Putin, Under Pressure After Approval Rating Slumped to 14-Year Low, Claims Russia Is Winning Hypersonic Arms Race

Russian President Vladimir Putin has lauded his country's hypersonic weapons research programs, suggesting Moscow is still leading the U.S. as he battles his lowest approval rating for more than a decade.

Putin said Sunday that Russia is now developing defensive hypersonic weapons—meaning a weapon travels at five or more times the speed of sound—designed to counteract offensive hypersonic weapons deployed by other nations.

"It's very likely that we will have means to combat hypersonic weapons by the time the world's leading countries have such weapons," Putin said, according to Reuters, which cited a report by Russia's RIA news agency.

Hypersonic weapons—which can be armed with nuclear warheads—travel at high speeds and can maneuver in flight, making it difficult for existing defensive systems to intercept them. They also travel at a flatter trajectory than traditional missiles, meaning they reach the target faster giving less time for defenders to destroy them.

Russian politicians, military officials and Putin have all celebrated the country's hypersonic program framing it as world leading. Russian nuclear capable hypersonic weapons are already operational, while the U.S. intends to field its first hypersonic arms in the early to mid 2020s. China is also investing heavily in hypersonic weapons research.

Putin announced Russia's hypersonic arsenal in his state of the union address in 2018, claiming that the plane-launched Kinzhal—meaning dagger—missile can travel at more than 10 times the speed of sound. He said the weapon is "guaranteed to overcome all existing and I think prospective anti-missile systems" in delivering a nuclear strike.

The announcement—and successful tests of Russian hypersonic weapons—prompted concern in the U.S. Military officials have warned that the U.S. may be falling behind on hypersonic weapons and accelerated efforts to close the gap.

The Pentagon requested $3.2 billion for hypersonic programs for the 2021 fiscal year, an increase from $2.6 billion in the current year. The U.S. successfully tested an unarmed prototype of its first hypersonic missile in March and is hoping to deploy the first weapon by 2023.

Advanced weapons research has been a useful propaganda booster for Putin, though observers have been skeptical of Moscow's ability to deliver large numbers of operational advanced weapons given its relatively small economy.

Putin is facing his lowest approval rating for 14 years as Russia struggles with the coronavirus pandemic. The Kremlin has been criticized for its slow response to the virus and Putin himself self-isolated early in the crisis after coming into contact with a Moscow doctor who later tested positive for COVID-19.

The president delegated many key responsibilities and was largely absent during the outbreak's early stages. Putin claimed in March that the national outbreak was "under control," but was later forced to impose a nationwide lockdown—since lifted—as the number of cases spiked.

Russia has reported the third most COVID-19 cases in the world with more than 528,000 confirmed infections to date, according to Johns Hopkins University. The country's death toll of 6,938 is still relatively low, though observers have suggested authorities are intentionally concealing the true number of deaths.

In the early stages of the outbreak, for example, authorities recorded a large spike in deaths attributed to pneumonia—a deadly complication of COVID-19 virus infection. These were not included in the official COVID-19 death toll.

In May, Moscow officials explained they had only been counting COVID-19 deaths confirmed by autopsy as having been directly caused by the virus. These only represented around 40 percent of all suspected COVID-19 deaths, they said.

The pandemic struck at an inopportune moment for Putin, who had been planning a national rubber stamp referendum for constitutional changes that would allow him to stay in power until 2036. The vote has now been delayed indefinitely though this will not stop its adoption.

Vladimir Putin, Russia, arms race, hypersonic weapons
Russian President Vladimir Putin is pictured speaking with Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin during a meeting at Novo-Ogaryovo the state residence, outside Moscow, on June 2, 2020. -/SPUTNIK/AFP via Getty Images/Getty