Dr Valery Zvegintsev, a leading Russian hypersonic missile scientist, has been arrested along with two colleagues for embarrassing Putin.
Three Russian rocket academics are suddenly facing a treason investigation that has not only alarmed Russia’s other scientists but has revealed a flaw in Russia’s biggest threat: its rockets are no longer capable of providing “assured” delivery of nuclear weapons.
The treason accusation popped up because Putin has been caught in a lie: he went around saying that his newest hypersonic missile was a terror weapon that could not be shot down.
Then this just happened:
The Russians launched an aerial attack on Kyiv on May 16 from the north, south, and east.
Six of Putin’s celebrated “Dagger” missiles were blown from the sky by U.S. Patriot defensive rockets.
When Ukraine had issued a statement the week before that a Dagger missile had been shot down, it had prompted outrage in Russia.
Now there is no question but that the missile is vulnerable.
The myth of its invulnerability was based on its speed: it flew so fast that the air in front of it formed into a plasma, making it harder to detect.
It is not known how the Patriot system penetrated that invisibility, although a clue might be found in the fact that the Patriot uses multi-spectral analysis; if it can’t find the target using one light frequency, it would shift to others until it locked on. Somewhere in the spectrum, it ‘saw’ the Dagger.
The Kh-47M2 Dagger aeroballistic missiles were fired from six MiG-31K aircraft. To complete the Russian embarrassment a dozen other missiles were also shot down, including nine Kalibr cruise missiles from ships in the Black Sea, and three land-based missiles (S-400, Iskander-M). Moscow also launched attack drones. Moscow also has large stockpiles of older S-300 missiles, which are capable of considerable destruction but they are an anti-air weapon. Used in a ground-to-ground mode they are less accurate.
The Dagger, or Kinzhal in Russian, had been described by Putin as a “next-generation” Russian weapon. Russian officials claimed that the missile can go 10 times faster than the speed of sound, could reach any point in Ukraine, and is able to evade all but the most sophisticated air defense systems.
Experts have challenged his claims, saying that the missile is just a modification of an existing missile that Putin was trying to rebrand.
Serhiy Popko, the head of the Kyiv military administration, described the attack as “exceptional in its density — the maximum number of attacking missiles in the shortest period of time.”
All of the missiles were destroyed.
Oleksii Reznikov, Ukraine’s Minister of Defense, said that the Tuesday defence marked “another unbelievable success for the Ukrainian Air Forces”
In the previous week the Ukrainian capital was targeted by Russia’s “most massive” drone attack, in which 36 Iranian-made Shahed were fired on the city. All 36 were intercepted and damage from falling debris was light.
On May 1st Russia launched another wave of mass strikes at the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv overnight, but air defenses took down the cruise missiles and explosive drones. Russia launched 18 missiles overnight across the country, and 15 of the rockets were shot down by air defenses.
The Russian attacks came after two Ukrainian drones struck an oil depot in the Crimean Peninsula, which Russia has occupied since 2014.
And further bad news lurks for the Russians: Ukrainian forces have begun using long-range Storm Shadow missiles provided by the UK to strike Russian targets.
Patriot and similar systems highlight a Western capability that had not been tested before — how to defeat ballistic targets.
Putin’s war against Ukraine has accelerated the development and testing of anti-missile systems.
This is a disaster for Russia’s strategic nuclear threat.
It means that Russia’s nuclear ballistic missiles now face a tested multi-weapon defence system that has been proven to eliminate all incoming enemy missiles of all the types it uses.
For those who assumed that ballistic missiles would always get through to the target, consider that the Dagger is a ballistic missile.
And it was shot down by a 40-year-old Patriot weapon system.
Not that Patriots could defend against a Russian ballistic attack on America by themselves, but in combination with other already-known and understood anti-missile systems, the U.S. is no longer a complete hostage to the Russian threat. There is nothing “assured” anymore about “Mutually Assured Destruction”. The destruction would be one-way: to Russia.
Which has been steadily losing its nuclear strength anyway…
Russian policy for the projection of its power has shifted toward an almost exclusive emphasis on nuclear weapons. Russian planners rely more than ever on these weapons, on their widespread dispersal, and on the threat of their use in a crisis. Russia however has been suspending the nuclear joint inspections with the U.S., because its nuclear arsenal is no longer the threat it once was.
The Russian nuclear stockpile has been gradually dwindling for years.
Russia today does not have anything near the manufacturing capability of the old Soviet Union, which had as many as four far larger and more productive missile manufacturing centers; Russia is down to one with a reserve.
Admitting this decline is impossible for the Kremlin, which puts nuclear weapons at the center of its intimidation efforts and war propaganda. If it does not have to show that its nuclear weapons are declining, it can continue to intimidate the West.
At the same time, Russian control over its nuclear arsenal is tottering on the brink of collapse, raising the specter of the accidental, illicit and inadvertent use, or the theft, of Russian nuclear weapons and fissile materials.
Sarmat, one of the newest missile projects of recent times, is meant to replace the old R-36M2 Voyevoda. It has had only two test launches, the latest ending in failure in late February 2023.
Pavel Luzin, a Russia defense policy expert, said the systems were so old that the factories “should have been shut down and switched to doing much more useful things.”
Assessments by the Russian General Staff have concluded that if their strategic nuclear forces are not launched immediately on the warning of a potential attack, then only a small fraction, and possibly none at all, would be able to retaliate after absorbing a systematic attack. This estimate partially reflects the steep decline in the combat readiness of Russia’s least vulnerable forces — submarines at sea and mobile ICBMs in the field. But it also reflects Russian fear of the missiles on U.S. Trident submarines, whose high accuracy and short flight times reinforce Russian reliance on quick launch.
But now even the quick launch option is facing the new reality: the systems developed by the West in the Ukraine war have proven that they can destroy all incoming missiles…especially if those incoming missiles are poorly-maintained and unreliable.
Of course, even one nuclear missile getting through an air defence system would be a tragedy…but Russia has to weigh the benefit of one problematic missile hit, against the certainty that the Western response would turn all of Russia into radioactive borscht.
Russia’s single greatest weapon threat — nuclear war — has just been shown to be a paper tiger. Or a paper plane. Just like their army.
That is why Putin is so angry at the three woebegone scientists.
His allegations of treason are very serious, and the men are now in the custody of the security service. This is the organization that jails people who mysteriously fall from windows or eat poison by mistake.
Russian colleagues of Anatoly Maslov, Alexander Shiplyuk and Valery Zvegintsev have stood up for them and said they were innocent. They say that the prosecutions could seriously affect the reputation of Russian science.
It is true that the three men were frequent participants in international conferences, and they spoke about their work. All three, for example, wrote a book chapter entitled “Hypersonic Short-Duration Facilities for Aerodynamic Research at ITAM, Russia”.
ITAM stands for the Khristianovich Institute of Theoretical and Applied Mechanics in Novosibirsk. It is the point of origin for the protest letter to Putin.
But their colleagues protested that the materials they presented had been checked repeatedly to ensure they did not include restricted secrets.
The way that Putin’s accusations are worded, say the protesters, opens the door for “any article or report” to “lead to accusations of high treason”.
“In this situation, we are not only afraid for the fate of our colleagues. We just do not understand how to continue to do our job.”
A press announcement on the situation noted the case of Dmitry Kolker, a Siberian scientist who was arrested on suspicion of treason and put into the hands of the security forces. He was suffering from advanced pancreatic cancer. He died two days later…no word on whether he had help with that.
The ITAM letter said the case has adversely affected young Russian scientists: “Even now, the best students refuse to come to work with us, and our best young employees are leaving science. A number of research areas that are critically important to laying the fundamental groundwork for the aerospace technology of the future are simply closing because employees are afraid to engage in such research.”
It’s not enough that Putin’s war drove off hundreds of thousands of the most talented Russian scientists, engineers and programmers — now he is putting the fear of death into those who remain.
And all because — when it is boiled down — some scientists made him embarrassed on the world stage.
He boasted about having a super-power that he did not possess.
Never mind that it was his war that helped the West test the shields it needs against his entire Russian strategic nuclear response.
He has now made himself an existential threat to a community of literate, hard-to-replace people: the scientists who would otherwise give him his edge.
It is as if he was deliberately trying to make the point that he is not in fact in possession of any super-powers. He has just swallowed kryptonite by making the scientists fear for their lives.
In fact, perhaps as we speak, one of them is huddled over a test tube in a lab in Siberia, mixing him something to relieve pain…and everything else.