Russian President Vladimir Putin used an interview with Russian media on Wednesday to elaborate on the threats he made against the United States in his annual address.
Putin’s follow-up comments were even more belligerent and boastful, culminating in a promise to threaten the world with nuclear destruction in a new Cuban Missile Crisis if Russia is pushed too hard.
Reuters provided a transcript of Putin’s interview with some edits for clarity:
Putin fleshed out his warning in detail for the first time, saying Russia could deploy hypersonic missiles on ships and submarines which could lurk outside U.S. territorial waters if Washington now moved to deploy intermediate-range nuclear weapons in Europe.
“(We’re talking about) naval delivery vehicles: submarines or surface ships. And we can put them, given the speed and range (of our missiles)… in neutral waters. Plus they are not stationary, they move and they will have to find them,” Putin said, according to a Kremlin transcript.
“You work it out. Mach nine (the speed of the missiles) and over 1,000 km (their range).”
In other words, Putin claimed Russia’s new missiles could be fired from mobile naval platforms that would be difficult for the United States to detect in time to prevent an attack, and they move so quickly they could not be intercepted.
This is more or less true of the sub-launched ballistic missiles that have been around since the Cold War, but Putin is almost comically eager to make the world believe Russia’s new hypersonic missiles – whose actual performance and readiness status are very much open to debate – have restored military parity and even made Russia the superior force, a threat so menacing the United States dares not provoke it.
Putin also strove to imply United States is unreasonable for withdrawing from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, an action the U.S. took because it accused Russia of violating the treaty for years. The Russian leader repeatedly implied the U.S. is eager to deploy formerly banned land-based missiles in Europe, a move that would leave the Kremlin no choice but to deploy its sci-fi superweapons in response.
Thus, when Putin deployed his Cuban Missile Crisis analogy, he did not dwell on what Russia actually did during the original incident or how close his predecessors brought the entire world to an apocalyptic nuclear war. He viewed it as an unfortunate eventuality Russia is prepared for and warned the United States not to provoke a confrontation it would lose, essentially slotting the U.S. into the Soviet Union’s historical role as the power that could provoke a global crisis by putting missiles where they do not belong:
Relations between Moscow and Washington were strained, he added, but the tensions were not comparable to those of the Cuban Missile Crisis.
“They (the tensions) are not a reason to ratchet up confrontation to the levels of the Cuban Missile Crisis in the 1960s. In any case that’s not what we want,” said Putin. “If someone wants that, well OK they are welcome. I have set out today what that would mean. Let them count (the missile flight times).”
The New York Times on Wednesday postulated that Putin’s chest-thumping is meant primarily for his “economically beleaguered, less-supportive public,” noting that his state-of-the-nation address was packed with an improbable wish list of social spending along with promises to build up the Russian military and research weapons beyond the technical capabilities of the United States.
Although Putin’s latest round of threats was “more explicit than ever,” the Times pointed out that Putin likely remembers how the Soviet Union killed itself in a futile arms race against the United States. Most of his blustery threats involve telling the U.S. not to take actions it seems unlikely to take anyway, so he can continue bragging about Russia’s invincible weapons without ever having to actually launch one.
In a perverse way, Putin’s threatening tone could be a gambit to wheedle help from Washington by setting himself up as a force for stability that might be succeeded by someone much worse, even as he presented himself to the Russian electorate as the best hope for maintaining the security and dignity of his nation. Hawkish military posturing is one of the most reliable means Putin has of favorably contrasting himself with opposition leaders as his poll numbers plummet.