Russia’s struggling economy may not make for a particularly effective military, but the Kremlin’s ability to mold public perceptions remains among the nation’s most comprehensive and powerful skill sets. While some within the United States are still content to dispute the idea that Moscow uses a combination of state-run media outlets and social media outreach campaigns to shape the way the world perceives Russia (and ourselves), there are few better examples of this state-sanctioned chicanery than recent reactions to the “Poseidon” or Status 6 unmanned, submersible nuclear weapon.
Let there be no mistake, Russia’s Poseidon is both well within the nation’s technological capabilities to develop, and promises to offer a never-before-seen level of destruction if ever detonated inside an American port. Yet, beyond the headline-grabbing 100-megaton yield and the promise of irradiated tsunamis laying waste to coastal communities for hundreds of miles, the Poseidon offers Russia truly little in terms of strategic value.
That may seem counter-intuitive. After all, with the largest nuclear warhead ever put into service secured inside a stealthy platform that, in all likelihood, could reach American shores undetected, one could be inclined to think the Poseidon poses perhaps the most pressing threat to American security since the Soviet Union first developed the atomic bomb. However, the truth is, the same nuclear deterrence strategies that defanged Russia’s previous “doomsday” weapons remain in effect whether the nuclear threat comes from the sky or beneath the waves.
Russia, in fact, already boasts nuclear-tipped intercontinental ballistic missiles that are massively more powerful than the platforms housed in America’s ICBM arsenal. Russia also holds the title for most nuclear weapons on hand, making it the clear winner in both categories for most and biggest nukes.
Even with Aegis-equipped destroyers, THAAD missile defense systems, America’s Ground-based Midcourse Defense system and a constellation of early warning satellites, there is no debating it: if Russia decided to throw every nuke it had at the U.S. (or even just a large chunk of them), America would have absolutely no chance of stopping them all.
It’s that understanding that led to the development of the nuclear triad: a system based on the ability to offer prompt nuclear retaliation no matter how overwhelming a nuclear attack may be. America’s nuclear triad relies on air-launched platforms (often carried by the B-52), ground-launched ICBMs, and submarine-launched weapons, making it all but impossible to neuter America’s nuclear response and guaranteeing Russia’s destruction in any nuclear exchange. America knows it can’t stop Russia from raining nuclear hellfire down on its people, so it’s settled for the next best thing: guaranteeing the U.S. would respond in kind.
That staring contest has been dubbed “mutually assured destruction,” and the concept is really about as simple as geopolitics can get: American and Russian leaders both know that launching even one nuke in the other nation’s direction will lead to a large-scale exchange that would likely end the world. If everyone is dead, it’s tough to pick a winner.
And that brings us back to Russia’s latest headline-grabbing Bond-villain-esque Poseidon. At 100 megatons (sometimes reported in Russian media as 200 megatons), the Poseidon carries a warhead that’s twice as large as the largest nuclear detonation ever recorded, making it a formidable weapon. Still, in terms of mutually assured destruction, it truly offers nothing of particular note. While a single Poseidon detonation could indeed cause an unprecedented level of destruction, headlines the following day (if there were any) would likely be focused on the hundreds of nuclear strikes that followed and the collapse of the modern world. Nothing would be different than if Russia had opted to launch an ICBM strike, rather than a sneaky, submersible one.
Ultimately, the Poseidon is really all about Russia garnering publicity for its weapons programs, maintaining some semblance of international prestige when it comes to discussions of “global powers,” and of course, a bit of tough-guy posturing. It may be a formidable weapon, but a nuclear exchange between Russia and the United States wouldn’t be about winners or losers with or without the Poseidon. It would only be about survivors.
“Doomsday” weapons may make for some exciting headlines, but the fact of the matter is, a Poseidon detonation would really be like a grease fire in the kitchen of a house that’s burning down. Sure, it’s tough to stop, but at that point, does it actually matter?