Editor’s Note: Samantha Vinograd is a CNN National Security Analyst. She served on President Obama’s National Security Council from 2009-2013 and at the Treasury Department under President Bush. Follow her @sam_vinograd. The views expressed in this commentary are her own.
Russian President Vladimir Putin’s grandstanding speech on his country’s “invincible” missiles was intended for one person and one person alone – President Donald Trump. Speaking of a new low-flying missile with “practically unlimited range” and “which can bypass lines of interception,” he stated this was “a new reality.”
Using words (and visuals) similar to Kim Jong Un’s and invoking Cold War-era threats, Putin’s “my missiles are bigger than yours” rhetoric was no accident – Putin wanted Trump to hear him loud and clear.
As a former Soviet secret service agent, Putin knows how to manipulate people. By poking at Trump’s insecurities, Putin is hoping to distract the President – making it less likely Trump will take action to hold Russia accountable for its ongoing attacks on the United States.
Putin doesn’t need any votes or more missiles – he’s already winning
Putin wasn’t using his platform to convince any Russians to vote for him. His “election” in 17 days is a farce. By crowding out opposition and censoring media coverage, he has rigged the system to all but guarantee his electoral victory.
Putin also doesn’t need to get any more missiles. He’s already able to attack anywhere in the world, including the United States, with his information warfare tools and ongoing dominance in the digital theater. And his current nuclear arsenal is sufficient to launch myriad destructive attacks – with estimates of his nuclear warheads reaching about 7,000.
Putin is trying to distract Trump
Putin purposefully used this kind of inflammatory language to try to get Trump to respond; insult Trump’s military capabilities or manhood, and he might just reply on Twitter. Remember the “short and fat” and “dotard” Twitter-fest between Kim and Trump? It’s unclear what name Trump could call Putin if he finally decides to stand up to him, but it is clear that Trump doesn’t respond well to anyone insulting his military capabilities.
Meanwhile, Putin and Kim appear to be trading talking points. Both Putin and Kim have blamed the United States for provoking them into developing more nuclear weapons when they’re violating international law and treaties. And Putin threatened Florida, the home of Trump’s weekend White House, in his visuals just like Kim previously threatened Guam.
The White House reaction
The key point here is how Trump responds. Sarah Sanders, in Thursday’s White House press briefing, stated, “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 violation of its treaty obligations. 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.”
Neither Sanders – nor as of yet Trump – directly addressed the other way Putin has tried to destabilize the United States: election meddling. She also did not offer any clear solutions or plans for dealing with the threat Putin posed in his speech.
If and when Trump responds, it shouldn’t be on Twitter. Instead, he should begin by implementing additional sanctions against Russia for its proven actions against American democracy. Or, maybe, he could impose the sanctions that the Senate passed in a 98-2 vote, which target foreign countries or companies that do business with Russian entities.
According to Putin, the “invincible missile” that he mentioned renders air defenses useless with its (purported) unlimited range at hypersonic speed. His claims are likely hyperbolic, but nonetheless they should not be taken lightly. Why? An arms race – be it literal or verbal – could pose a serious threat to US national security. (Remember the Cold War?)
US intelligence operatives and analysts have likely been tracking Russia’s weapons program closely, so we may hear a rebuttal from the White House, should any intelligence be declassified. And this might happen if for no other reason than to expose the lies behind Putin’s rhetoric. But this may also be a pretext for Trump to push harder for his request for $75 billion more in defense spending.