Why Vladimir Putin Really Rocked His ‘Satan II’ Nuclear Saber, The World’s Deadliest Weapon
Vladimir Putin did his best to put a menacing twist on Russian testing of a new intercontinental ballistic missile on Wednesday.
The Russian president said that the successful launch of the “Sarmat” ICBM “would give pause to those who try to threaten Russia”.
Watch the video above to see the test launch of Satan II
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The “Sarmat” ICBM has been dubbed “Satan II” in the West and is capable of delivering multiple nuclear warheads to the continental United States.
But Western experts have described the test as a “nuclear saber slash”, saying the threat to the United States or its allies was “extremely low” and suggesting Putin’s real motivation was to distract his domestic audience from recent Russia‘s military failures, such as the sinking of its Black Sea flagship, the Moskva.
Russia’s Defense Ministry said on Wednesday it tested the Sarmat from a silo launcher at the Plesetsk State Test Cosmodrome in Russia’s northern Arkhangelsk region to the site of the Kura trial on the Kamchatka Peninsula in Russia’s far east.
The launch was the largest to date for a missile that was first tested in December 2017 and was promptly praised by Putin in a statement carried by state news agency TASS.
This is not the first time that Putin has boasted about the power of the missile.
He mentioned the Sarmat in a 2018 speech as part of a host of new weapons he said would render NATO defenses “completely useless”.
But US officials downplayed his remarks in 2018 and took a similar view after the latest test.
They noted that Moscow informed Washington ahead of Wednesday’s test, as required by international agreements, and said the United States followed the launch.
“Such testing is routine, and it was no surprise. It was not considered a threat to the United States or its allies,” Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said.
Putin was engaging in ‘nuclear slashing’, former CIA Russia operations chief Steve Hall told CNN’s Kate Bolduan, and the likelihood of a strike against the United States was extremely low .
“Satan” gets a makeover
Rather than an immediate threat to the West, the launch should be seen as another step in Russia’s ICBM program, analysts said.
The Sarmat, when operational, will replace Soviet-era Voevoda ICBMs, known by the NATO designation SS-18 Satan, one for one, they said.
Hans Kristensen, director of the nuclear information project at the Federation of American Scientists, said the development of the liquid-fueled Sarmat was like giving the original Satan missile “a facelift”.
It had “similar capabilities to the existing SS-18”, but there were “probably some improvements under the hood”, Kristensen said.
Like the SS-18, the Sarmat could carry 10 independently targeted nuclear warheads and possibly more with a range of up to 18,000 km, according to the Center for Strategic and International Studies Missile Defense Project.
That’s far enough to reach the continental United States.
It could also carry a hypersonic glider vehicle to deliver those warheads, a CSIS fact sheet says.
Kristensen said that for about a year Russia modernized the silos to manage the Sarmat.
He also said that the Sarmat program had suffered several delays. CSIS said he was due to deploy last year.
When operational, the Sarmat – like all silo-based missiles – is likely to be kept in a higher state of alert than ICBMs on mobile launch platforms, Kristensen said.
Indeed, the silos are fixed and therefore more vulnerable to an enemy strike.
A distraction from the sinking of Moskva
The launch must also be seen in light of Russia’s recent military failures and was likely used by Putin as a distraction for his domestic audience, analysts said.
From the Russian point of view, the war in ukraine does not go well.
A conflict that Moscow originally saw as likely to end in days has now dragged into its second month, with Russian efforts blocked by a determined and highly trained Ukrainian resistance.
There are also trivial issues like a lack of truckspoor logistics and reliance on poorly trained conscripts.
And just last week, Russia lost one of its most visible military assets when the the Moskva missile cruiser sank in the Black Sea.
The loss of the ship embarrassed Moscow, which admitted the vessel had suffered a catastrophic fire but did not confirm Ukrainian claims that it had been hit by anti-ship missiles.
Such high-profile failures left Putin in dire need of positive military news to feed the public back home and Wednesday’s launch provided that.
At the same time, experts say Russia’s obsession with demonstration weapons such as the Satan II hides deeper and more fundamental issues at the heart of its military.
“A lot of times, glamorous military dictators are good at flashy weapons, they buy fancy planes and tanks, but they don’t really buy the less glamorous stuff,” said Phillips O’Brien, professor of strategic studies at the University of St Andrews in Scotland. earlier this month.
After Wednesday’s launch, he reiterated that point on Twitter, saying “this whole thing reeks of Hitler’s WWII ‘miracle weapons’.”
Miracle weapons were “German propaganda to make it look like Germany had a chance of winning the war when things were going very badly.”
“These weapons often existed…but their impact was used to distract the German people.”
O’Brien said Putin used “very Hitlerian rhetoric in bragging that the Sarmat was the best system in the world”.
“(He) tries to make Russians confident and proud of their technological prowess, as the war highlights consistent shortcomings in the Russian military’s ability to operate complex systems,” O’Brien said.
No Game Changer
But regarding the situation on the ground in Ukraine, according to analysts, the ICBM test would have no practical effect.
It is a strategic weapon, primarily designed to strike at the United States, as was the SS-18, its Cold War predecessor.
And even then, Putin’s threatening words must be seen in a larger context.
Like Russia, the United States has its own ICBMs – as well as ballistic missile submarines and nuclear-capable strategic bombers – which would strongly deter Putin from using his “Satan II”.
Pentagon spokesman Kirby previously told Fox News that Washington is confident in its own ballistic missile capabilities.
However, unlike Russia, the United States has made efforts to avoid stoking tensions with its own missile programs.
Earlier this month, the US Air Force canceled a planned test of its Minuteman III ICBM for this very reason.
“I think there was a prudent decision at the time to kneel on this and not throw it, where we were in space and time at the start of this invasion was the good thing to do,” Kirby said.