This editorial first ran in the Chicago Tribune
AT his state of the nation speech this week, Russian President Vladimir Putin claimed his country is readying for its arsenal new nuclear weapons that cannot be intercepted by U.S. and NATO missile defense systems. The boasts -- if grounded in reality -- sound ominous.
A nuclear powered cruise missile that can strike anywhere in the world. An underwater drone, also nuclear powered, that could carry out strikes on aircraft carriers and coastal regions. A hypersonic nuclear missile 20 times faster than the speed of sound.
That's a surprising escalation of belligerent menace, even for the former KGB spy who has made a living engineering anti-American agendas. Does Russia really have these capabilities or was this Kremlin bluster? We don't know. What we do know is that Putin's aggressive remarks need a hefty dose of context.
Though Putin framed his remarks as a response to the Trump administration's own hawkish pledges to beef up America's nuclear arsenal, technology as complex as Putin described likely has been under development for years. Long before the Trump presidency, Putin was rankled by Washington's insistence on deploying missile defense systems in Europe, which the U.S. eventually did in Romania and Poland. The Pentagon has always maintained those systems are aimed at the threat posed by Iran and North Korea, but Moscow has never bought that rationale.
So why discuss the technology now? Putin's gearing up for a presidential election March 18. It's a contest he surely will win. Nevertheless, election season is always a moment Putin seizes to polish up his image domestically, and faster, better nukes equals a Russian public that feels safer and prouder. Also, while it's likely that such weapons have been in the works for some time, President Donald Trump's own State of the Union address promised a nuclear arsenal potent enough to "deter any acts of aggression." Putin's remarks sound like a direct parry.
But just how far along are the Russians with this technology? The Pentagon appears to be aware of what Moscow's up to. According to The Washington Post, U.S. officials were "not surprised" by Putin's remarks. And the Pentagon noted that a recent Russian test of a nuclear-powered cruise missile ended in a crash in the Arctic.
Still, this is a Putin chess move that the U.S. and the West cannot afford to ignore. A nuclear-powered cruise missile would eliminate the constraints of conventional fuel and greatly extend the weapon's range. It's not just that such a missile could reach worldwide, it's that it could take longer, circuitous routes to avoid existing Western detection systems. As Putin spoke, a display screen showed animated images of a cruise missile weaving around detection systems in the Atlantic Ocean, flying around the southern tip of South America before making its way for America's West Coast.
We hope that Washington's lack of surprise signals not only awareness, but ongoing preparation to defend against whatever nuclear weapons advances Moscow produces. Putin's chest-thumping is a reminder that Russia is an adversary not only with nuclear power but also with a view of the world antithetical to America's. In a savage way, Putin has turned Syria into his outpost in the Middle East, countering American influence. He invaded Ukraine and won't let go.
A Russian president who boasts that his missiles can thwart U.S. defenses isn't playing along.