Putin makes bizarre claim of new nuclear weapons

KREMLIN watchers could be forgiven for thinking they had woken up back in the USSR during a particularly tense moment of the Cold War.

The Russian president, Vladimir Putin, yesterday announced, out of the blue, that Moscow has developed a new, secret and terrible nuclear weapon unequalled elsewhere in the world.

In language laced with Cold War rhetoric, he told Russians that the country was on the threshold of a mighty new security doctrine with, as its centrepiece, new nuclear weapons which "will be put into service in the next few years and, what is more, they will be developments of the kind that other nuclear powers do not and will not have".

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His announcement was all the more bizarre because the speech was aimed primarily against terrorists - the one group of enemies who are, by their nature, not best dealt with by nuclear weapons.

"We are conducting research and are testing the most up-to-date nuclear missile systems, which, I’m sure, will be supplied to the armed forces in the near future," Mr Putin was quoted as telling news agencies.

It left defence experts outside Russia scratching their heads.

Duncan Bullivant, director of the London-based defence consultancy Henderson Risk, said: "Nukes are only useful against area targets, there’s nothing tactical about a nuclear weapon.

"From a military point of view it’s illogical to be looking to deploy new nuclear weapons when the threat comes from terrorists."

The announcement is also puzzling because it is hard to see how much more effective nuclear weapons can become. The good old fashioned H-bomb already seems to be a weapon at the top of its evolutionary tree: a single bomb can devastate an entire city, so increasing the yield would make little difference to its effectiveness.

True, a new mobile launcher for Russia’s Topol-M ballistic missile was announced earlier this month, making the weapon much easier to hide. But the basic nuclear equation remains the same: if one side uses them, the other side can launch devastating retaliation.

If Mr Putin’s unexpected statement had the ring of a Soviet era pronouncement it fits into a pattern of recent Kremlin communiqus.

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The Moscow Times reported that equally stern language had been used by the head of the Physical Culture Agency, Vyacheslav Fetisov, last week when he demanded that the government fire any national team coach who failed to bring glory for his team.

In the same article, the emergency situations minister, Sergei Shoigu, spoke admiringly of the former KGB chief Yuri Andropov’s love of hockey and how the hockey team had performed so well under his tenure.

Europe’s football governing body UEFA has already criticised Moscow for pressure put on the coach of its ailing football team following its poor showing in this summer’s European Championships. The coach had reportedly been told by Mr Fetisov that Mr Putin was not best pleased with the team’s performance.

Both announcements stem from the same roots - a quest for the greatness and pride enjoyed under the USSR. A decade ago, ordinary Russians would have laughed at such announcements. Now, having seen democracy turn into chaos, they grasp for the old certainties.

Mr Putin has popularity ratings a western leader would die for. Under the banner of rebuilding the nation, the Kremlin is putting the country ever more under its thumb: all national TV news is now controlled by the state and elections for regional governors are being scrapped - Mr Putin will in future appoint them himself. And in parliament, Mr Putin’s United Russia reigns supreme, following his lead without question.

Russians tell pollsters they are happy to see the state rediscovering some of the habits of the old USSR.

But abroad, yesterday’s announcement is likely to ring alarm bells among fellow nuclear powers who, until now, had assumed they were partners, not rivals to Moscow.

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Likewise, international sports bodies will be furious with a return to state control of sport as practised in communist times, when state-funded athletes were able to beat their amateur western foes.

But Mr Putin gives every indication that he is on a mission to restore Russian strength and pride, and his message to the rest of the world is likely to be - watch out.