The Head of the Russian space agency, Roscosmos, announced this week that a new generation of Russian nuclear missiles would be ready for use by the coming autumn. Days ago, the Kremlin completed the first test launch of the brand new Sarmat intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) - dubbed by NATO as ‘Satan II’. The missile is reported to be able to reach targets as far away as the UK from Russia and given the global political climate as a result of the Ukraine Invasion, there are legitimate fears surrounding the utilisation of Sarmat.
For the Russians, this announcement has come at a critical moment after years of hold-ups due to financing and problems with the technology. Not only their current military operations in Ukraine but also the increasing hostilities between Russia and NATO counties, Russia can foresee a situation where nuclear weapons would no longer act solely as a deterrent. Worryingly, this was implicated recently when Vladimir Putin, the Russian President, was quoted as stating any attempts by foreign powers to obstruct Russia “will lead you to such consequences that you have never encountered in your history.” This comes at a time where currently NATO countries are supplying military, economic and humanitarian aid to Ukraine to bolster their defence against Russia.
Nuclear tensions have not reached such levels since the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 when Moscow deployed ICBMs to Cuba, right in America’s backyard, as retaliation to America positioning their missiles in Italy and Turkey. Only four days into the Ukraine conflict, Putin elevated the Russian nuclear threat level, putting nuclear forces on ‘special alert’. However, what is more, concerning for present times is the destructive capabilities of current and future ICBMs, far beyond that of the missiles in 1962. Indeed, the Western point of view on the existence of ICBM systems, given their ability to inflict devastation, is governed by the principle of mutually assured destruction.
However, this major development in the Russian nuclear capabilities raises the question of how and are NATO and the West prepared against an attack. In comparison, in the UK, the Trident nuclear defence system has been consistently renewed and updated (with the latest renewal - Trident II SLBM – in 2020, matching the current system in place in the US), while Russia is only now updating its ICBMs from the Soviet Voyevoda system, Putin has stated that Russia’s new ICBM system “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.”
Whether this is the case or not, the US responded to the developments with a statement from Pentagon spokesmen John Kirby: “Testing is routine, and it was not a surprise” and that the test has not been deemed a “threat to the United States or its allies”. Furthermore, since the invasion of Ukraine and unlike Russia, the US has not changed its nuclear threat level, DEFCON. While this is reassuring to the West, Putin’s increasing aggression is not something to be taken lightly. For example, Denmark has begun stockpiling iodine tablets, which prevent radioactive iodine from being absorbed by the body, in case of nuclear fallout. Romania has also begun handing out such tablets to their citizens while stating there is no need to take them currently.
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