On July 19th, 2021, the Russian Ministry of Defense announced the successful launch of a new hypersonic missile, a weapon unlike any other in the world. What makes the Russian hypersonic missile so powerful is that it is capable of carrying nuclear weapons, travels faster than the speed of sound, and, according to President Vladimir Putin, is capable of breaching a U.S. built missile defense system. While Russia developing hypersonic missiles is not a surprise, this may signal the beginnings of a new arms race with the United States as tensions between the superpowers rise.
Since the Cold War, Russia has had difficulty keeping pace with the US and its economic, political, and cultural fortitude. However, Russia has invested and maintained competitiveness with certain aspects of its military innovation and presence. Russia reportedly has the largest nuclear weapons stock with nearly five hundred more weapons than the US, and in the past few years, has outpaced the US in developing new hypersonic missiles. These weapons are apparently faster, more maneuverable, and thus harder to intercept, unlike intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), the historical delivery vehicle of nuclear weapons.
Russia’s history with hypersonic missiles goes back to 2018, when Putin announced, “not a single country possesses hypersonic weapons, let alone continental-range hypersonic weapons,” and claimed Western nations were, “playing catch-up with [Russia].”In what has been described as one of Putin’s most provocative speeches, he stated that the missiles were available in the Russian arsenal and threatened that they would be deployed to submarines if the US deployed its own intermediate-range missiles in Europe – even though the US made no such deployment. While it is unclear if Putin’s full readiness claims are accurate, Russia is clearly innovating on hypersonic missile technology and declaring its military superiority relative to the US. This military rivalry left unchecked could rekindle a new arms race between the nations, similar to the days of the Cold War.
While hypersonic missiles are not new for Russia, the announcement comes at a time of rising tensions between Russia and the United States. Over the past year, the two nations have sparred on everything from cyber attacks, to election interference, to Syria, and to Trump’s withdrawal from a Cold War-era nuclear arms treaty. Additionally, President Biden condemned Putin’s arrest of opposition journalist Alexei Navalny, stating there would be, “devastating,” consequences for Russia. While these world leaders recently met in Switzerland in June 2021, there was no substantive outcome on shared goals, and it appears it will take many more meetings to demonstrate progress and lower tensions.
It is critical that the US and Russia not restart an arms race and return to the military chess match of the Cold War. Instead, the two nations should focus on negotiations leading to durable peace and economic partnership. Russia’s development of hypersonic missiles, and its provocation to the world, signal an aggressive stance from Putin and his government and demonstrate that Russia wants to again prove itself on the international stage through its military prowess. The United States shouldn’t take the bait. It needs to rally its allies to push Russia to stop the development of these new and deadly weapons and end its own investment in hypersonic missile technology to compete with Russia. The risk of history repeating itself with an arm’s race is far too great and has dire consequences for the world. Modern technologies like hypersonic missiles (and cyber attacks) represent a new deadly front on an old Cold War concept. The testing and production of technology like hypersonic missiles must end in order for the world to maintain peace.