Russian President Vladimir Putin boasted Thursday of new weaponry he claims will render NATO defenses “completely useless,” delivering a warning to the world about Russia’s resurgent military might.
In an annual address to the Russian Parliament, the Kremlin leader said Russia had developed a new, nuclear-capable cruise missile with “unlimited” range that is capable of eluding air-defense systems.
He also said Russia had developed an “invincible” missile that can deliver a warhead at hypersonic speed.
Putin is running for re-election in mid-March on a platform that emphasizes his strength as a leader. Thursday’s speech was an occasion for the Russian President to showcase his country’s strides in military technology.
“Russia still has the greatest nuclear potential in the world, but nobody listened to us,” he said. “Listen now.”
One new development: The creation of a low-flying cruise missile capable of stealthy operation. Putin said the missile would be nuclear-powered and showed a video simulating its flight.
“Since the range is unlimited, it can maneuver as much as necessary,” Putin said.
Another military development, Putin said, was a weapon capable of flying “like a meteorite” at several times the speed of sound.
“It will be practically invulnerable,” he said. “The speed will be hypersonic.”
The missile, called the Avangard, has been successfully tested, Russia Strategic Missile Force Commander Sergei Karakayev told the state news agency Tass.
“Creating the strategic missile system Avangard, equipped with a glide vehicle, has become a no less efficient response to the deployment of the American anti-missile defenses,” Karakayev said, according to Tass. “Its testing has been successfully completed.”
Russia’s Defense Ministry has launched a web page seeking the public’s help with naming its new arsenal.
US casts doubt on Putin’s claims
A US official with knowledge of the latest Russian military assessment expressed doubt to CNN that the weapons Putin described were anywhere near operational, and said that if Russia ever attacked the United States it would be met with overwhelming force.
The official said the United States had observed a small number of Russian tests of its nuclear-powered cruise missile and seen them all crash.
White House press secretary Sarah Sanders told reporters that Putin’s remarks confirmed what the United States has long known. “Russia has been developing destabilizing weapons systems for over a decade, in direct violation of its treaty obligations,” she said.
“President Trump understands the threats facing America and our allies in this century and is determined to protect our homeland and preserve peace through strength,” she added. “US defense capabilities are and will remain second to none.”
US State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said department officials watched Putin’s speech – which included an animation of a nuclear strike against the United States – with interest.
“It was certainly unfortunate to have watched the video animation that depicted a nuclear attack on the United States,” she said. “That’s certainly something that we did not enjoy watching. We don’t regard that as the behavior of a responsible international player.”
While Putin has said his new weapons would be able to evade US missile defenses, US officials have long pointed out that their system is designed to respond to a missile launch from a rogue nation such as North Korea or Iran. US nuclear policy is aimed at deterring Russia through the modernization of the US arsenal.
The official CNN spoke to said the United States believes Putin’s remarks were made largely for domestic political consumption ahead of elections on March 18.
In his remarks, the Russian President said Moscow’s new arsenal had been developed in response to Washington’s moves. Putin has long fumed over the decision of President George W. Bush to withdraw from the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty and deploy missile defenses.
“We are creating state-of-the-art systems for Russia’s strategic weapons in response to the unilateral US withdrawal from the ABM Treaty,” Putin said.
Putin said Russia has developed other new weaponry, including unmanned underwater vehicles capable of moving at great speeds. The Russian President also responded to the Trump administration’s recent Nuclear Posture Review, which calls for enhancing the flexibility of the US nuclear deterrent.
The US review is “of great concern,” Putin said, asserting that it potentially lowers the bar for the use of nuclear weapons.
The United States remains the world’s largest military spender. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, the United States outspends Russia by a factor of around 10, according to its latest figures online.
A defense expert described Putin’s talk of high-tech rearmament Thursday as “all a bit Potemkin village-y.”
“Nobody knows how much is bluster,” said Richard Aboulafia, vice president of analysis at Teal Group, an aerospace and defense consultancy.
“But there’s probably the lack of commitment of solid resources to make it deployable. There’s probably enough there to make it a long-term threat, but they’ve got a real issue with not committing defense resources.”
Russia’s foreign policy has been much more muscular in recent years, however. Putin deployed his air force to Syria in autumn 2015 to back the forces of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, turning the tide of war in favor of the regime.
Russia’s Syria intervention has also become an occasion for Russia to showcase some of its latest conventional weaponry, including new aircraft.
Noting reports that Russia has sent its most advanced fighter jet, the Su-57, to Syria, Aboulafia said: “It’s not really clear that they have plans to produce significant numbers of fully developed variants versus a prototype.”
Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu on Thursday confirmed for the first time the recent deployment of Su-57 fighters to Syria, where they carried out a range of tests.
“I can say that the tests were successful,” he said. “The planes returned home a week ago.”
In his remarks, Putin maintained that Russia’s military posture is purely defensive in nature.
“We’ve never had an intention of attacking anybody,” he said. “Russia will only retaliate if it is attacked.”
Russia remains “interested in normal constructive relationship with the EU and America,” he added.
CNN’s Ray Sanchez contributed to this report.