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Russia's nuclear showmanship could trigger new arms race

Vladimir Putin
Russian President Vladimir Puti. Photo: Alexei Druzhinin / TASS via Getty Images

During an annual state address this week, President Vladimir Putin unveiled Russia’s pursuit of new nuclear weapons systems, couched as a response to the increasingly adversarial “American machine.” During the speech, Putin presented animated videos demonstrating how such weapons could successfully target parts of the United States.

Among the capabilities in development are a liquid-fuel intercontinental ballistic missile that is more difficult to intercept and a nuclear-powered cruise missile with the ability to penetrate “all existing and prospective missile defense and counter-air defense systems.”

Why it matters: Putin maintains that the decision to enhance the Russian nuclear arsenal is a natural reaction to the evolving threat posed by the U.S. — particularly Washington’s continued development of anti-ballistic missiles that could neutralize Russia’s existing nuclear forces.

Yet there are other factors that may have played into Putin's grandiose unveiling:

  • The Trump administration's Nuclear Posture Review, which details plans to develop new capabilities including “low-yield” nuclear weapons on submarines, and calls for the possible use of nuclear weapons as a retaliatory response to non-nuclear events.
  • Russian presidential elections, just several days away, bring out Putin’s showmanship of national strength to rally support. While he is poised to win the elections, the Kremlin is worried about low voter turnout.

What's next: The White House noted that Moscow's nuclear developments are nothing new and that U.S. defense capabilities remain strong, especially with a sizable budget increase. However, President Trump has not commented directly on the issue, as he has on tense exchanges with North Korea. Nuclear policy experts fear that aggressive signaling between the two countries could spiral into a new nuclear arms race, neglecting opportunities to instead pursue nuclear weapons reductions through arms control agreements.

Lovely Umayam is a nuclear policy analyst and project manager with the Promoting Security and Prosperity program at the Stimson Center.