What are they?
Michael Kofman, who does seem to know what he is talking about and has studied the Russian language literature, has a very comprehensive summary.
- Emerging Russian Weapons: Welcome to the 2020s (Part 1 – Kinzhal, Sarmat, 4202)
- Emerging Russian Weapons: Welcome to the 2020s (Part 2 – 9M730?, Status-6, Klavesin-2R)
How far along are they? To what extent do they even exist?
I don’t know. I suspect few do. Some factors that should be considered, with respect to the more “Strangelovian” contraptions:
- Theoretically possible; were conceptualized as early as the 1950s/60s (e.g. Project Pluto).
- Growing share of the Russian military budget has gone black in recent years.
- Nuclear Posture Review (hypersonic glide vehicle Avangard 4202, the R-28 Sarmat ICBM, and Status-6 drone submarine nuke) and Pentagon officials (nuclear-powered cruise missile) have mentioned these projects.
- There have also been intermittent leaks of Status-6 development in the past couple of years.
- Scant evidence that the more exotic weapons (Status 6 and nuclear-powered cruise missile) actually exist as more than mockups, or faulty prototypes at best. That Putin’s speech was illustrated by CGI from a 2007 TV documentary doesn’t inspire confidence.
- Russian MIC remains starved of human capital – the best don’t stay at military design bureaus working for 60,000R per month when they could be getting 150,000-200,000R in the private sector.
- Corruption. For instance, just a couple of weeks ago, Novaya Gazeta came out with a well-sourced article on how relatives of Rogozin, head of the Russian MIC, and of an FSB general, seem to have essentially pilfered the funds allocated to establishing a self-contained production chain for thermal imagers within Russia.
- The American MIC and generals have a good record of hyping foreign threads to get more money for their own boondoggles.
- Putin’s recent speech called for major increases in healthcare and infrastructure spending in his next term, and I assume there will be no downsizing of the forest of domestic security organizations that have sprouted up in recent years. Where is the money going to come from? Many signs point to cutbacks in the rearmament program, at the very least as a share of GDP, and maybe even in absolute terms. So the “Russia stronk” rhetoric would make good electoral sense, to satiate the hurrah-patriots with fluff while quietly giving up on military superpower pretensions.
What are they for?
The Kinzhal seems to be an air version of the hypersonic Zircon anti-ship missile, with both of them being very useful from an A2/AD perspective and obviously relevant to potential Russia/US clashes in the Baltics or the Eastern Mediterranean.
As for the nuclear Wunderwaffe, they seem irrelevant in terms of standard nuclear deterrence.
The basic fact remains that the US does not have the capacity to knock out an ICBM/SLBM salvo from Russia, nor does it have the capacity to launch a successful first strike, and it is exceedingly unlikely to obtain this capacity for at least the next few decades. Considering that Russia maintains thousands of active nuclear warheads, the ability to come in from the South Pole with Sarmats would seem redundant; nor does there seem to be any obvious need for the Status-6 doomsday device, when large areas of hostile territory can already be easily “salted” with cobalt-60 through existing solutions.
That said… stated goals aren’t necessarily equivalent to intended ones.
Imagine Russia as the evil Putlerreich were to decide to take the US permanently out of the equation – how can it go about doing that, without getting vanquished in turn?
First, a nuclear-tipped Avangard seems to be a uniquely excellent decapitation tool (also why Moscow always had major issues with the Global Strike program). Could also reach air bases before the strategic bombers took to the air.
Second, counterforce ground bursts from MIRVed warheads take out a large percentage of the ICBM silos, as has always been the plan.
Third, we need to deal with the SSBNs – the most resilient leg of the nuclear triad since their inception. Traditional solutions included assigning nuclear subs to trail American SSBNs, and hoping they’d find and destroy at least some of them on Doomsday; and training batteries of ICBMs to unleash their warheads in a grid pattern on areas of the oceans that space-based Soviet ASW systems identified as likely spawning grounds for American SSBNs.
But what if Status-6 is not meant for the rather pedestrian and quite pointless task of blowing up American harbors, which frankly any other arm of the traditional nuclear triad can easily do, but to quietly trail American SSBNs and suddenly launch at them from deep down at 180 km/h come the day?
I don’t see why this is impossible. Well, apart from myriads of intractable political and coordination problems.