GP Short Notes # 631, 24 April 2022
On 20 April, Russia successfully test-fired its RS-28 Sarmat super-heavy, thermonuclear-armed intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM). Dubbed 'Satan-II' by the West, the ICBM was launched from the Plesetsk cosmodrome in the Arkhangelsk region. The liquid-fuelled, multiple independently targetable reentry vehicle (MIRV) is an exo-atmospheric ballistic missile capable of deploying multiple nuclear warheads. These warheads could be launched at hypersonic speeds within 18,000 kilometres and can carry a ten-ton payload.
On 20 April, Russia's president Vladimir Putin, on the eve of the launch, stated: "This truly unique weapon will strengthen the combat potential of our armed forces, reliably ensure the security of Russia from external threats, and make those, who in the heat of frantic aggressive rhetoric try to threaten our country, think twice."
Russia's defence ministry released a statement saying: "Sarmat is the most powerful missile with the longest range of destruction of targets in the world, which will significantly increase the combat power of our country's strategic nuclear forces."
On 19 April, Moscow had 'properly notified' Washington of the upcoming launch fulfilling its obligations under the 2011 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START treaty). The treaty limits Russia's and US's intercontinental missiles and bombers. The US department of defence spokesperson, John Kirby, said: "Testing is routine and it was not a surprise. Of course, the department remains focused on Russia's unlawful and unprovoked aggression against Ukraine."
What is the background?
First, Russia and the Ukraine war. Post Ukraine invasion in February, Putin had referred to Russia's expanding arsenal and how any interference from the West would lead to severe consequences. Dealing with the mounting tensions, Putin has been proclaiming that the next-generation missiles from Russia would be invincible. This comes as Russia is shifting strategies by amassing troops and restocking supplies for a renewed campaign in eastern Ukraine. Furthermore, Moscow issued fresh warnings of nuclear deployment to Finland and Sweden as both countries inch closer to becoming a part of NATO. Putin is also looking to distract his domestic audience from Russia's recent military failures. Russia lost one of its major military assets in the Black sea with the sinking of the guided-missile cruiser Moskva. Russia also lost another colonel, Mikhail Nagamov, the commander of a sapper regiment, inflicting punishing losses on Russia's top military brass.
Second, the revival of nuclear weapons debate. The war in Ukraine has led to a resurgence of fear about the use of nukes. While the prospect of nuclear conflict seemed unthinkable once, it appears to have returned now. Russia is highly armed with nukes, raising legitimate concerns about nuclear escalation if the conflict spills beyond Ukraine. The Russian invasion of Ukraine has brought into perspective how many of the nuclear armaments that once endangered the earth still exist, limiting any form of confrontational or rogue behaviour. Despite the echoes of a cold war, the strategic landscape has shifted with wartime equations getting complicated with the sheer number of tactical warheads that Russia has stockpiled.
Third, the response of the West to nuclear provocations. Germany's Chancellor, Olaf Scholz, defended his refusal to send heavy weapons to Ukraine over fears of a nuclear war. NATO leaders have shown restraint in sending a message to Moscow, casting doubts on the bloc's nuclear deterrence credibility. The US also became the first country to announce a ban on missile tests against space satellites, with the US Vice-President Kamala Harris calling such tests' reckless'.
What does it mean?
First, Russia's focus on posturing and symbolism. With the annual Victory Day on 9 May just weeks away, the timing of the test reflects that Russia wants to showcase its technological prowess to the world. The date will also mark 75 days of fighting since the invasion began on 24 February. As Russia seeks to reposition itself, the date holds a symbolic weight as there are fears about Putin calling for total mobilization of Russia's forces and distracting its domestic audience away from the ongoing conflict.
Second, the fear of isolation. The launch will feed into the growing concern about how increasingly isolating Russia might see Putin launching more provocative actions. Third, the question of the game-changing capabilities of the ICBM. The Pentagon has called it 'routine' and dismissed threats surrounding the launch. Eulogized by Putin as a unique weapon, but more tests would be needed before Russia could deploy the new-age missiles in place of the ageing SS-18 and SS-19 missiles.
Finally, the reappearance of nuclear disarmament discussions. The war opens up the possibility of having a more inclusive conversation on disarmament to recognize the idea of a nuclear-free world and try to mitigate the eventuality of existing nuclear weapons. This also serves as an opportunity to get rid of nuclear posturing and prevent countries from playing the nuclear card during conflicts.