Russia successfully tested the Sarmat intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) with President Vladimir Putin boasting the nuclear-capable projectile will make Moscow’s enemies “think twice”.
Putin was shown on television being told by the military the missile had been launched from Plesetsk in Russia’s northwest and hit targets in the Kamchatka peninsula in the far east on Wednesday.
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“I congratulate you on the successful launch of the Sarmat intercontinental ballistic missile,” Putin told the army in televised remarks.
“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 aggressive rhetoric – try to threaten our country think twice.”
The Sarmat is a new heavy ICBM that Russia is expected to deploy with 10 or more warheads on each missile, according to the United States Congressional Research Service.
It has been under development for years and so its test launch is not a surprise for the West, but it comes at a moment of extreme geopolitical tension over Russia’s war in Ukraine.
“The new [missile] has the highest tactical and technical characteristics and is capable of overcoming all modern means of anti-missile defence. It has no analogues in the world and won’t have for a long time to come,” Putin said.
The head of the Russian state aerospace agency called the launch in northern Russia “a present to NATO”.
Igor Korotchenko, editor-in-chief of Russia’s National Defence magazine, told RIA news agency it was a signal to the West that Moscow was capable of meting out “crushing retribution that will put an end to the history of any country that has encroached on the security of Russia and its people”.
‘Not a surprise’
Russia’s test of a new nuclear-capable missile is not seen as threatening to the US and its allies, the Pentagon said on Wednesday.
Moscow “properly notified” Washington of the test following its obligations under the 2011 New START treaty, which placed limits on the two countries’ nuclear weapons, said US Department of Defense Spokesman John Kirby.
“Testing is routine and it was not a surprise,” Kirby told reporters. “Of course, the department remains focused on Russia’s unlawful and unprovoked aggression against Ukraine.”
Douglas Barrie, senior fellow for military aerospace at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, said the launch was an important milestone after years of delays caused by funding issues and design challenges.
He said more tests would be needed before Russia could actually deploy it in place of ageing SS-18 and SS-19 missiles that were “well past their sell-by date”.
Barrie said the Sarmat’s ability to carry 10 or more warheads and decoys, and Russia’s option of firing it over either of the Earth’s poles, posed a challenge to ground and satellite-based radar and tracking systems – “this complicates where you’ve got to look”.
‘Something to show’
Jack Watling of the RUSI think-tank in London said there was an element of posturing and symbolism involved, eight weeks into the war in Ukraine and less than three weeks before the annual Victory Day parade where Russia shows off its latest weapons.
“The timing of the test reflects the Russians wanting to have something to show as a technological achievement in the lead-up to Victory Day, at a time when a lot of their technology has not delivered the results they would have liked in Ukraine,” he said.
Asked about Putin’s comments, a senior US defence official called them irresponsible.
“We find that rhetoric to be to be unhelpful, given the current context of things, and certainly it’s not the kind of thing that we would expect from a responsible nuclear power, especially in the current environment,” the official said on condition of anonymity.
The Pentagon said on March 2 it postponed a test of its own Minuteman III ICBM to avoid escalating tensions over Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
At the time, Kirby said the postponement was ordered by US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin “to demonstrate that we are a responsible nuclear power”.
Launching the Ukraine invasion on February 24, Putin made a pointed reference to Russia’s nuclear forces and warned the West any attempt to get in its way “will lead you to such consequences that you have never encountered in your history”.
Days later, he ordered Russia’s nuclear forces to be put on high alert.
“The prospect of nuclear conflict, once unthinkable, is now back within the realm of possibility,” United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said last month.