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Is Russia’s Doomsday Missile Fake News?

Experts are skeptical that Moscow has the money or technical know-how to field Putin’s promised arsenal.

Russian President Vladimir Putin addresses the Federal Assembly at Moscow's Manezh Central Exhibition Hall for his state of the union address on March 1, 2018.
Russian President Vladimir Putin addresses the Federal Assembly at Moscow's Manezh Central Exhibition Hall for his state of the union address on March 1, 2018. Aleksey Nikolsky/AFP/Getty Images

Russian President Vladimir Putin seemed to confirm on Wednesday something that international weapons experts had already suspected: that a deadly blast at a military site in northern Russia that caused a spike in radiation levels was the result of testing what he called a promising new weapons system.

The Russian leader didn’t specify the name of the weapon, but the trail of evidence suggests that the Aug. 8 test, which was responsible for the most serious release of radiation since the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster, was related to the 9M730 Burevestnik—or SSC-X-9 Skyfall, as it has been termed by NATO. This theory was bolstered on Tuesday when Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, confirmed that the test was of Russia’s development of a nuclear-propelled missile. 

But not everyone is convinced that the blast was a result of a botched missile test. Michael Kofman, a Russia expert at CNA, said that while it was undoubtedly a test of a nuclear reactor for military application, there wasn’t enough evidence to say specifically that it was for the Skyfall. 

“Russia has quite a few different weapons projects, a few different nuclear power projects,” Kofman said. It could have been a test of a component of another weapons project, he added. 

Whatever the cause of the explosion, arms controls experts remain skeptical that Russia has the money and technical know-how to make the Skyfall a reality. 

“Maybe they’re just throwing spaghetti at the wall to see what sticks, but I don’t think it can all stick,” said Ian Williams, the deputy director of the Missile Defense Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, who added that he is skeptical about Moscow’s ability to see through development and production of the Skyfall. 

“It’s just the novelty of it. No other country is even considering this kind of thing. It’s the most technologically unproven, probably the most expensive in the long run,” Williams said.

Whether or not the accident was indeed related to the new weapon—a nuclear-powered cruise missile that Moscow claims will be able to fly around the world for days or even months and to skirt U.S. missile defenses—Putin’s remarks were just one part of a pointed campaign to reestablish Russia as a major player on the world stage.

In a March 2018 state of the union speech that shocked the international community, Putin unveiled several next-generation nuclear-capable weapons that he claimed would render U.S. missile shields “useless.” During the presentation, Putin showed a computer-animated video of an intercontinental ballistic missile flying around the Earth, headed toward Florida’s west coast—an area that news outlets at the time were quick to point out is very close to U.S. President Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort. 

The speech drew international condemnation but resonated across Russia, where Putin has sought to woo voters with promises of both guns and butter. 

“To those who in the past 15 years have tried to accelerate an arms race and seek unilateral advantage against Russia, have introduced restrictions and sanctions that are illegal from the standpoint of international law aiming to restrain our nation’s development … I will say this: Everything you have tried to prevent through such a policy has already happened. No one has managed to restrain Russia,” he said. “Nobody wanted to listen to us. So listen now.”

The exotic weapons announced include a nuclear torpedo and a hypersonic weapon that can travel several times the speed of sound. One thing they all have in common is that they are designed to evade U.S. missile defense systems, which hints to where Russia’s defense fears lie.

“I think the big picture here is that Russia is afraid of U.S. missile defense systems,” said James Acton, the co-director of the Nuclear Policy Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. 

Putin has long promised to restore Russia to greatness on the world stage. Without the economic might and population of neighboring China, or the diplomatic clout of the United States, Russia’s nuclear weapons have played an outsized role in the country’s conception of what it means to be a great power. 

“If Russia didn’t have all of these nuclear weapons and a relatively advanced military system, what else do they have?” Williams said.

Here are the new missiles the U.S. military is responding to:

Skyfall. The SSC-X-9 Skyfall is NATO’s designation for a missile Russia calls the 9M730 Burevestnik. Putin described the weapon, unnamed in 2018, as a low-flying stealth missile similar to a U.S. Tomahawk, equipped with a small-scale nuclear rocket engine. Putin said it has almost unlimited range and “unpredictable trajectory.”

The United States experimented with developing a similar weapon in the 1950s and 1960s known as SLAM. It was ultimately abandoned as unrealistic, partly, as Russia may be discovering, due to the challenges of testing a nuclear-powered weapon.

“I place my money on Skyfall not ever being fielded,” Acton said.

Satan II. A 200-ton intercontinental ballistic missile with a range of 11,000 kilometers, the SS-X-30 Satan II, dubbed by Russia as the RS-28 Sarmat, is planned to replace the legacy R-36M Voevoda. Putin claimed the weapon’s short boost phase will make it more difficult for U.S. missile defense systems to detect and intercept.

Avangard. A nuclear-capable, ground-launched glide vehicle capable of flying at hypersonic speeds—defined as more than five times the speed of sound—the Avangard is said to be able to maneuver around U.S. missile defenses, making it “absolutely invulnerable,” according to Putin. Once boosted to sufficient height by the Satan II, it is designed to separate from its rocket and cruise down toward its target through the atmosphere. The missile “flies to its target like a meteorite, like a ball of fire,” Putin said.

Poseidon. In February, Russia released the first video footage of what is now called the Poseidon, an unmanned nuclear-capable submarine with a miniature nuclear reactor. But Putin first revealed the development of the frightening new weapon during his 2018 state of the union speech, claiming it can move intercontinentally at “extreme depths” at speeds “multiple times higher than the speed of submarines.”

Dagger. Putin also bragged about the Kinzhal, which means “dagger,” a nuclear-capable air ballistic missile that can reach hypersonic speeds and deliver both nuclear and conventional warheads. He claimed the weapon, which can be launched from Russia’s bomber and interceptor aircraft, has a range of more than 2,000 kilometers and can maneuver to avoid U.S. missile defenses. It reportedly reached service in December 2017.

Amy Mackinnon is a staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @ak_mack

Lara Seligman is a staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @laraseligman

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