ANALYSIS | Putin sounds his nuclear saber, the ‘Sarmat’ missile, to hide Russia’s failures in Ukraine

CNN) — Russian President Vladimir Putin went to great lengths to put a menacing spin on evidence that Russia has a new intercontinental ballistic missile on Wednesday.

Putin said the successful launch of the “Sarmat” intercontinental ballistic missile, dubbed “Satan II” in the West and capable of launching multiple nuclear warheads as far as the continental United States, “would give pause to those trying to threaten Russia.”

But Western experts described the test as “nuclear saber rattling,” saying the threat to the United States or its allies was “extremely low,” adding that Putin’s main motivation is to divert his domestic audience’s attention from the recent failures of Russia’s recent military failures, such as the sinking of its flagship in the Black Sea, the Moskva.

The Russian Defense Ministry said on Wednesday that it tested the Sarmat from a silo launcher at the Plesetsk State Test Cosmodrome in the Arkhangelsk region of northern Russia to the Kura test site on the peninsula. of Kamchatka, in the far east of Russia.

This is how the US reacted to the test launch of a Russian missile 1:05

The launch was the most extensive yet for a missile that was first tested in December 2017 and Putin was quick to praise it in a statement carried by the state-run TASS news agency.

This is not the first time that Putin has boasted about the power of the missile. He mentioned the Sarmat in a 2018 speech as part of a series of new weapons that he said would render NATO defenses “completely useless.”

But US officials downplayed his comments in 2018 and took a similar view after the latest test. They noted that Moscow had informed Washington ahead of Wednesday’s test, as required by international agreements, and said the United States had tracked the launch.

“These tests are routine and were not a surprise. It was not considered a threat to the United States or its allies,” Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said.

Putin was engaging in “nuclear saber rattling,” former CIA Russia operations chief Steve Hall told CNN’s Kate Bolduan, and the likelihood of any attack on the US was extremely low.

Russian Sarmat missile

In this photo released by the Roscosmos Space Agency Press Service on Wednesday, April 20, 2022, the Sarmat intercontinental ballistic missile is launched from Plesetsk, in northwestern Russia.

The ballistic missile “Sarmat” receives a new air

Rather than being an immediate threat to the West, the launch of this missile should be seen as an incremental step in Russia’s intercontinental ballistic missile program, analysts said.

The Sarmat, when operational, will be a one-for-one replacement for the Soviet-era Voevoda ICBMs, known by the NATO designation SS-18 Satan, they said.

Hans Kristensen, director of the Nuclear Information Project at the Federation of American Scientists, said developing the liquid-fueled Sarmat was like giving the original Satan missile a “revamp.”

It had “similar capabilities to the existing SS-18,” but “there were probably some improvements under the hood as well,” Kristensen said.

Like the SS-18, the Sarmat could carry 10 and possibly more independent nuclear warheads with a range of up to 18,000 kilometers, according to the Center for Strategic and International Studies’ Missile Defense Project. That’s far enough to reach the continental United States.

It could also carry a hypersonic glide vehicle to launch those warheads, a CSIS fact sheet says.

Kristensen said that for the past year Russia has been upgrading the silos to handle the Sarmat.

He also said that the Sarmat program had suffered several delays. CSIS said it was scheduled for deployment last year.

When operational, the Sarmat, like all silo-based missiles, is likely to remain on a higher alert status than intercontinental ballistic missiles on mobile launch platforms, Kristensen said. This is because silos are stationary and therefore more vulnerable to enemy attack.

The missile launch is a diversion from the sinking of the Moskva

The launch must also be seen in light of Russia’s recent military failures, and was likely being used by Putin as a distraction for his domestic audience, analysts said.

From the Russian perspective, the war in Ukraine has not gone well. A conflict that Moscow originally envisioned would likely be over in a matter of days has now dragged on well into its second month, with Russian efforts stalled by a determined and highly skilled Ukrainian resistance, as well as mundane problems, such as a lack of trucks, logistics poor and a reliance on poorly trained recruits.

And last week, Russia lost one of its most visible military assets when the Moskva guided-missile cruiser sank in the Black Sea. The loss of the ship was an embarrassment for Moscow, which admitted that the ship had suffered a catastrophic fire, but did not confirm Ukraine’s claim that it had been hit by anti-ship missiles.

They spread photos of Russian ship Moskva with serious damage 1:00

Such high-profile failures have left Putin in dire need of some positive military news to feed audiences at home, and Wednesday’s missile launch provided just that.

At the same time, experts say Russia’s obsession with displaying weapons like the Satan II hides deeper, more basic problems at the heart of its military.

“Oftentimes glamorous military dictators are good with flashy weapons, they buy fancy planes and tanks, but they don’t really buy the less glamorous stuff,” said Phillips O’Brien, a professor of strategic studies at the University of St Andrews in Scotland. , in an interview with CNN earlier this month.

After the missile’s launch on Wednesday, he reiterated that point on Twitter, saying “a lot of this reeks of Hitler’s ‘wonder weapons’ from WWII.”

Wonder weapons were “German propaganda to make it look like Germany had a chance to win the war when things were going very badly. These weapons often existed…but their impact was used to distract the German people.”

O’Brien said Putin had used “very Hitlerian rhetoric in boasting that Sarmat was the best system in the world.”

“[Él] is trying to make Russians feel confident and proud of their technological prowess, when the war is highlighting ongoing deficiencies in the Russian military’s ability to operate complex systems,” O’Brien said.

Strategy does not change the rules of the game

But as far as the situation on the ground in Ukraine is concerned, analysts said, the ICBM test would have no practical effect.

It is a strategic weapon, essentially designed to attack the United States like the SS-18, its Cold War predecessor.

And even then, Putin’s threatening words must be seen in a larger context.

Like Russia, the United States has its own intercontinental ballistic missiles, as well as nuclear-capable ballistic missile submarines and strategic bombers, which would prove to be a strong deterrent to Putin ever using his “Satan II.”

Kirby, the Pentagon spokesman, earlier told “Fox News Sunday” that Washington is confident in its own ballistic missile capabilities.

However, unlike Russia, the US has taken pains to avoid escalating tensions with its own missile programs. Earlier this month, the US Air Force canceled a scheduled test of its Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missile for this very reason.

“I think at the time it was a prudent decision to kneel on that and not launch it, where we were in space and time in the early developments regarding this invasion, it was the right thing to do,” Kirby said.

— CNN’s Barbara Starr, Nathan Hodge and Uliana Pavlova contributed to this report.

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