelligence community and, by extension, to the policy and military communities. We have been aware of them for some time, and much of what the U.S. has been doing in nuclear policy is in response. For example, the Nuclear Posture Review’s resurrection of a sea-based nuclear cruise missile is an attempt to level a future negotiation playing field in response to Russia’s violation of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces treaty.

Putin’s speech reflects a combination of traditional Russian paranoia, which has resulted in willful misinterpretation of the scale and purpose of U.S. missile defense systems, and grandstanding by Putin in advance of Russia’s election. We have to remember that, even though he is sure to win, in an authoritarian state like Russia, the win has to be overwhelming or the leader loses legitimacy. Thus, Putin’s speech is principally aimed at his public.

U.S. policy-makers should not over-react, much less panic. They should see the speech for what it is, remain firm in establishing a strong position, and highlight Putin’s hint in his speech about negotiations.

Some are reacting to Putin’s statement that Russia’s new weapons can defeat missile defenses. This only reflects the depths of Russian misunderstanding. U.S. missile defenses are not designed to, and are not intended to, defend against an intentional Russian nuclear attack. They are designed to defend against a limited attack from a nation such as Iran or North Korea, or perhaps an accidental single launch from a more capable nation like Russia or China. This truth has never penetrated Russia’s calculus. But we know what our defenses are, and are not, intended to do.

John Sipher, former member of the CIA’s Senior Intelligence Service

I don’t think any of it is a surprise to those in the U.S. government that have been watching Russia. It is vintage Putin.

I would advise our policymakers not to make too much of Putin’s comments. They are not a surprise. It is his means to deter the much bigger and more powerful West, and signal to his people prior to the Russian Presidential “election” that he is a serious player on the international stage. Our reaction should be to continue to modernize and improve our nuclear and military capability, and support our allies.

So much of this goes directly to Putin, his mindset and a long-held sense of betrayal and inferiority. It may be surprising to those who don’t follow Russia, but it is 100% consistent for anyone who has been watching Putin over the years.

First, the weapon systems he described are real and the U.S. has been aware of them for years. I don’t know, but would bet that our recent discussions of nuclear modernization etc. was in reaction to some of these things that we have witnessed the Russians working on.

Creating doomsday weapons is also consistent with what we saw in 2016. Russian hybrid warfare, information warfare known as “Active Measures” are the weapons of the weak against the strong. Like terrorists who cannot take on a superpower frontally, they look for weaknesses to exploit. Our tribalism and hyper-partisanship was our weakness. Likewise, seeking a powerful nuclear capability – to include “secret” weapons – is a means by which a weaker power can deter a stronger one.

Putin is all about staying in power. He needs to look powerful to his people and his neighbors. He needs to have an enemy to blame for the problems at home. He has been bitter for a long-time over the U.S. comfort with taking action around the world, without taking Russia into account. He grew up in a superpower and was scarred by its downfall for being “weak.” Likewise, he has seen the U.S. involved in regime change in Serbia, Libya, Egypt, Iraq, Ukraine etc. He fears and is angered by it. He blames us for things we’ve done and much we haven’t. He is obsessed with appearing strong.

By taking such an aggressive tone, he is like a cornered animal. He is escalating the debate, and also appealing to his people that Russia is a great power.

Andrew Weber, former Assistant Secretary of Defense for Nuclear, Chemical & Biological Defense Programs

What is so striking about President Vladimir Putin’s macho nuclear saber-rattling and announcement of new nuclear weapons systems is how closely it echoes President Donald Trump’s recent nuclear chest-thumping and announcement of new nuclear weapons systems. Look out world, we are in an arms race that is spinning out of control. Where are statesmen like Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev when we so badly need them?

Granted, some of this is political posturing, as Putin’s speech is on the eve of the Russian presidential elections. Although they are uncontested, Kremlin worries over an embarrassing low turnout persist. After 18 years of economic cronyism and corruption under Putin, the economy is in a doldrums, reminiscent of the Leonid Brezhnev-era stagnation.

Although presidential nuclear rhetoric, or declaratory policy, matters a lot, as a former director of the Nuclear Weapons Council, I tend to focus on actual investments in nuclear weapons hardware. The most worrisome recent trend is major Russian and American investment in new nuclear weapons systems, especially the most dangerous and destabilizing class of nuclear weapons – cruise missiles. These weapons, which come in indistinguishable conventional and nuclear variants, can be launched without warning in decapitating first strikes. They are also nearly impossible to defend against, so it is not surprising that Putin framed his new nuclear cruise missiles as intended to bypass America’s ballistic missile defenses.

So what next? Intriguingly, both Trump and Putin have explicitly left the door open for a return to the arms control negotiating table. In a best case scenario, all of these new nuclear weapons systems could be used as bargaining chips in the arms control deal of the 21st Century. Since 2015, Former Secretary of Defense Bill Perry and I have been quietly building the case around the world for a bold next step in global arms control – an effort to cap and eliminate all nuclear armed cruise missiles. This would include all nuclear-tipped sea-, air- and ground-launched cruise missiles of any range, and could also capture the underwater drone cited in Putin’s speech. The alternative to arms control is a costly and dangerous arms race nobody can win.

Daniel Hoffman, former CIA Chief of Station

Putin’s speech was very much a domestic campaign stump speech, but in addition to being aimed at Russian constituents, it was directed at regional and global allies and enemies, including the United States.

There are three takeaways. First, Putin deliberately exaggerates the military threat from NATO, and he does this for two reasons: to justify the existence of his own military spy state, and to conflate this purported military threat with the West’s democratic ideals, which are the real existential threat to Putin’s security. That’s an old Soviet tactic.

Secondly, he is essentially outlining the Putin Doctrine, which is Soviet-style military strength focused on a nuclear capability. Putin has mounted aggressive military campaigns in former Soviet states as well as the Middle East, and this approach gives Russia a measure of deterrence as well as a free hand as it acts the aggressor in these regions.

And lastly, we’re hearing a little bit of the same economic message that we heard 10 years ago when [current Prime Minister] Dmitry Medvedev was “running for president.” He talked about the “three I’s”: innovation, investment, and infrastructure. Putin is similarly promising economic growth for his citizens, and it sounds to me like a Soviet five-year plan. But that message is delivered in the context of this “serious threat from the West,” which is, as Putin would argue, making his job of economic growth that much more difficult. This supposed threat is the reason for whatever he has failed to do domestically.

As for technology – what’s new is Putin’s open description and bluster about a new intercontintental ballistic missile (ICBM), a supersonic weapon, and a new small nuclear warhead. It’s like the equivalent of the Soviet military parade on “Defend the Fatherland Day,” but Putin is just doing it with words. And he’s got to do it now because he has an election on March 18.

The person Putin holds in the greatest esteem is his mentor, Yuri Andropov, former director of the KGB and General Secretary of the Communist Party. Putin follows a lot of the same basic central tenets of governance, including a real effort to project military power even though his economy is the size of Italy. He wants to project a level of Russian military power that allows it to go toe-to-toe with the United States on the world stage. It’s a little bit of bluster, but it’s designed psychologically to show he’s on the world stage and competing against the United States—“just like the old days.”


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4 Replies to “Putin’s Soviet Throwback: Build More Nukes, Blame the West”
  1. Putin has displayed an uncanny knack for making America look weak, hesitant and foolish on the global stage. His sabre rattling is intended to play to the domestic audience but it is also, in my opinion, designed to make America look foolish yet again. Trump has been pushing for a military parade. Putin follows up by boasting about the new nuclear firepower Russia now has. I can well imagine a White House scene where POTUS demands the BIGGEST display of weapons that can be assembled in order to answer Putin’s challenge. If such a parade were to happen, something America has always eschewed with good reason, the world would see the same sort of macho posturing that authoritarian regimes are invariably prone to. Such parades are more often than not a measure of weakness, not strength and America has been wise not to emulate them. Sadly for the United States and the world Donald Trump is not a wise president, nor does he come anywhere near understanding the central importance of foreign affairs and international relations that a president of the world’s most powerful country requires to both defend and secure America and keep the world safe for democracy.

  2. Putin might be using a play from the Soviet play book that announces a new radical weapon system acquisition when in reality it might produce one prototype. The Americans intelligence agencies announce a new weapons gap and proceed to spend hundreds of billions on catching up only to find that there was no gap. The Soviets then wet their pants laughing for making the Americans spend their money for nothing.

    1. Bravo! I want to tell all the experts who expressed their opinion in this article. I live in Russia. I am surprised and delighted with the depth of reasoning and evaluations that I have read here. I was very pleased to learn that the United States has an adequate understanding of the situation in Russia. The only inaccuracy is the exaggerated significance and authority of the political oppositionist – Alexei Navalny. He, Ksenia Sobchak and other dummies and political clowns. These are puppets who think that they are making an independent game. In Russia, these clowns do not have a future (for a variety of reasons). You can not bet on them. About Putin and his motives, everything is said absolutely absolutely. Thank you for your professionalism and clear political evaluation. I will always be happy to help you, with my opinions and suggestions. Great article! Bravo.

  3. Of all the opinions by the experts in this article, the only one grounded in Reality is that of Andrew Weber.