As the battles of the Ukrainian War unfold, Russian President Vladimir Putin has again drawn the nuclear card in his dispute with the West.
This Wednesday (20), he announced the first full test of the country’s new intercontinental missile for the use of nuclear warheads, the RS-28 Sarmat, known in NATO, the western military alliance, as Satan-2. It is the most powerful weapon of its kind in the world.
“This truly unique weapon will enhance the combat potential of our Armed Forces, reliably guarantee Russia’s security against external threats, and make those who, in the heat of aggressive rhetoric, attempt to threaten our country, think twice.” he said in a televised conversation with Defense Ministry officials.
The test comes amid the start of the battle for Donbass for control of the Russian-speaking region of eastern Ukraine, nearly two months after the start of the war. During the period, Putin suffered setbacks by sponsoring a broad but uncoordinated attack on several fronts, failing to encircle Kiev.
It was more successful in the south and east, where it now focuses its forces. The reputation of the Russian military, which has undergone major tactical and equipment modernization since the near-fiasco in the 2008 victory over Georgia, however, is badly damaged.
In addition to criticism abroad, there is the growing military support given by the West to Kiev, which has already helped to avoid an exit defeat in the war. So-called red lines to avoid bringing the Russians into conflict with NATO, such as the supply of anti-aircraft batteries, are being tested week by week.
Thus, the nuclear joker always remains in the deck. Analysts and politicians speculate whether Putin could use a low-powered, tactical weapon against a Ukrainian target or even in a show of force over the Black or Baltic Seas, should his military situation deteriorate.
The message with Sarmat is different, however. It’s a reminder that Russia is the biggest global nuclear power, alongside the United States, with both accounting for about 90% of the world’s atomic warheads.
The US did not issue a receipt. According to the Pentagon, Moscow had notified the US of the test, as required by the New Start arms control treaty. “We don’t consider it to be a threat,” said John Kirby, the Defense Department spokesman.
Putin has been using this rhetoric since the eve of the invasion on February 24. Five days earlier, he had tested his nuclear forces and fired hypersonic missiles, intermediate ballistic missiles and an RS-24 Iars, an intercontinental model that is already in operation, from a submarine in the Arctic.
On the day of the attack, he threatened foreign forces to intervene in the confrontation with nuclear retaliation. And shortly after the start of the war, it put its nuclear forces on standby, raising alarm in the West. Between those who see only bluffs and those who are really worried, there is a mixture of the two assessments.
Here and there, politicians talk about the issue when they speculate that the war could spill over. Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky himself cited Putin’s possible use of nuclear weapons. World War III, out of fashion as a threat since the end of the Cold War in 1991, has returned to the order of the day.
Sarmat was launched from the Plesetsk cosmodrome, near the Finnish border, and flew for about 6,000 km until it reached the Kura proving ground on the Kamchatka peninsula in the Pacific. It has been in development since 2009 and began to undergo ignition and launch tests in 2018.
The missile, named after the former Eurasian empire of Sarmatia, is an estimated 208-tonne monster measuring 35.5 m in length. It is capable, analysts say, of delivering perhaps 15 nuclear warheads to targets up to 18,000 km away, or an uncertain number of Avangard hypersonic gliders already in operation with older missiles.
In 2019, the Russian government leaked information that Sarmat could make a suborbital flight of 35,000 kilometers, something unprecedented and that would literally guarantee full global coverage from silos in Russia. According to the Defense Ministry, there is already a regiment to be armed with the missile in preparation in Krasnoyarsk, Siberia, perhaps by the end of the year if the tests go well.
The Sarmat is one of the “invincible weapons” announced by Putin in 2018, attracting less attention than the Kinjal hypersonic systems, already used in Ukraine, and Avangard, because it is the evolution of a known technology. But when operational, it will be one of the most fearsome weapons on the market.
Unlike tactical bombs with a few tens of kilotons (Hiroshima had 15 kilotons), it can theoretically carry anything from several warheads with hundreds of kilotons or a few in the megaton range, strategic weaponry for apocalyptic scenarios.