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By ZACHARY HALASCHAK
Daily News Staff Writer
U.S. Sen. Dan Sullivan, R-Alaska, thinks that Russian President Vladimir Putin’s latest announcement of new advanced nuclear weapons is largely bluster, and had some biting words in regard to the Russian government.
In a Wednesday afternoon call to the Daily News, Sullivan said he thinks the Russian leader’s announcement is an attempt to “stay relevant” on the global stage as the United States grows its military and missile defense capabilities.
“He’s playing a weak hand, he’s got a very weak economy — really almost a third-world economy,” Sullivan said. “He’s got a first-world military, there’s no doubt about that, but what you see with Putin constantly — and this is just another example — he’s just trying to stay relevant.”
Throughout the 15-minute call, Sullivan, who sits on the Senate Armed Services Committee, repeatedly chided the economy of Russia, its leader and Russia’s claims.
“Russia is a third-world mafia state that is essentially a gas station, and that’s kind of all they have,” Sullivan said.
“No one is going to invest there,” Sullivan said. “So you constantly see these like attempts at pokes in the eyes to the United States, and this was just another example.”
The comments come after Putin this week announced the alleged new weapons at his state-of-the-nation address. He claimed that the new technology would allow Russia to strike anywhere with practically unlimited range.
In addition, Russia-produced video simulations of the weapons were shown, including one that appeared to depict nuclear warheads raining down on the state of Florida.
But do Putin and Russia actually have the technology? Or is it just bluster?
“I can’t go into a classified answer to that, but you know, the unclassified sources indicate that I think what he was talking about; they don’t have that capability,” Sullivan said, “they're trying, they're trying to develop that capability.”
Sullivan also noted that the March 18 Russian elections are fast approaching, and, with Putin seeking another six-year term, he might be showboating for his domestic audience.
“And not that it’s a fair election; he’s a dictator,” Sullivan said. “… He does that a lot for domestic consumption.”
“To be honest it’s unfortunate,” Sullivan said. “You would think that if you’re a leader of a country like Russia, you wouldn’t need to kind of resort to those types of animations — which are obviously provocative — to stay relevant or try to impress your own domestic audiences.”
And, according to Sullivan, this is not the first time Putin has reacted to U.S. military growth in a reactionary way. The senator noted how Putin responded after the U.S. tested an ICBM intercept last May — the first successful test of its kind — a feat that Sullivan described as “essentially a bullet hitting a bullet, supersonic, in space.”
“And Putin soon after came out with some statement on America’s missile defense,” Sullivan said. “And you could tell that it was actually prompted by him being insecure, like, whoa, the Russians don’t have that technology that we just demonstrated.”
“In my view, when you really think about it, it actually kind of demonstrates weakness,” Sullivan said.
Sullivan also pointed out that the Ground-Base Midcourse Defense System — which has most of its missile interceptors at Fort Greely — is not meant to counter a Russian attack, but rather attacks from smaller, less technologically advanced regimes.
“Remember, for the most part our missile defense is not focused on Russia, it’s actually focused on rogue nations like North Korea and Iran,” Sullivan said.
In terms of deterring Russia, the cold-war adage of “mutually assured destruction” still holds true (both the U.S. and Russia have more than 1,000 nuclear warheads each).
“The deterrent in regard to Russia continues to be the U.S. nuclear triad,” Sullivan said. “That’s made up of strategic bombers, ICBMs and our (ballistic missile) submarines.
“So those are the deterrent(s) to Russia, and (Putin) knows that, and so this just again seems like Putin trying to stay relevant,” he added.
Sullivan noted that from 2010 to 2016, the U.S. “cut defense spending by 25 percent,” but said that with the Trump Administration — and the passage of the National Defense Authorization Act — that U.S. military strength is now growing.
“I think, with regard to Putin, he probably sees the replay of the 1980s when the Reagan defense build-up essentially buried, … and was one of the significant causes of the collapse of the Soviet Union,” Sullivan said. “So, we’re doing that now; he knows it.”
“There’s no way that he can come close to matching it as we start rebuilding our military forces and I bet it makes him nervous,” Sullivan later added.
In terms of current national security policy, the Alaska senator also told the Daily News that he supports the ongoing shift away from unconventional terror threats like the Islamic State, to larger threats, like Russia.
“We are now, shifting back to a focus on — from a national security standpoint — kind of ‘big country rivalry,’” Sullivan explained. “And that’s China, that’s Russia, in terms of their intentions and in terms of their capabilities.”
He said that the shift is coming from the top down — citing Trump and Defense Secretary James Mattis.
“We’re going to start focusing on these countries again,” Sullivan said, “and I think that’s the appropriate focus of our strategy.”
Sullivan said that sanctions against Russia since its 2014 annexation of Crimea in Ukraine have been “biting.”
Sullivan explained that he supports the full implementation of additional sanctions against Russia that were included in the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act of 2017 — a measure that passed the Senate with a vote of 98-2.
“I was a strong supporter of that sanctions bill,” Sullivan said. “… It goes to our strengths and their weaknesses; and that’s their economy.”
“I’m one who’s been calling for the administration to fully enact those,” Sullivan said. “… Absolutely I think the president and his administration should implement those sanctions. And if they haven’t yet, they need to.”