Putin's nuclear weapons scare tactic is his best attempt at intimidation, but it's not working

  • Russian President Vladimir Putin made a bunch of wild claims about Russia’s nuclear arsenal on Thursday, but Russia getting new nuclear weapons doesn’t actually improve the country’s situation.
  • Russia is still a very poor country on a per capita basis, and the new nuclear weapons won’t actually shift the balance of power.
  • Putin said other countries would “listen” to Russia now that it has new nuclear weapons, but that was for domestic consumption before a big election, and in reality the international community doesn’t make decisions based on who has newer nukes.

Russian President Vladimir Putin gave a wild state of the nation address to the country’s elites on Thursday, and he chose to conclude the speech by hyping up a bunch of doomsday nuclear devices and threatening to retaliate against anyone who attacks the US with nuclear force.

But Putin’s talk was classic bluster. In reality, his country has severe weaknesses.

“There was nothing new in his speech,” Anna Borschevskaya, an expert on Russia at the Washington Institute, told Business Insider.

Take a look at this line from Putin after he described new nuclear weapons systems he framed as able to defeat the US: “They kept ignoring us,” Putin said of the West, to a standing ovation. “Nobody wanted to listen to us, so listen to us now.”

Borschevskaya pointed out “the victimization themes in his speech.”

“You (implying the West) didn’t listen to us before, but you will listen now,” she said, adding that Russia has threatened the US with nuclear weapons before.

With weak oil prices and international sanctions crushing Russia’s economy, “Putin has little else to offer to the public besides the classic narratives of Russia as a besieged fortress surrounded by enemies,” Borschevskaya said.

This possibly explains why other non-nuclear nations play a greater role in the international community and enjoy a higher standard of living than Russia, which prioritises nuclear weapons above other things like investing in education or infrastructure.

Russia has a smaller GDP than Canada, but four times the population. Canada doesn’t have nuclear weapons or a large military footprint, but somehow it gets other countries to listen to it.

So while military might is Putin’s last leg to stand on, recent events question even that.

Untold numbers of Russian mercenaries are dying in Syria

Putin is reportedly trying to keep a lid on a troubling news story that hundreds of Russian nationals were handily defeated by US air power in Syria. Detailed reports and allegedly leaked audio paint a picture of an embarrassing defeat at the hands of the US military, and how the remains of dead Russian mercenaries are being held until after Russia’s presidential election in March.

And while Putin’s new nuclear weapons may improve upon older models, they don’t really change much.

“These concepts were raised and explored repeatedly during the Cold War,” Justin Bronk, a combat aviation expert at the Royal United Services Institute, told Business Insider. “To be honest I don’t think they’re terribly destabilizing.”

The early part of Putin’s speech made big promises on social and economic issues, which are “very important to the Russian public,” according to Borschevskaya.

“Everything from poor roads, a classic problem in Russia, to health care and poverty,” came up in the speech, “but while he talked big, he said nothing about exactly how these issues are going to get improved,” she said.

“While this might make Putin look like a tough guy flexing new nuclear muscles ahead of upcoming undemocratic elections in Russia that will coronate him again, the new systems don’t change the essential deterrence equation between the US and Russia,” Barry Pavel, a senior vice president and director of the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council wrote.

Putin’s appeal to nuclear might as a tool of persuasion and national power in 2018 represents a bygone era of Cold War competition, and doesn’t really change anything.

NOW WATCH: Briefing videos

Business Insider Emails & Alerts

Site highlights each day to your inbox.

Follow Business Insider Australia on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and Instagram.