Russian President Vladimir Putin told members of the Russian media on Wednesday that if the US exits the Intermediate Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty and deploys nuclear weapons to Europe, Russia will follow suit—by placing nuclear weapons off the coast of the US. The comments came on the heels of an announcement by Putin that a nuclear powered, nuclear-armed unmanned submersible vehicle (essentially a giant nuclear torpedo) was nearly ready for deployment. The Russian president said the first submarine equipped to carry it would be ready as soon as this spring.
“If they create threats to us, they should be aware of the potential consequences, so that they will not accuse us of unnecessary aggressiveness or whatever later,” Putin said in comments following his February 20 address to Russia’s Federal Assembly. “They have announced their decision,” he said, referencing President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw from the INF treaty. “We know what can follow it. We tell them, ‘Do the maths. Can you count? So, do it before making any decisions that would create additional threats to you.'”
To make that point clearer, Putin gave some of the numbers for “the maths.” First, he would put nuclear-armed missiles on submarines or surface ships. “At a speed of Mach 9, these missiles can strike a target more than 1,000 km away,” he explained. “Under the Law of the Sea, the exclusive economic zone is defined at some 400 km or 200 miles. Do the maths. The distance of 1,000 kilometers at Mach 9. How soon, in how many minutes, can these weapons reach their targets? Just compare, the flight time to Moscow is between 10 and 12 minutes. How long would it take to reach the decision-making centers that are creating threats to us? The calculation is not in their favor, at least, not today.”
Putin acknowledged “problems” between the US and Russia, but he blamed the US government for creating even more problems:
Is there any harsh confrontation between two world systems, as it happened during the Cold War? Absolutely not. Yes, we do have mutual complaints and different approaches to problems, and the complaints are mutual. But this is no reason for aggravating this to the level of the Cuban Missile Crisis of the 1960s. Anyway, I think we do not want this. If somebody else wants this, they can do it. I have said today what will follow. Let them make their calculations.
During his speech to the Federal Assembly, Putin stressed that the United States’ “unilateral withdrawal from the INF Treaty is the most urgent and most discussed issue in Russian-American relations.” He accused the US of making “far-fetched accusations” about Russia violating the INF treaty with land-based cruise missiles “to justify their unilateral withdrawal from the treaty.”
The US government has made several claims of Russian violations of the INF, particularly focusing on ground-launched cruise missiles. That’s what the US military refers to as the SSC-8—thought to be a modification of a sea-launched or air-launched cruise missile already in the Russian inventory. Under the INF, missiles carried by mobile ground launchers must have a maximum range either of less than 1000 kilometers (roughly 600 miles) or more than 5500 kilometers (3,400 miles). The SSC-8, now deployed, is reported to have a range of as great as 2,500 kilometers (1,550 miles)—within the banned range window. That has prompted the White House to declare that Russia is in violation of the INF treaty, triggering President Donald Trump’s declaration that the US would withdraw from the treaty as a result.
For its part, Russia has argued that the US’ Aegis Ashore systems—the antiballistic missile installations that the US has positioned in Romania and Poland—are a violation of the INF Treaty. While the Aegis facilities are not currently equipped or configured to launch, the Russian foreign ministry has argued that the facilities could be used to launch Tomahawk cruise missiles. The US Navy retired the Tomahawk Land Attack Missile-Nuclear (TLAM-N) from service during the Obama administration, but there has been discussion of introducing a new, improved nuclear Tomahawk.
Putin also called out the US’ development of targets for ballistic missile defense testing as an INF violation. “First, the Americans began developing and using medium-range missiles, calling them discretionary ‘target missiles”’ for missile defense,” he said in his speech to the Federal Assembly. “Then they began deploying Mk-41 universal launch systems [the launchers used by Aegis Ashore] that can make offensive combat use of Tomahawk medium-range cruise missiles possible… having done everything I have just described, the Americans openly and blatantly ignored the provisions envisaged by articles 4 and 6 of the INF Treaty.”
The Mk-41 containerized launchers have been in Romania for some time, he said.
Russia’s return to nuclear weapons development has in large part been a response to the US exit from the Anti-ballistic Missile Treaty (ABM Treaty) executed by the George W. Bush administration and the continued development of a ballistic missile defense by the US. Long-range cruise missiles are just part of the collection of apocalyptic firepower Putin’s government has in development.
During his Federal Assembly speech, Putin said, “The Burevestnik nuclear-powered cruise missile of unlimited range and the Poseidon nuclear-powered unmanned underwater vehicle of unlimited range are successfully undergoing tests… today we can say that as soon as this spring the first nuclear-powered submarine carrying this unmanned vehicle will be launched.”
The Poseidon is a fire-and-forget torpedo—inasmuch as you can call an 80-foot long nuclear-powered unmanned submarine with a 2-megaton nuclear warhead a “torpedo.” According to a specification sheet shown on Russian television, the Poseidon has a top speed of 107 knots (123 miles per hour, 198 kilometers per hour). According to Russian state media, the Poseidon will enter service before 2027.
The Burevestnik cruise missile is (as Ars has previously reported) a whole other nightmare: a long-flying cruise missile powered by a nuclear jet engine, harking back to the US’ SLAM program. The SLAM, which would have been powered by a nuclear ramjet, was shelved by the Kennedy administration because it was believed to be “too provocative” a weapon—a hypersonic, nuke-dropping cruise missile with a nuclear ramjet engine that could orbit over the ocean spewing radioactive waste until ordered to strike.
And then there’s the Avangard hypersonic missile system, designed to skip and glide through the atmosphere at speeds in excess of Mach 20. “Our American friends invented the anti-ballistic missile defence system to safeguard against ballistic missiles,” Putin said. “Therefore, we had to provide an adequate, asymmetrical but serious response.”
Putin compared the achievement behind Avangard to the launch of Sputnik, the first man-made satellite. “This is an absolute breakthrough in terms of modern technologies and materials. This winged glider vehicle’s nose section heats up to almost 3,000 degrees Celsius… I have already mentioned the chocolate-coated ice cream effect, when the vehicle flies along and melts away as it goes.”
Let’s talk, Donald
Putin emphasized that “Russia does not intend to deploy such missiles in Europe first.” But if US-deployed Tomahawks or other intermediate range nuclear weapons get to Europe, he said, “it will dramatically exacerbate the international security situation and create a serious threat to Russia because some of these missiles can reach Moscow in just 10–12 minutes.” That would force Russia to “create and deploy weapons that can be used not only in the areas we are directly threatened from, but also in areas that contain decision-making centers for the missile systems threatening us…these weapons will fully correspond to the threats directed against Russia in their technical specifications, including flight times to these decision-making centers.”
Putin said that no action would be taken yet to implement those plans. “I do not think we need any further, irresponsible exacerbation of the current international situation,” he said. But the Russian president also warned the US against trying to develop additional countermeasures as a response. “Our American colleagues have already tried to gain absolute military superiority with their global missile defense project,” he said. “They need to stop deluding themselves. Our response will always be efficient and effective.”
The countering of US military posturing, which Putin described as a complete dismantling of “the international security architecture that took shape over the past decade… all while referring to Russia as almost the main threat to the USA” is but one component of Putin’s plans to re-assert Russia’s power in the world. Putin identified his goals as “a unified society, people being involved in the affairs of their country, and a common confidence in our power—that plays the main role in reaching success. And we will achieve this success by any means necessary.”