Putin's Arsenal: How Russia Is Playing With Nuclear Fire
While Western countries are increasing their military support to Kyiv, Russian President Vladimir Putin threatens to use his new hypersonic missiles. He thereby makes the threat of a nuclear war in Europe a little more concrete.
How far will Vladimir Putin go in Ukraine? More than 60 days after the outbreak of the conflict, few dare to try to answer this question. But by his words and actions, the Russian president seems ready to do anything.
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After closing gas supplies to Poland and Bulgaria, both members of the European Union and NATO, Putin is now threatening to make use of his latest-generation missiles against Western countries, as they step up delivery of heavy weapons to Kyiv.
“If anyone intends to intervene in the ongoing events and to make strategic threats against Russia, this will be unacceptable to us. They should know that our retaliatory strikes will be immediate,” the Russian president said last week, speaking before Parliament. “We have all the tools for this, things no one else can boast of possessing right now. And we will not boast, we will use them if necessary. And I want everyone to know that,” he added.
Putin was referring to his latest, “invincible” missiles, as he calls them. Having embarked on a policy of modernization of its military arsenal in recent years, Russia, the world’s leading nuclear power, became the first country to develop hypersonic weapons.
These missiles were conceived to fly at a high speed and to be able to change direction in flight, making them more difficult to intercept. They can be used to launch conventional warheads at higher speeds and with greater accuracy, but can also carry nuclear weapons.
Russia owns several of these latest-generation missiles with devastating potential. Among those, the “Kinjal” (Russian for “dagger”) can fly up to Mach 10 or. 7,612 mph, and reach targets located 1,242 miles away. Highly maneuverable and capable of defying anti-aircraft defense systems, it already equips MiG-31 warplanes.
Russia used it for the first time on March 18 in Ukraine to destroy an underground depot of missiles and ammunition.
Avangard and Zircon
There is also the Avangard, which got a lot of coverage during its testing phase in 2018. According to the Kremlin, this hypersonic missile is able to reach a speed superior to 20,716 mph (Mach 27) and, above all, to change course and altitude at a very high speed, making it “practically invincible” in Putin's words.
There is also the Zircon, a missile which maximum range averages 621 miles, and which can fly at eight times the speed of sound (or 6,138 mph). It has been slated to equip the Russian Navy’s warships and submarines as of this year.
This missile of more than 200 tons can carry 10 nuclear warheads.
Russia recently presented one of its most powerful weapons to the world, the fifth-generation advanced intercontinental ballistic missile RS-28 Sarmat. It is aimed to be more effective than its predecessor, the R-36 Voevoda — renamed “Satan” by NATO experts — with a range of 6,835 miles. Logically nicknamed “Satan II”, Sarma has “practically no limits in terms of range” and is capable of “aiming at targets across the North Pole and the South Pole,” Putin said in 2019.
Sarmat’s main threat lies in its ability to foil all modern anti-aircraft systems — which makes it “without equivalent” to date, according to the Russian president. Yet what makes this feature all the more worrisome is that this missile of more than 200 tons can carry 10 nuclear warheads. According to the Russian media, “Satan II” is thus able to destroy a territory as large as Texas or … France. After having successfully tested it in late April, Russia intends to deploy it in the autumn at the latest.
Photo of activists playfully demonstrating in Germany to the New Start Treaty extension agreed by Vladimir Putin and Joe Biden
As for the other latest-generation missiles developed by Russia in recent years, and as for any nuclear arsenal, these weapons remain officially tools of deterrence for now. During “Satan II”’s test firing, Putin evoked “a unique weapon […] which will make those who try to threaten our country with aggressive and unhinged rhetoric think twice.”
The risk of nuclear escalation of the Ukrainian conflict is nonetheless real. “Given the potential desperation of President Putin and the Russian leadership, given the setbacks that they’ve faced so far militarily, none of us can take lightly the threat posed by a potential resort to tactical nuclear weapons or low-yield nuclear weapons,” CIA director William Burns noted recently.
And beyond Ukraine, “Russia’s massive and sustained investment in the modernization of its nuclear arsenal questions the concept of strategic stability,” said Pavel Baev, a research professor at Oslo’s Peace Research Institute, in a note published two years ago.
He continued, “Moscow’s willingness to exploit its real and supposed advantages in terms of nuclear capacity for political purposes represents a serious threat to its European neighbors.”
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