Steve Inskeep talks to Andrew Weiss of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace about Russian President Putin touting a new line of nuclear-capable weapons with "virtually unlimited range."

Andrew S. Weiss
Weiss is the James Family Chair and vice president for studies at the Carnegie Endowment, where he oversees research in Washington and Moscow on Russia and Eurasia.
More >

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST: The Pentagon is downplaying Russian President Vladimir Putin's claim that his country now has powerful, new nuclear weapons. Here's the Pentagon spokesperson Dana White.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DANA WHITE: We're not surprised by the statements, and the American people should rest assured that we are fully prepared.

INSKEEP: OK. But what exactly do the Russians have, and what does it mean? Andrew Weiss is a Russia specialist. He's from the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Welcome to the studio, sir.

ANDREW WEISS: Great to be here.

INSKEEP: Do you believe the claim that the Russians have a nuclear-powered missile that could fly endlessly around the earth?

WEISS: People are raising some questions about that claim. The whole appearance yesterday was very over-the-top. Putin, if anything, just loves attention. He's got an election about two and a half weeks from now. This was a message aimed largely at the Russian people to show how, you know, Russia is back on the world stage. It's on a par with the United States, and it's invested its national treasure in building up its military.

INSKEEP: Whether the announcement is true or not, does it suggest an aggressive posture against the United States by Russia?

WEISS: There's no doubt that the U.S.-Russia relationship is now inherently adversarial. There are very few guardrails in place. We saw a couple of weeks ago a very dangerous incident in Syria where you had U.S. forces basically taking out a contingent of Russian military contractors. We don't know how many people were killed, but we're seeing this kind of desire to both - on both sides to really sort of bump up against each other. And there's - you know, there's, unfortunately, very few lines of dialogue that are left. So the channels of communication have broken down.

INSKEEP: Now, you said a desire on both sides to bump up against each other. There's a couple of things to ask about on the U.S. side. And the first is this. Yesterday, if I'm not mistaken, the Pentagon said that the U.S. has now gone ahead with the sale of weapons to Ukraine, which, of course, Russia tried to dismember. Is the Trump administration finally ready to pressure Russia?

WEISS: Unclear. Most obviously, President Trump has said very little that's critical of Russia. So on the campaign trail and now as president, Donald Trump constantly engages in puffery and flattery about Vladimir Putin. And the rest of the Cabinet is in a very different place. Both General Mattis, General McMaster, Secretary of State Tillerson all take much more mainstream, more hawkish views of Russia. And so you end up with this picture of, well, who's in charge? What's U.S. policy actually about? No one...

INSKEEP: How do you think the Russians hear that when everybody who is senior in the administration, other than the president, says one thing, but the president goes the other direction?

WEISS: I think, net on net, what is going on in Washington is a huge boost to the Kremlin. We have a U.S. that's discredited internationally, that's increasingly separated from our allies and whose involvement in leading the international system is increasingly in doubt. So for them, a U.S. which is either in a deep political crisis, the worst I've seen in my lifetime, or that's basically just in a - running in circles because the basic functions of government are not all in the shape they should be.

INSKEEP: Is discredited the right word for the standing of the United States abroad right now?

WEISS: I think we are in a place where the confidence that our allies place on the United States, their ability to kind of count on the United States in a crisis - all of that is now far more in question than it should be.

INSKEEP: Very briefly, any idea why the United States would've been so slow to sanction Russia for interfering in the election, something that Congress passed a law to provide for?

WEISS: Well, you remember, as a candidate, Donald Trump slammed the sanctions against Russia, and then when he was both in the transition - and then, in early days of his presidency, was looking for ways to get rid of the sanctions program. So the fact that he's not looking to punish Russia but still trying to find ways to somehow work things out and let bygones be bygones, I think, speaks volumes about his view of Russia.

INSKEEP: Mr. Weiss, thanks very much for coming by.

WEISS: Great to be here.

INSKEEP: Andrew Weiss of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

This interview was originally broadcast by NPR’s Morning Edition.