Russia’s president dismissed the idea that hypersonic weapons under development in neighbouring China posed a threat to Russia’s security, while asserting the strength of Moscow’s relationship with Beijing.
Vladimir Putin spoke via videoconference on Tuesday at a Russian investment forum, according to Bloomberg, and suggested that the US was further along in the development of hypersonic weapons than the Pentagon has let on.
“Why should we be concerned about the increased military potential of our nearest neighbor with whom we have an unprecedentedly high level of bilateral ties?” said Mr Putin, according to Bloomberg. He reportedly added: “We saw the reaction of our US partners to this but we know that the US is slightly ahead in hypersonic weapons development.”
His comments echoed those of Russia’s foreign ministry in mid-October, just days after it was first reported by the Financial Times that China had conducted a test of weapons that had circumnavigated the Earth before striking relatively near a target in the South China Sea.
In the two tests, weapons developers tested what was referred to as a “fractional orbital bombardment” system that launched a nuclear-capable “hypersonic glide vehicle” around the Earth, before attempting to strike a target.
A hypersonic arms race intensified across the Pacific this year as Russia, China, the US and North Korea all announced or initiated various tests of hypersonic weapons through the summer. Development of the weapons comes as relations between the US and China remain troubled over the issue of Taiwan, which the Trump administration and now Biden administration have openly supported in defiance of Beijing’s territorial claim.
In October, Moscow’s diplomatic corps indicated no concern about China’s weapons development, which Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said was “within the framework of its international obligations”.
China’s government denied that the test involved a weapon, instead characterising it as a “space vehicle”, at a news conference that month.
“It was not a missile, it was a space vehicle,” said a foreign ministry spokesperson. Days later, the agency expanded on that explanation, calling it “a regular test of the technology of spacecraft reusability, which carries significance to lower the cost of the use of spacecraft, and is expected to offer mankind a new way of affordable and convenient space travel.”
US military officials including Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, have however publicly backed up some of the reporting of the Times and other news outlets.
“What we saw was a very significant event of a test of a hypersonic weapon system. And it is very concerning,” said Gen Milley last month, adding: “I don’t know if it’s quite a Sputnik moment, but I think it’s very close to that. It has all of our attention.”
Other Biden administration officials have contended, despite Mr Putin’s remarks, that the US is behind China in terms of development of hypersonic weaponry.
"We have concerns about what China is doing on hypersonic," Robert Wood, the US envoy on disarmament, told reporters in Geneva.
"We just don't know how we can defend against that type of technology,” he said at the time, before clarifying: “[N]either does China or Russia.”