Russian President Vladimir Putin delivered his version of a State of the Union address on Wednesday and included a threat to target the United States with ostensibly invincible hypersonic nuclear-capable missiles if the U.S. deploys intermediate-range ballistic missiles to Europe.
Putin’s threat was a response to U.S. withdrawal from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty, which the United States has long accused Russia of violating. Putin claimed those accusations were false and suggested Washington was merely looking for a pretext to scuttle the INF so it could deploy land-based missiles to Europe.
Putin insisted Russia will not be the first to deploy ground-launched ballistic missiles in Europe but will retaliate if America does so.
“If they are manufactured and brought to the European continent, and the U.S. has such plans, at least we haven’t heard anything to the contrary, it will sharply aggravate the world’s security situation and will seriously threaten Russia,” he said.
The Russian leader argued that since ballistic missiles launched from Europe could reach Moscow in as little as ten minutes, Russia’s response would include targeting the United States with new hypersonic weapons that could reach Washington just as fast.
“It’s their right to think how they want. But can they count? I’m sure they can. Let them count the speed and the range of the weapons systems we are developing,” he boasted to Russian legislators in one of his biggest applause lines of the evening.
“Russia will be forced to create and deploy types of weapons which can be used not only in respect of those territories from which the direct threat to us originates, but also in respect of those territories where the centers of decision-making are located,” Putin said, explicitly putting the capitals of America and European nations in the crosshairs.
Putin was rather more vague about when these super-weapons would be ready for deployment. He did not announce any new missile deployments or new funding for weapons research, striving to portray himself as a reasonable leader who would only take such dramatic steps if the United States forces his hand.
Putin did, however, confirm that Russia is actively working on developing a hypersonic cruise missile called the Tsirkon, which will be able to fly at Mach 9 and can target naval or land targets within 620 miles.
The Tsirkon is rather less grandiose than Putin’s earlier boasts of launching unstoppable nuclear ICBMs that can fly at Mach 20, and indeed would not be sufficient to carry out his threat on Wednesday to target Washington with hypersonic weapons, but it is more realistic. U.S. intelligence believes the Russians have conducted at least five tests of the Tsirkon system since 2015.
“The U.S. once sought global domination through its missiles program. They should abandon illusions, we will always respond with a reciprocal response,” Putin declared when touting the Tsirkon missile.
Hypersonic missiles can, in theory, fly through enemy defenses so quickly that they cannot be intercepted or even detected reliably and would drastically reduce the amount of time available for the targeted nation to respond.
Despite hyperbolic headlines about Putin threatening World War III in his Wednesday address, it is not shocking to learn Russia is pointing whatever hypersonic missiles it possesses at American targets; it is difficult to imagine any other target they would be required for, except perhaps Israel, the world’s reigning champion at actually intercepting live enemy missiles.