The head of Russia’s space agency said on Friday that the RS-28 Sarmat intercontinental ballistic missile, which Moscow says can deploy 10 or more nuclear warheads and travel at hypersonic speeds to circumvent defenses, had been placed “on combat duty.” according to the state media RIA Novosti.
Pavel Luzin, a Russian military analyst, said the announcement meant the missile had been deployed in a silo and was ready to be used. However, that preparation might be more “on paper” than he was in reality, given the small number of Sarmat tests.
The head of the space agency, Yuri Borisov, did not give details of what he meant by “combat duty,” nor did he say how many of the missiles had been deployed or where.
In April 2022, Russia announced that it had successfully launched the Sarmat. At the time, President Vladimir Putin said the missile would show Russia’s adversaries that they should “think twice” before threatening their country.
Friday’s announcement seemed like an attempt to send a new political signal to the West; experts say: a warning that increased Western aid to Ukraine could have dangerous consequences for the world, even if the Sarmat missiles themselves are not intended for the battlefield of that country.
Friday’s announcement seemed like an attempt to send a new political signal to the West; experts say: a warning that increased Western aid to Ukraine could have dangerous consequences for the world, even if the Sarmat missiles themselves are not intended for the battlefield in that country.
“The Kremlin is concerned that its nuclear threats no longer work and is trying to rekindle fear of Russian nuclear weapons in the United States and Europe,” Luzin said.
Fears that Russia might use nuclear weapons were once considered a relic of the Cold War, but various factors have reignited them as a military and diplomatic issue, said Matthew Kroenig, an expert on strategic competition with Russia and China at the Atlantic Council and Professor of Political Science at Georgetown University.
Among those factors are Russia’s repeated threats to use nuclear weapons since it invaded Ukraine last year, hostile relations between China and the United States and North Korea’s development of its own missiles.
Before, Washington faced only Moscow as a possible nuclear threat. Now the United States has to develop a policy to deal with three nuclear powers simultaneously, Kroenig said.
Russia’s nuclear arsenal, the world’s largest, is its main claim as a great power, experts say, and the announcement was meant to highlight this to both foreign and domestic audiences.
In Washington, White House spokesman John Kirby told reporters he could not confirm Russian reports that the Sarmat was combat-ready.
A US official, who was not authorized to make an official statement but spoke on condition of anonymity, said the deployment had not raised US fears of nuclear escalation and appeared to be a low-level stance.
Thomas Karako, a researcher at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, agreed with him. “There’s some saber rattling. We have seen this train coming for a long time. Russia has been recapitalizing its nuclear arsenal for five or ten years. “Now we are seeing the fruit of that investment.”
Kroenig claimed that Sarmat represented the culmination of a Russian modernization effort, while American efforts to modernize had only just begun. He noted that the United States still relies on Minuteman missiles, last modernized in the 1970s. In contrast to Russia’s claims that the Sarmat can carry 10 nuclear warheads, he added, the Minuteman can carry three.
Russia first announced it was developing the Sarmat in 2018 and originally planned to deploy the missile late last year, but fell short of that goal. Putin said in June that the new weapon would be deployed “soon” and would “force all those who try to threaten our country in the heat of frantic and aggressive rhetoric to think twice.”
What sets it apart is the Russian claim that the Sarmat will be able to bypass defense systems the United States is trying to develop to shoot down incoming intercontinental missiles. The missile would launch several “re-entry vehicles”, each with a warhead, high above the Earth, to rush towards their targets. Moscow claims that such vehicles can maneuver at extremely high speeds, making them virtually impossible to catch.
“Putin certainly has an interest in hyping it up,” says Vann Van Diepen, a former weapons analyst in the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.
Developing such a system would involve overcoming serious technical challenges, he said, but if it works as advertised, “it could be a challenge for American missile defense.”
The Sarmat is a replacement for the Voevoda, or SS-18, the largest and deadliest missile of the Soviet era. According to Putin’s description in 2018, the Sarmat’s weight exceeds 200 tons, and it can fly over the North or South Poles and attack targets anywhere in the world. His trajectory would take him into space.
In February, Putin announced that Russia was suspending its participation in the 2010 New Start treaty, which limits both sides from deploying 1,550 nuclear warheads. The Biden administration had agreed to extend the treaty until January 2026, although the prospects for a new one appear bleak, given current relations.
Neil Macfarquhar and Julian E. Barnes