World·Analysis

Putin's 'listen to us now' weaponry greeted by skeptics as plea for attention

While Kremlin-friendly media are hailing Putin's gauntlet-drop as "powerful and convincing," detractors are suggesting Putin has lowered himself — and his country — to the level of North Korea's totalitarian leader Kim Jong-un.

With election coming, Putin evokes familiar bogeymen of Western powers to motivate voters

Russian video footage shows a computer simulation of an Avangard gliding hypersonic warhead in flight. It appeared on screens during Russian President Vladimir Putin's address to the Federal Assembly in Moscow Thursday. (EPA-EFE)

In his 18 years as Russia's leader, Vladimir Putin has never delivered a speech quite like the one he did Thursday, where he pointedly and ominously told his Western adversaries that they had better start treating Russia like a bona-fide Soviet-era superpower again.

Or else.

Touting the development of hitherto unannounced nuclear-capable super weapons, including rockets, drone submarines and missiles, Putin told cheering parliamentarians that Russia would no longer stand for being ignored.

"Listen to us now," he said glaring straight ahead into the camera.

Many day-after headlines in the Kremlin-friendly press are hailing Putin's gauntlet-drop as "powerful and convincing," while detractors are suggesting Putin has lowered himself — and his country — to the level of North Korea's totalitarian leader Kim Jong-un.

Putin the militarist sits in the cockpit of a Tupolev Tu-160 strategic bomber in 2015. He insisted this week that his swagger is not a bluff. (Vladimir Rodionov/AFP/Getty Images)

"It's more or less the same kind of strategy, for the same end," said independent Moscow military analyst Pavel Felgenhauer.

"Like North Korea, Russia wants to be treated as an equal [by the United States] and given its own sphere of influence," said Felgenhauer.

Russia's economy has been badly wounded by sanctions imposed by the European Union, Canada and the United States over its annexation of Crimea and its ongoing — though unacknowledged — role in the low-level military conflict in eastern Ukraine.

Without specially mentioning either issue, it appears Putin wants to use the superweapons as a bargaining tool to get those sanctions lifted, Felgenhauer says.

Though he doubts it will work.

'Hysterical response'

"The American response will be somehow more or less the same [as for North Korea.] The Americans will not buckle in and will stand up to the challenge."

Russia's state-controlled media have spent much of the speech's aftermath analyzing the western response.

One newspaper suggested Putin's weapons' comments generated "hysteria" in the United States, while British tabloids have been "full of headlines about a threatening Russia."

In fact, the U.S. State Department offered only a toned-down reaction, accusing Russia of violating international treaty obligations and suggesting the country isn't behaving like "a responsible international player."

Florida targeted?

In one especially notable bit of video animation that Putin used to demonstrate the capabilities of a new heavy ballistic missile, the weapon appeared to be flying toward Florida, where President Donald Trump has his Mar-a-Largo resort.

On Friday, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov suggested observers were getting carried away with their analysis and that the missile graphics "were not about any specific country."

A frame grab taken from a Russian handout video shows a rocket with a new gliding hypersonic warhead blasting off in Russian territory. (EPA-EFE)

Reaction from Russia's independent and liberal-leaning media has been predictably more critical of the Cold War rhetoric.

The publication Vedomosti said the "militaristic rapture of Putin's address is unprecedented" and the respected Novaya Gazeta said the throwback to 1980s-style confrontation is an indication that "the Kremlin has thrown its last trump card on the table: the reminder of the Soviet super-power nuclear potential."

Invoking the spectre of a dangerous and ever-menacing foreign threat could also help Putin rouse unmotivated voters in time for the March 18 election. The Kremlin is pushing to have at least a 70 per cent margin of victory for their candidate on election day, March 18.

Wounded economy

One of Putin's liberal opponents says after 18 years in power he has nothing new to offer people economically, so he's trotting out the military hardware instead.

"What Russian-made product can we be proud of besides these rockets?" demanded Ksenia Sobchack, a reality TV star turned journalist turned presidential candidate.

Putin warned the United States and NATO that they can no longer ignore Russia. (Kremlin.ru)

"Seventy per cent of our products are oil and weapons. We don't make anything."

In a one-on-one interview with NBC News after his speech, Putin dismissed suggestions he is launching a new arms race, insisting his swagger is not a bluff.

Falgenhauer, the military analyst, says while he is fairly certain Russia has created the weapons Putin described — some he says have been in the design stages for more than a decade — actually testing and making them operational is a different issue.

'Flying Chernobyls'

In particular, Putin says Russia has a new cruise missile, like a U.S. Tomahawk, but Russia's is equipped with a "small super powerful nuclear energy system" that will essentially let it fly forever.

Falgenhauer says such a weapon may exist, but testing and operating it would be expensive — and dangerous.

Such missiles, he says, are designed to crash into their targets and the potential radiation emitted from the on-board nuclear devices could be disastrous.

It would be akin, he says, to having a bunch of "flying Chernobyls" zipping around the Russian countryside.

About the Author

Chris Brown

Moscow Correspondent

Chris Brown is a foreign correspondent based in the CBC’s Moscow bureau. Previously a national reporter for CBC News on radio, TV and online, Chris has a passion for great stories and has travelled all over Canada and the world to find them.

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