MOSCOW – President Vladimir Putin announced an array of new nuclear weapons on Thursday, in one of his most bellicose speeches in years, saying they could hit almost any point in the world and evade a U.S.-built missile shield.
Putin was speaking ahead of an election on March 18 that polls indicate he should win easily. He said a nuclear attack on any of Moscow’s allies would be regarded as an attack on Russia itself and draw an immediate response.
It was unclear if he had a particular Russian ally, such as Syria, in mind, but his comments looked like a warning to Washington not to use tactical battlefield nuclear weapons.
His remarks were greeted with skepticism in Washington, where officials cast doubt on whether Russia has added any new capabilities to its nuclear arsenal beyond those already known to the U.S. military and intelligence agencies.
The Pentagon, which recently announced a nuclear policy revamp based partly on the bellicose posture from Moscow, said it was not surprised by Putin’s presentation.
“We’ve been watching Russia for a long time. We’re not surprised,” Pentagon spokeswoman Dana White said.
“These weapons that are discussed have been in development a very long time,” she told a news briefing, without addressing any of Putin’s specific claims of new capabilities.
John Rood, U.S. under secretary of defense for policy, declined to comment on U.S. intelligence on Russian capabilities.
But, addressing a forum in Washington, Rood generally played down Putin’s presentation, saying:“I think it’s broadly consistent with things that have been stated before (by) Russian officials.”
The Trump administration accused Moscow anew of violating a Cold War-era treaty which banned nuclear and conventional ground-launched ballistic and cruise missiles with a range of 500-5,500 km (300-3,400 miles).
“President Putin has confirmed what the United States government has known all along, which Russia has denied: Russia has been developing destabilizing weapons systems for over a decade in direct violations of its treaty obligations,” White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders said.
Putin has often used militaristic rhetoric to mobilize support and buttress his narrative that Russia is under siege from the West. His 2014 annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea boosted his ratings to a record high and he has cast his military intervention in Syria as a proud moment for Moscow.
On Thursday, he sought to back his rhetoric with video clips of what he said were some of the new missiles. The images were projected onto a giant screen behind him at a conference hall in central Moscow where he was addressing Russia’s political elite.
“They have not succeeded in holding Russia back,” said Putin, referring to the West, which he said had ignored Moscow in the past, but would now have to sit up and listen.
“Now they need to take account of a new reality and understand that everything I have said today is not a bluff.”
Among weapons that Putin said were either in development or ready was a new intercontinental ballistic missile“with a practically unlimited range” able to attack via the North and South Poles and bypass any missile defense systems.
Putin also spoke of a small nuclear-powered engine that could be fitted to what he said were low-flying, highly maneuverable cruise missiles, giving them a practically unlimited range.
The new engine meant Russia was able to make a new type of weapon – nuclear missiles powered by nuclear rather than conventional fuel.
“Nothing like it in the world exists,” Putin told the audience.“At some point it will probably appear (elsewhere) but by that time our guys will have devised something else.”
Other new super weapons he listed included underwater nuclear drones, a supersonic weapon and a laser weapon.
In one of his video clip demos, a weapon appeared to be hovering over what looked like a map of the state of Florida.
“It was certainly unfortunate to have watched the video animation that depicted a nuclear attack on the United States,” State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert told a news briefing.“We don’t regard that as the behavior of a responsible international player.”
Putin’s audience, made up of Russian lawmakers and other leading figures, frequently stood up and applauded his presentation, which culminated with the Russian national anthem being played.
Earlier in the speech, he had struck a very different tone, ordering officials to halve the number of Russians living in poverty by sharply boosting social and infrastructure spending in an obvious pre-election pitch to voters.