How Putin failed to scare the world

Why did the Russian president decide to show off nuclear weaponry at his state-of-the-nation speech?

Putin weapons
Russian President Vladimir Putin addressed the Federal Assembly in Moscow on March 1 [Reuters/Maxim Shemetov]

On March 1, Russian President Vladimir Putin delivered his annual state-of-the-nation speech. The intended audience, however, was not really the Federal Assembly or his electorate; it was actually the West – and more specifically the US.

The address almost sounded like one that a North Korea leader would deliver. After a short introduction about economic and social problems, Putin went on to talk at length about Russia’s new nuclear weapons, which supposedly have no equivalent elsewhere in the world and which give the country an advantage over the US. Behind his back a big screen showed a video of advanced rockets targeting what looked like the US state of Florida.

In terms of pathos, Putin’s weapons presentation matched that of Apple unveiling iPhoneX, but the quality of the graphics dragged it down. Russia Today Managing Editor Margarita Simonyan said that the people who created the video “did not really study design but how to effectively blow themselves up [and the enemy] with a grenade.”

In this case Simonyan said the truth. In Russia, indeed, there is quite a lot made and done by people who were taught how to blow up grenades. Perhaps some are working in Russia media, too.

One can get a sense of what reaction Putin wanted to evoke with his speech by looking into what Russian state TV channels were broadcasting. After his address, all of them in unison declared that the US was now dead scared. “This hysteria is [because] the US genuinely thought that it was more advanced than Russia,” US analyst Daniel Patrick Welch – who, among other things, is a regular on RT and a singer and songwriter – was translated as saying on pro-Kremlin NTV. “For the US leadership, it was unthinkable that Russia and China can catch up with us and pose a real threat […] The billions of dollars that the Americans invested in defence were spent for nothing.”

Russian state media would have you believe that humanity is now frozen in apprehension, waiting for how US-Russian relations will pan out – as if another Cuban crisis is going on.

US media did mark the speech, but the mood in the country is far from hysteric. Russia is indeed widely discussed but more so in the context of the investigation against the Trump administration for alleged collusion with Moscow.

Putin, of course, would love it if the world saw Russia as the Soviet Union during the Cold War, as one of two, or as one of three (if one counts China) superpowers. But the presentation of threatening-looking nuclear missiles did not produce the desired result. In fact, after Putin’s speech, Russia started looking more like another North Korea – a weak country whose only trump card is nuclear weaponry.

Putin’s strategy did not really work outside of the country, but we are still to see how much effect it will have inside.

The Kremlin perhaps hopes that anti-Americanism will unite the electorate.


After the collapse of oil prices in 2014, the Kremlin started actively mobilising the electorate around the idea of an external enemy. In the beginning, that was Ukraine; then terrorists in Syria; and now there is the possibility of a nuclear war with the US.

The Kremlin perhaps hopes that anti-Americanism will unite the electorate. But as Iran and Venezuela demonstrate, such strategy doesn’t really work well in times of economic crisis. Perhaps the Kremlin understands that, but it simply does not have any other options. And that would be a dangerous predicament.

If Putin does not see the desired reaction either at home or abroad, he might have to up the ante. During his speech, he said the following: “The [weapons] systems we created do not exist anywhere else. We made no secret of our intentions to negotiate. But no one wanted to talk with us, basically. No one listened to us. Hear us now!” The audience responded with standing ovation. The whole pro-Putin elite – MPs, governors, ministers, religious leaders – all were applauding the idea of blackmailing the West with a nuclear bomb.

But what was particularly absurd about this situation was that the hi-tech weaponry with which Putin was trying to the US might not exist.

Putin announced a supersonic cruise missile, “with virtually unlimited range, unpredictable flight trajectory and invulnerable to all defence systems”

But according to some experts, this setup has not yet been achieved.

“Such things are impossible, and also unnecessary in general. A cruise missile shouldn’t have a nuclear engine. And such engines don’t exist. One is under development, but it is for space [rockets] and, of course, no testing of that could’ve taken place in 2017,” said Ivan Moiseev, the head of the Space Politics Institute in Moscow.


Apart from that, Putin showed a video of a new intercontinental missile called “Samrat” (that same one in which Florida seemed to be targeted). But it turned out that this video first aired in 2007 in a documentary on Russia’s First Channel to illustrate another missile called “Voevoda” the technology for which was developed in the 1970s. 

This, of course, is not the first time that the president ends up in an embarrassing situation. During Oliver Stone’s famous interview, Putin showed a video of Russian forces in Syria, which turned out to be an old US video from Afghanistan. After that incident, Putin’s press secretary said that the defence ministry gave him the video.

That some of these rockets which Putin wanted to scare the Americans with do not exist is actually quite a worrying problem in Russia. 

It is difficult to imagine that Putin would show ridiculous videos if he knew that they were made 10 years ago. And it is possible that he is completely convinced that supersonic nuclear missiles are about to be deployed and that the West is indeed scared. It is also possible that he receives such reports from his administration.

In 2014, it was Angela Merkel, who after the downing of flight MH17 above Ukraine gave a plausible-sounding explanation of what could going on in Russia. “Putin is out of touch with reality,” she said after meeting the Russian president.

When North Korean leader Kim Jong-un pretends to be a lunatic – this is worrying. But when the leader of a big nuclear power, which is already involved in two wars and various “special operations” (from cyberattacks to political subversion), adopts such behaviour – it starts to look dangerous. And it seems dangerous, in the first place, for Russia itself.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.