After months of one-sided verbal provocation between the United States and Russia, Vladimir Putin has responded to the war of words in astoundingly chilling fashion. Though military conflict in Syria is thought to have involved Russian soldiers and/or mercenaries, the Russian leader’s public distancing of Russian entities from further conflict in Syria has made the issue opaque. But recently, Putin’s strong words threatening implied action against the United States, both in Syria and more broadly, indicate a significant raising of the stakes which seem to increase the potential for full-blown military conflict between the two nations.
Russia and Syria have had no qualms about accusing the United States of lying about their alleged use of chemical weapons, painting such accusations as justification for U.S. intervention in the region. Clearly, Russia, Syria, and Iran see the United States as an imminent threat to establish a military presence in Syria, and their collective threat of retaliation in the wake of an April 2017 bombing of a Syrian airbase by the United States confirmed as much. That strike was also seen by American media as one that would undoubtedly put a strained American-Russian relationship further on the rocks, and the increasingly critical rhetoric from the White House in the months since has only distanced Moscow further from any hope of long-term peace or allegiance.
America is right not to extend their trust to Russian leadership, as their continued ties to America’s most bitter rivals – Iran, North Korea, Venezuela, to name a few – are evidence of Moscow’s adverse orientation in the global arena. That said, Russia is justifiably wary of the United States’ motives, as they are diametrically opposed to American interests. At least, that’s how Vladimir Putin sees things, and the persistent Russia-bashing coming out of the United States media and Washington, D.C. has certainly gone a long way to confirm his worldview.
But even with the extent of the deterioration of American-Russian diplomacy in mind, the Russian President’s bellicose words levied against the United States in his State of the Nation address this week are nothing short of stunning, if not borderline frightening. Putin largely ignored the economic and social issues currently plaguing Russia in favor of projecting power by boasting about Russian military weaponry which is, quite frankly, something to write home about.
Putin did propose something of a plan for the Russian economy, however, and those who watched President Trump’s State of the Union address in January may actually find themselves wondering if the Russian and American president were reading from the same cue card. Like Trump, Putin’s most prominent economic proposal was one reliant upon infrastructure jobs.
"In total, over the next six years, it is necessary to almost double the expenses for constructing and developing roads in Russia, to allocate more than 11 trillion rubles ($194.37 bln) for this purpose from all sources. This is a lot, bearing in mind that in 2016-2017 we used 6.4 trillion rubles ($112.82 bln) for it," Putin said.
But the Russian economy has been projected to lag behind global growth for 20 years. This economic stagnation has led to justifiable unrest among the Russian population, which largely tasks the nation’s leadership with ensuring that they are able to provide for themselves or are otherwise provided for. Talk about bridges and roads is not going to change these facts. But, apparently President Putin believes that talk of Russia’s (considerable) military might and innovation will distract his people from these harsh realities.
First, he made it clear: America, in his and other Russians’ eyes, is a clear-cut threat:
“Despite our numerous protests and pleas, the American machine has been set into motion, the conveyer belt is moving forward. There are new missile defense systems installed in Alaska and California; as a result of NATO’s expansion to the east, two new missile defense areas were created in Western Europe…Their range will keep increasing; new launching areas are to be created in Japan and South Korea. The US global missile defense system also includes five cruisers and 30 destroyers, which, as far as we know, have been deployed to regions in close proximity to Russia’s borders. I am not exaggerating in the least; and this work proceeds apace.” (kremlin.ru)
And, in response to Putin’s perception that America has steadily withdrawn from the nations’ shared Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, he has ordered his own military to act accordingly, developing weapons that he sees as impervious to U.S. missile defense systems.
“During all these years since the unilateral US withdrawal from the ABM Treaty, we have been working intensively on advanced equipment and arms, which allowed us to make a breakthrough in developing new models of strategic weapons.
As such, Russia has developed, and works continuously to perfect, highly effective but modestly priced systems to overcome missile defense. They are installed on all of our intercontinental ballistic missile complexes.” (kremlin)
Then, there is his explanation of the powerful Sarmat missile, which Putin states represents the next generation of nuclear ballistic warfare.
“…the capabilities of the Sarmat missile are much higher. Weighing over 200 tons, it has a short boost phase, which makes it more difficult to intercept for missile defense systems....Sarmat will be equipped with a broad range of powerful nuclear warheads, including hypersonic, and the most modern means of evading missile defense. The high degree of protection of missile launchers and significant energy capabilities the system offers will make it possible to use it in any conditions.”
He added, quite intentionally, that the Sarmat has “practically no range restrictions”. Putin then went on to dedicate the majority of his address to detailing other cutting-edge weaponry, including but not limited to the ‘X-101 air-launched missile or the American Tomahawk missile’, unmanned submersibles (drone submarines), defense-evading missiles, ‘cutting edge torpedoes’, and missiles for which ‘interceptor missiles are, simply put, not fast enough’ to track down.
Of many of these weapons, Putin states confidently that “no other country has developed anything like this.”
And, quite frankly, who is to say otherwise?
The drastic scaling back of the American military during the Obama years has put us at a disadvantage that is unknowable and immeasurable for those not privy to the internal workings of the military. Which is to say, virtually everyone in America.
Meanwhile, as American military weaponry was being held back by civilian policy and budget restrictions, Russia was clearly putting inordinate funds and manpower into developing cutting-edge weaponry. As of now, it’s impossible to dispute Putin’s claims without evidence to the contrary. This is a frightening prospect, especially considering the subsequent breaths within which Putin associated the United States’ perceived threat to Russia and his own nation’s military capabilities.
Putin has since denied that his remarks were aimed at beginning a “new Cold War”.
“My point of view is that the individuals that have said that a new Cold War has started are not really analysts,” Putin told Megyn Kelly. “They do propaganda.”
He added, once again, that any perceived “arms race” began when the United States pulled out of the 1972 ABM treaty circa 2002. Once again, putting the blame on America doesn’t comfort anybody who believes that Putin has, in fact, set his nation on a path towards military escalation with the United States. Several factions in the United States cannot escape such accusations, either.
But, Putin’s SOTN address represents an overt, prolonged display of militaristic grandstanding which President Trump has yet to resort to. The length and detail with which he spoke of nuclear and other weaponry capable of striking the United States only confirms what Putin’s critics have been saying about him, that he is neither truthful nor to be trusted.
Only, those critics have been missing the point all along. Election meddling is far from the great threat that Vladimir Putin poses to United States citizens. It’s military action, and stunning military might, that most threatens Americans. It seems that, even with the widespread vilification of Vladimir Putin, we may have underestimated his cunning, capability, and willingness to get into a real conflict with the United States. And this time, he has a far greater arsenal than the USSR did during the original Cold War.