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Why Putin is unveiling ‘invincible’ nuclear weapons now

Russian President Vladimir Putin boasted of new nuclear weapons that he says can defeat U.S. missile defenses in an address unveiling a grand vision for his country. His return to Cold War rhetoric comes a month after the U.S. announced its own plans to deploy new nuclear weapons and two weeks before the Russian election. Nick Schifrin talks with Richard Burt, former chief arms control negotiator.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Just weeks before his all-but-guaranteed reelection, Russia’s President Vladimir Putin gave his over version of a State of the Union address today.

    As Nick Schifrin reports, Putin used the occasion to show off new weapons that he says can defeat U.S. missile defenses and maintain a deadly balance with the United States.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    President Vladimir Putin today unveiled a grand vision for his country’s future, and what he called the means to achieve it, new nuclear weapons.

  • President Vladimir Putin:

    (Through interpreter) No one wanted to speak with us constructively. No one has listened to us. You listen to us now.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    He showed off animations of weapons he called invincible, a hypersonic missile apparently capable of crossing continents in seconds, and a never-before-acknowledged nuclear powered cruise missile apparently that can slalom between missile defense systems that Putin considers a long-term threat.

    It’s not clear the weapons even exist. But Putin said he wasn’t bluffing.

  • President Vladimir Putin:

    (Through interpreter) Any use of nuclear weapons against Russia and its allies will be perceived as a nuclear attack on our country. The response will be immediate.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Putin’s return to Cold War rhetoric comes one month after the U.S. announced its own plans to deploy new nuclear weapons, and greater willingness to use nuclear weapons.

    Putin said he was responding to American threats.

  • President Vladimir Putin:

    (Through interpreter) The growing military strength of Russia is a secure guarantee of peace, because this strength preserves and will always preserve a balance of power in the world.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    To no surprise, Russian lawmakers responded with praise. They said Putin once again made Russia a global superpower.

  • Alexey Pushkov:

     (Through translator) The theory about Russia as a regional superpower with a weak economy disappears from the American political thinking.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    The speech took place just over two weeks before the Russian elections. Putin framed the U.S. as an adversary and himself the only leader strong enough to meet the challenge.

    We turn now to Richard Burt. He was the chief U.S. arms control negotiator during the strategic arms reduction talks with the Soviet Union during the Reagan administration. He also served as assistant secretary of state for European affairs. He’s now at McLarty Associates, an international business consulting firm.

    Richard Burt, thank you very much.

  • Richard Burt:

    Good evening.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Is this all about politics, domestic politics, President Putin not worried about threats to Russia, but, in fact, threats to his own power?

  • Richard Burt:

    Well, part of it is certainly about politics.

    I mean, there is an election in March. Nobody’s going to beat Vladimir Putin, but Putin wants to get a good chunk, 70 percent or more, of the vote, and he can’t talk about an economy that’s rapidly growing. He doesn’t have the kind of consumer economy that dominated the early part of the century.

    People’s living standards are actually falling. So, he’s playing the great power card. He’s saying, I brought Russia back, we’re a global superpower, and our technology is first-class, it can compete effectively with the United States, and so you can rest easy.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    That I am the only one who can take on the United States.

    So, let’s look at it from his perspective for a second. He says, look, you withdraw from the ABM Treaty, the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treat. you’re creating missile defenses that can counter our nuclear weapons, and so we have to counter back.

    What’s wrong with that?

  • Richard Burt:

    Well, Putin is not entirely wrong. We did withdraw from the ABM Treaty in 2002. I personally think that was a mistake, because the Russians tend on these kinds of issues to be paranoid.

    And the one thing the Russians liked about the ABM Treaty is that it give them the sense that both sides were vulnerable to annihilation. There was a kind of — we called it mutual assured destruction at the time, and so it made the Soviets feel that — and the Russians later that they were co-equal nuclear powers.

    They were afraid, when the ABM Treaty was abandoned, that the United States would use its superior technology to be able to engage in a potential nuclear first strike, and that we could then politically dominate them.

    And so they have been concerned about that. And that paranoia coupled with, I think, Putin’s desire to look strong has led to a fairly significant nuclear buildup.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    So, there is that buildup happening in Russia.

    I should say that the United States has also talked about a buildup or modernization of its nuclear weapons. So, do you fear an arms race right now? Do you fear the erosion of arms control?

  • Richard Burt:

    Well, I fear both of those.

    We are entering a new arms race, for sure. It reminds me of the 1970s, 1980s. What is interesting is, I don’t think Americans are that focused on this at this point, but it’s not only the Russians that are modernizing their forces, with some very capable weapons they know how to build and maybe some fictional weapons we don’t know whether they will build or not.

    But the Russians are clearly deciding that they want — see nuclear weapons as an important element in their policy. The Trump administration is going doing the same. In fact, even under Barack Obama, the United States decided to engage in a $100 billion — 100 — sorry — $1 trillion-plus nuclear buildup with new missile submarines, new intercontinental-range ballistic missiles, new strategic bombers.

    So we’re kind of sleepwalking into this new arms race. I don’t think that either side in the near term is going to gain some important advantage, but under these conditions, we could lead to a situation where one or the other side felt that, in a crisis, a serious disagreement, that the other was going to strike, and that that’s when, you know, people begin to make mistakes.

    They make miscalculations. And the problem, secondly, is, we don’t have any arms control negotiations under way. And we have an important treaty, the INF Treaty signed in 1987, which could collapse over the next year because we believe the Russians are cheating, and they claim we are not following the treaty.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Quickly, should the U.S. be concerned about this? Should Americans be concerned about these new weapons or should Americans also be concerned about what you call this sleepwalking into a conflict?

  • Richard Burt:

    I think it’s more of the sleepwalking problem.

    I think what we need to do is find a way to get back into a serious conversation with the Russians on controlling nuclear weapons. The longer we wait, the more difficult it will be, not only because both sides will have better weapons, but with these new technologies of the sort that Putin talked about today, it’s going to be a lot harder to design effective agreements to control this new arms race.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Richard Burt, thank you very much.

  • Richard Burt:

     Thank you.

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