BY EMILY BLOMQUIST ’18
Last Thursday, in an annual address to the Federal Assembly, Russian President Vladimir Putin revealed a new “invincible” nuclear weapons program that can supposedly strike any target worldwide, according to The New York Times.
The arsenal of this program consists of five new weapons, including a nuclear-propelled torpedo, a nuclear-powered cruise missile and lasers. “[The missile] has unlimited range, so it can keep going like this forever,” Putin said over a video simulation of missiles raining down on Florida. The state of Florida, often described as President Donald Trump’s home away from home, also houses the U.S. military’s central command headquarters at the MacDill air force base in Tampa.
President Trump has not responded directly to the announcement, but in a call with British Prime Minister Theresa May, he agreed that Putin’s actions were “irresponsible.” No further comments have been made, according to Politico.
Despite this demonstration of power, Putin insisted that Russian possession of these nuclear warheads is non-aggressive. “We aren’t threatening anyone, we aren’t going to attack anyone,” he said in his address. “The growing Russian military power will guarantee global peace.” The weapons would primarily serve as a deterrent for any country considering an attack on Russia and its allies. This distinction is important given Putin’s close, yet controversial partnership with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. “It upped the game in Syria,” said Francesca Eremeeva ’20, an International Relations major. “Putin’s saying, ‘Whatever the United States decides to do here [in Syria], we reserve the right to respond in any way we deem is appropriate, because they’re our allies.’”
In the same address, he boasted that the new weapons program would render NATO forces “completely useless.”
Since the announcement, Putin has been accused of attempting to revive an arms race and spawn another Cold War, both of which he has denied, according to the BBC. Responding to these accusations, he emphasized the success of the Russian Federation, despite it being continuously targeted and excluded by the West.
“I want to tell all those who have fueled the arms race over the last 15 years, sought to win unilateral advantages over Russia, introduced unlawful sanctions aimed to contain our country’s development: all that you wanted to impede with your policies have already happened,” said President Putin. “You have failed to contain Russia.”
Jeremy Bash, former chief of staff in the CIA and Department of Defense, told NBC News that Putin’s address is confirmation that the Kremlin has become emboldened by the Trump administration. “A speech like Putin’s is the nexus of national defense strategy and machismo — it’s an effort by Putin to say, ‘Not only am I shirtless, but I have nuclear weapons.”
This year’s address was held in March, for the first time in 10 years, three weeks before the Russian presidential election, according to Newsweek. Lacking any major campaign rallies, the address was perhaps the only major, albeit unnecessary, appeal to the Russian public for votes. An opinion poll conducted by the Russian Public Opinion Center found that 69.1 percent of Russian voters were in favor of Putin serving a fourth term as president. So while Putin’s continued reign is almost assured, the president may have been trying to increase overall voter turnout from an apathetic population, according to The Washington Post.
“He doesn’t just want to win” said Eremeeva, “he wants mass enthusiasm and support of his message. Opposition scares Putin because it robs his enthusiasm. He always needs something to justify that he’s strong and he’s successful. Showcasing three weapons that have the potential to blow up the United States excites some people.”
While attendees applauded the video of the new missiles, some critics question the existence of the weapons; Putin did not present any photographic evidence. Journalists from the Russian newspaper The Insider reported that the video simulations were reused from 2007. U.S. officials also reported that they previously knew about the weapons and have been tracking their failed missile testings in the Russian Arctic, according to ABC News. Stephen Jones, the chair of Russian and Eurasian studies at Mount Holyoke, also voiced doubts about the significance of Putin’s announcement. “It is saber rattling, making public what the Americans already know about Putin’s weapons program,” he said.
The missiles’ legitimacy is being questioned by native Russians as well with a flood of memes hitting social media that parody the missiles with references to “Austin Powers” and “Star Wars,” according to Newsweek.
Nevertheless, the existence of these weapons may not matter.
“The Russian President … is campaigning on the promise of nuclear annihilation,” wrote Amherst College professor and Russian-American journalist Masha Gessen for The New Yorker. “Whether or not the new weapons he described in this stump speech are real is immaterial; the old ones are more than sufficient to cause a nuclear holocaust.”
Putin invited the world to help name the new missile. Within the first 17 hours since the naming competition was launched, the Russian ministry reported that they received 63,000 name suggestions, according to The Moscow Times. Interested parties also took to the Russian Defense Ministry’s Facebook page where they suggested everything from “Kremlin’s Hand” and “Peace Envoy” to “Goodbye America.”
If it is time to say “Goodbye America,” Putin’s video suggests that Florida may be the first to go. “If I was a Floridian,” said Jones, “I would move to Alaska.”