Not being a professional expert myself, I respectfully disagree with most of the expert community that says that Putin’s announcement of new nuclear weapons (an underwater drone, a “nuclear-powered nuclear missile” and a hypersonic missile) is aimed primarily at Russia being taken seriously.
And I also disagree with the great Mark Galeotti, who says that Putin doesn’t want a new arms race, but is instead pursuing a two-prong tactic of appearing strong abroad and playing up external threats to a domestic audience.
To me it’s obvious what Putin is doing: trying to create the conditions for a separate peace with Europe, and when Putin thinks of Europe, he’s really thinking of Germany.
How it works is this: Putin knows that from a German perspective, nuclear disarmament (or, at least, prevention of nuclear war) is the most important strategic national security objective.
So what Putin was trying to do with his speech was to create a situation where it appears more likely that there will be a nuclear conflict between the United States and Russia with Europe as the battlefield. Putin did this believing that this would highlight a difference in the national security strategies of the United States and Germany–to Germany, the only useful nuclear weapons are the strategic weapons that are so horrible that their only use is to deter a nuclear war. For the U.S., on the other hand, there’s a great temptation to at least have the option of using nuclear weapons as a battle tactic.
This difference in strategy is something that Putin is trying to play upon. And this makes perfect sense if you think about it for a few minutes. All-out nuclear war between the United States and Russia is extremely unlikely because, as we know from Wargames, such a war is unwinnable. The loser loses, the winner loses, and everyone else on the planet loses. This was the key to the “strategic stability” of the Cold War.
All-out nuclear war is fought with the “nuclear triad” of strategic nuclear armaments: ICBMs, nukes dropped by aircraft and nukes launched from submarines. Such weapons make up almost all of the known nuclear arsenals of Russia and the United States.
During the Cold War, there was also a huge standoff of conventional weapons. The Soviet Union had a major advantage in the number and quality of conventional armaments stationed in Europe, with hundreds of thousands of troops in Germany alone. However, in the post-Cold War balance of power, the prospect of a conventional attack by Russia on the heart of Europe is much less scary than it once was. Europe, even with the armed forces it has now (and even without the US’s help), would be more than a match for Russia in conventional warfare.
If you’re looking at the Cold War nuclear standoff from the perspective of a European, especially a German, a world with no nuclear weapons looks like a pretty secure world. And if there must be nuclear weapons, then they should be used as a strategic deterrence. This is why, from the days of the Pershing 2 missile controversy, European support arms control measures has focused first and foremost on tactical nuclear weapons, which are typically lower-yield nuclear weapons with shorter-range delivery systems designed to be used, well, tactically, to knock out a bunker or destroy a piece of infrastructure.
From the German strategic point of view, a buildup of US nuclear weapons looks even scarier than a Russian buildup, particularly with someone like Trump in charge. There are only two scenarios of nuclear war between the United States and Russia: (1) a nuclear apocalypse, in which everyone in the world dies, and (2) a limited nuclear engagement where Russia and the US don’t attack each other’s homeland, but use nuclear weapons as a battlefield tactic–with the most likely battlefield being Europe.
You’ll know that this gambit has been effective if German politicians propose that the United States and Russia enter into a new nuclear arms reduction treaty. From Putin’s perspective, this would be the same as Germany taking Russia’s side over the U.S. on a major global security issue.