Russian President Vladimir Putin gave a state of the nation speech this week and sparked widespread alarm by describing five new Russian nuclear weapons platforms that, he said, were designed specifically to defeat American missile defense systems. Putin’s aggressive speech led many experts to suggest the United States and Russia were in a new Cold War even as Putin was denying any such thing in a disjointed interview with NBC News’ Megyn Kelly.
Whether it signals any real change in the security balance between the United States and Russia—each of which possesses enough nuclear weaponry to incinerate the other several times over—the speech was certainly a public relations success from the Russian point of view. It served its domestic purpose, allowing Putin to tout his policy achievements ahead of the Russian presidential election, which begins later this month. Putin’s reelection might seem like a foregone conclusion—his closest challenger is a multimillionaire Communist who trails him by 62 percent in the polls—but why take chances?
The speech has also become an international viral phenomenon. Although Putin provided no proof that the new nuclear platforms actually exist, the Russian leader did provide video animations of the alleged weapons. The video all but ensured wide news coverage—and strange juxtapositions, such as a worthy New York Times article that examined the ramifications of Putin’s weapons pronouncements and linked to a video on the website for TV Zvezda, the television network run by Russia’s defense ministry. When I accessed it, the video—an amateurish depiction of a supposedly nuclear-powered cruise missile that flies from Russia, across the Atlantic, around Cape Horn, and up the Pacific to attack the United States from the west—was preceded by an English-language advertisement for Mazda automobiles.
The BBC also provided analysis of the Putin speech that leaned heavily on the Russian government’s animation capabilities, raising questions about whether one of the videos suggested a nuclear attack on South Florida, where, of course, Donald Trump sometimes spends time.
But the most interesting reading material related to Putin’s speech is, to my way of thinking, the Russian government’s transcript of the speech itself. Its similarity to American State of the Union addresses—in tone, calls to patriotism and national pride, and celebration of his nation’s economic, technological, and military might—is unmistakable. And fascinating.