In his April 2021 State of the Nation address to the Russian Federal Assembly, Russian President Vladimir Putin expanded the list of his nuclear superweapons first announced in 2018 from six to eight. He states:
By 2024, the share of modern weapons and military equipment in the armed forces will reach nearly 76 percent, which is a very good indicator. This share in the nuclear triad will be over 88 percent before this year is out.
Standing on combat duty are the latest Avangard hypersonic intercontinental missile systems and the Peresvet combat laser systems, and the first regiment armed with Sarmat super-heavy intercontinental ballistic missiles is scheduled to go on combat duty in late 2022.
The number of combat air systems with Kinzhal hypersonic missiles, and warships armed with precision hypersonic weapons such as Kinzhal that I mentioned and with the Kalibr missiles, is increasing. The Tsirkon hypersonic missiles will be put on combat duty soon. Work is underway on other modern combat systems, including Poseidon and Burevestnik, in accordance with the development plans of the Armed Forces.
As the leader in the creation of new-generation combat systems and in the development of modern nuclear forces, Russia is urging its partners once again to discuss the issues related to strategic armaments and to ensuring global stability. The subject matter and the goal of these talks could be the creation of an environment for a conflict-free coexistence based on the security equation, which would include not only the traditional strategic armaments, such as intercontinental ballistic missiles, heavy bombers, and submarines, but – I would like to emphasize this – all offensive and defensive systems capable of attaining strategic goals regardless of the armament.
His statement tells the reader a lot about Russian thinking regarding nuclear forces. Nuclear weapons are described as “combat systems.” Russia is "the leader in the creation of new-generation combat systems and in the development of modern nuclear forces…." This is particularly striking in light of the timing (discussion of a Biden-Putin summit) and because of the wholesale attack on the U.S. nuclear deterrent, particularly the ICBM force, by the American Left currently underway. The issues related to “strategic armaments and to ensuring global stability” are clear references to Russian efforts to limit not only the U.S.’s nuclear capability but U.S. conventional weapons, missile defense and space capabilities.
Putin’s nuclear superweapons are intended to intimidate. The West does not have them and is not trying to develop them. When Putin first spoke about them in 2018, he characterized them as “unique achievements of our scientists, designers and engineers.” As Dr. Maxim Starchak, a Russian expert on nuclear weapons and the nuclear industry and a Fellow at the Centre for International and Defence Policy of the Queen’s University has stated, “According to Putin, the nuclear triad remains the most important and crucial factor guaranteeing Russia’s military security, giving Russia flexibility and reducing other powers’ ability to exert pressure.” According to Putin, Russia’s nuclear superweapons now include “…warships armed with precision hypersonic weapons such as Kinzhal that I mentioned, and with the Kalibr missiles” whose deployment “is increasing.” Putin’s nuclear superweapons are a subset of a much larger group of both strategic and non-strategic nuclear weapons. The criteria for inclusion of a new weapon in Putin’s superweapon category are not completely clear, but certainly, advanced technology and hypersonic weapons are very high on the list. The ship-based Kinzhal is hypersonic; the Kalibr, however, is in a different category.
Putin announced the Kinzhal in his 2018 State of the Nation address, saying it was a hypersonic, nuclear-capable missile launched by the supersonic Mig-31, capable of both land-attack and anti-ship attacks with a range of over 2,000-km. The Kinzhal is apparently a derivative of the land-based nuclear-capable Iskander-M aeroballistic missile. In February 2018, TASS reported that Russia was developing an improved version of the Iskander-M and that the inventory of these missiles would be increased. The improved version could be related to Putin’s April 2021 announcement of a ship-launched version of the Kinzhal. Putin did not release a range number, but since the Kinzhal is apparently a derivative of the nuclear-capable Iskander-M, information about the range of the Iskander-M is relevant.
Russia understates the range of the Iskander-M (they say 500-km) because an accurate range number would create the appearance (but not necessarily the reality) of an INF Treaty violation. Lithuanian Foreign Minister Linas Linkevicius has said that the Iskander-M has a range of 435 miles (700-km). There are some reports that the Iskander-M has a range of 1,000-km. The Kinzhal creates a new surface ship-based capability -- a maneuvering hypersonic threat to both surface ships and land targets. This weapon system clearly has a non-strategic nuclear capability, although, in some circumstances, it could attack the U.S.
For over a decade, Russian officials have been making nuclear threats, including targeting threats, related to the forward deployment of Iskander-M missiles in Kaliningrad [a Russian enclave between Poland and Lithuania on the Baltic Sea separated from mainland Russia] seen as an option “for destroying missile defense infrastructure in Europe.” For example, in 2008, then-President of Russia Dmitry Medvedev threatened the forward deployment of Iskander-M missiles at Kaliningrad in order to “…neutralize the [U.S.] missile defense system.” This deployment has now happened.
The other new superweapon is the nuclear-capable Kalibr long-range cruise missile. It functions as both a land attack and anti-ship missile. The Kalibr has sometimes been reported to have a supersonic dash capability. This would increase its capability against surface ships. Michael Kofman and Jeffrey Edmonds of the Center for Naval Analysis have pointed out, “A single [Russian] Yasen-class [submarine] in the Atlantic can deliver thirty-two nuclear-tipped Kalibr missiles to the east coast.” Improved Yasen class submarines continue to be produced. In December 2020, Russian Deputy Defense Minister Alexei Krivoruchko said, “In all, it is planned to deliver 15 nuclear submarines of Projects Borei-A and Yasen-M in accordance with the current state armament program for the period until 2027.”
It is rather arbitrary whether the Kalibr is classified as a strategic or non-strategic nuclear weapon since it can perform both missions. Putin has stated that the Kalibr “…can be equipped either with conventional or special nuclear warheads.” Russia’s main non-government news agency Interfax-AVN reported that the Kalibr has a “nuclear kiloton warhead.” This is consistent with a 2009 statement by Vice Admiral Oleg Burtsev, then-First Deputy Chief of the Russian Naval Staff, who said that tactical nuclear weapons might be the wave of the future and, “We can install low-yield warheads on existing cruise missiles.” In 2009, Russia’s main official news agency ITAR-TASS (now called TASS) reported that "The nuclear submarine Severodvinsk [Yasen-class] will be equipped with long-range cruise missiles that can potentially carry low-capacity tactical warheads.” This is apparently a reference to the Kalibr.
In November 2017, General of the Army Valery Gerasimov said the range of the Kalibr was 4,000-km. This is apparently a reference to the reported improved version of the Kalibr. The 2020 State Department report on noncompliance with arms control agreements confirmed prior press reports that there was an INF Treaty compliance issue relating to the Kalibr. Under the INF Treaty, land-based ballistic and cruise missiles with ranges between 500 and 5,500 kilometers were banned.
Overall, Putin’s 2021 address to the nation was less outrageous than his notorious 2018 address in which the nuclear superweapons were announced. However, the political-military context created by the Kremlin is worse now and more threatening than the situation surrounding Putin’s address in 2018. The March 2021 Russian Arctic naval exercise (Umka-21), the largest ever, involved a simulated launch from the Arctic ice by three nuclear ballistic missile submarines, about a quarter of Russia’s nuclear ballistic missile force. Putin declared this had never before happened, even in Soviet times. Concerning this exercise and related developments, Air Force General Glen VanHerck, the Commander of U.S. Northern Command, said on April 1, 2021, “Within the last week or so, there’s been significant activity in the Arctic.” He went on, “These Russian military operations include multiple flights of heavy bombers, anti-submarine aircraft, and intelligence collection platforms near Alaska. These efforts show both Russia’s military reach and how they rehearse potential strikes on our homeland. Last summer, the Russian Navy focused its annual OCEAN SHIELD exercise on the defense of Russia’s maritime approaches in the Arctic and Pacific.”
In April 2021, the Russian nuclear-armed ICBM force conducted an exercise with the announced strength of 15,000 troops and 3,000 pieces of equipment, Typically, the largest exercise of this type involves 3,000-3,500 troops. A massive Russian exercise threatened an invasion of Ukraine and, quite possibly based on the scale of the Russian mobilization, a war against NATO. In one of the largest exercises in the history of the Russian Federation, Russia mobilized more than 300,000 troops, 180 ships and 900 aircraft throughout Russia. Notwithstanding the announcement by Russia that it has returned troops to their bases, as British Russia expert Robert McDermott has astutely pointed out, “While the immediate war scare has passed, tensions in the border areas are set to continue, with all the potential risks of conflict escalation.”
In May 2021, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov claimed the Arctic region, saying the Arctic was “our territory, our land.” Russian nuclear threats are in part very much linked to their unfounded claims to the Arctic. A few days after Lavrov’s statement, Putin declared, “Everyone wants to bite us or bite off a piece of Russia. But anyone who tries it should know that we will knock out their teeth so that they cannot bite. This goes without saying, and the development of our Armed Forces guarantees it.” Putin also reiterated that "We have the most advanced nuclear deterrent forces of all nuclear powers.” He specifically mentioned one of the superweapons, the hypersonic nuclear-armed missile the Avangard. One of the political aims of his nuclear superweapons is to deter Western opposition to Russian military expansion.
Putin’s imagery about the West’s wanting to “bite us or bite off a piece of Russia” is a throwback to his 2004 statement blaming the West for the terrorist attack at Beslan, which killed a large number of children. He stated, “Some want to wrest from us as fat a morsel as possible, and others are helping them. They are helping them in the belief that Russia, as one of the biggest nuclear powers, still represents a threat to someone. Therefore this threat has to be eliminated. And terrorism is, of course, only a tool for achieving these goals.” Putin is no longer shy about making explicit threats: “we will knock out their teeth so that they cannot bite.”
From a deterrence standpoint, it does not matter what the American Left thinks about the importance of Putin’s nuclear superweapons. What is critical is Putin's perception of them, and he makes this loud and clear. What is vitally important is that the U.S. rid itself of the delusion that Minimum Deterrence is going to deter Putin and that a modern, effective Triad is unnecessary to sustain stability and peace.
Dr. Mark B. Schneider is a Senior Analyst with the National Institute for Public Policy. Before his retirement from the Department of Defense Senior Executive Service, Dr. Schneider served in a number of senior positions within the Office of Secretary of Defense for Policy including Principal Director for Forces Policy, Principal Director for Strategic Defense, Space and Verification Policy, Director for Strategic Arms Control Policy and Representative of the Secretary of Defense to the Nuclear Arms Control Implementation Commissions. He also served in the senior Foreign Service as a Member of the State Department Policy Planning Staff.
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