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Putin Shows Off New Weapons, and Warns U.S. and Europe, Too

Then, last month, the Trump administration issued a new nuclear policy, vowing to counter a rush by the Russians to modernize their forces. The strategy, which bristles with plans for new low-yield nuclear weapons, describes Mr. Putin as forcing America’s hand to rebuild the nuclear force.

At the time, an administration official said President Trump was concerned about staying ahead in any nuclear race with Russia, and to a lesser degree with China.

Mr. Putin said that the missile was tested at the end of 2017. A video illustrated the weapon flying over a mountain range, then slaloming around obstacles in the southern Atlantic before rounding Cape Horn at the tip of South America and heading north toward the West Coast of the United States.

The cruise missile was among five new weapons introduced by Mr. Putin, with each shown in video mock-ups on giant screens flanking him onstage. He threatened to use the weapons and even traditional nuclear arms against the United States and Europe if Russia were ever attacked.

“We would consider any use of nuclear weapons against Russia or its allies to be a nuclear attack on our country,” Mr. Putin said. “The response would be immediate.”

Mr. Putin said he could not show the actual weapons publicly, but assured his audience of Russia’s main political and prominent cultural figures that they had all been developed.

Mr. Putin’s disclosure of the weapons touched off a debate among military experts about whether he was bluffing. If he is not, said Aleksandr M. Golts, a veteran independent Russian military analyst, then “these weapons are definitely new, absolutely new.”

“If we’re talking about nuclear-armed cruise missiles, that’s a technological breakthrough and a gigantic achievement,” he said in an interview. But, he added, “The question is, is this true?”

Several analysts writing on Facebook and elsewhere leaned toward the bluff theory. Given the recent history of Russian rockets failing to launch or crashing just after takeoff, the idea that the country suddenly possessed a seamless new generation of flying weapons strained credulity.

“The real surprise in among all of this is a nuclear-powered cruise missile,” said Douglas Barrie, a senior fellow for military aerospace at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London. “It’s not an entirely new concept; it was talked about in the ’60s, but it ran into a lot of obstacles. To the extent that the Russians are seriously revisiting this is pretty interesting.”

Such technology could alter the balance of power, but Mr. Barrie questioned whether it was close to being deployed.

“Does reality mean you have an item in the budget saying, ‘Develop nuclear propulsion for a missile?’” he said. “Or does it mean, ‘We’re going to have one ready to use soon’? I’d certainly want to see more evidence to believe that.”

Mr. Putin said Russia had developed the new weaponry because the United States had rejected established arms control treaties and was deploying new missile defense systems in Europe and Asia. The new Russian weapons would render all of that obsolete, he gloated, and if anyone else tried to develop something in response, “our boys will think of something new.”

Other weapons the Russian leader discussed included a new ballistic missile called Sarmat that could round either pole and could overcome any antimissile defense system; hypersonic nuclear weaponry that flew at 20 times the speed of sound; and unmanned submarines that could operate at great depths and over huge distances at enormous speed.

Mr. Putin said that some of the weapons were so new that they had yet to be named, and announced a contest on the Ministry of Defense website for new names.

Political analysts said it was an effective campaign ploy whether the weapons existed or not. “He’s giving people the image of a desired future, of a future for Russia, and that’s appealing for his domestic audience,” said Aleksei V. Makarkin, the deputy head of the Center for Political Technologies, a Moscow think tank.

Mr. Putin’s guns-and-butter, Russia-can-do-it-all speech came 17 days before the March 18 presidential election. It seemed designed to reassure voters that expanded social spending would help salve the economic problems of the past four years, while simultaneously sending the message that Mr. Putin was their best hope in protecting a Russia portrayed as a besieged fortress.

Mr. Putin has been largely absent from the campaign trail, so many Russians had expected that the state of the nation speech, delayed since December, would offer some vision of what the president had in store for his fourth and likely final term.

They got their answer: Russia would become a superpower again.

The fact that the country does not have the money to pay for a giant increase in social spending combined with a new generation of weapons was beside the point, Mr. Makarkin said. And never mind that the combination of social and military spending is what helped bring down the Soviet Union.

“People may say Russia depends on oil, Russia doesn’t have the money, but the population at large doesn’t care about that,” he said. “They just want to know that we are a superpower.”

The transition from butter to guns in Mr. Putin’s two-hour speech was as sudden as it was unexpected. From talking about the future development of the country for over an hour, he suddenly launched into an extended threat to the West.

“From tales about progress, the speech flowed into an open-ended declaration of world war,” Gleb O. Pavlovsky, a political analyst and former Kremlin consultant, wrote on Facebook.

The speech was delivered at the Manege, an old Czarist riding school outside the Kremlin walls that now is now an exhibition space. The speech was moved from inside the Kremlin itself, the traditional venue, to accommodate the giant screens used to present both a rosy picture of future social spending and videos of the weapons.

It was also moved from December, when Mr. Putin has given his past state of the nation speeches, to March to coincide with the impending presidential election that he is assured of winning.

On the social front, he promised to double government spending on health care and raise pensions for the elderly. He said Russia would reduce the poverty rate — official statistics indicate that around 14 million Russians live below the poverty line — by 2014. By that year, too, five million Russian families will move into new housing, he said, and even sooner the mortgage interest rate will fall to 7 percent.

Mr. Putin also said that life expectancy, currently at 73, a huge leap from when he first took office in 2000, should be above 80 by 2030.

Critics doubt that Russia will ever have the means to deliver so much, given its stumbling economy and relatively depressed oil prices. Max Trudolyubov, a newspaper columnist and political analyst, called the entire speech a modern version of the Czar Cannon, a giant 15th-century piece of armament that sits on the Kremlin grounds and that legend holds never really worked.

The speech was addressed as much to the Americans as anyone, Mr. Trudolyubov wrote in a Facebook commentary, since Mr. Putin appears bored by the election campaign itself. “In the mind of the author of the message there is something disturbing about America, everything is decided in America,” the analyst wrote.

For years, Mr. Putin has chafed at the perceived disrespect showed to him and Russia by the United States as the world’s lone superpower. “Nobody listened to Russia,” he said near the end of the speech, to huge applause. “Well, listen up now.”

Source: NYT > World

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