The RS-28 Sarmat ICBM is being deployed at a time of rising nuclear threats over the war in Ukraine. Image: Russian Government

Russia’s RS-28 Sarmat ICBM has gone live, marking Moscow’s latest nuclear saber-rattling move in its intensifying standoff with the West amid the grinding Ukraine war.

This month, multiple media outlets reported that Russia has operationalized its next-generation RS-28 Sarmat intercontinental ballistic missile system (ICBM), as confirmed by Yuri Borisov, general director of Russia’s space agency, Roscosmos.

Initially slated for deployment by the end of 2022, the ICBM has been in the spotlight following a failed test that coincided with US President Joe Biden’s visit to Ukraine in February 2023.

The RS-28 Sarmat missile system, described as “invincible” by Russian President Vladimir Putin, the heavy missile represents a significant leap in Russia’s ICBM technology.

According to Missile Threat, the RS-28 Sarmat is designed to replace Russia’s aging stock of SS-18 Satan ICBMs. The RS-28’s development began in the 2000s, and after awarding production contracts in 2011, Russia completed its prototype in 2015. It was initially scheduled to enter service in 2018 with 50 missiles on order but technical issues set back that timeline.

Missile Threat says the RS-28 Sarmat is a three-stage, liquid-fueled missile that is 35.3 meters long, 3 meters wide and weighs 208.1 metric tons with a range of 18,000 kilometers.

It can reportedly carry a payload of up to 10 tons, including a possible combination of 10 large warheads, 16 smaller ones, countermeasures or hypersonic boost-glide vehicles, making it a highly versatile weapon.

The RS-28’s payload carrying capacity makes it the world’s most deadly missile. Image: Russian Government

Putin announced the weapon’s deployment in February 2023, coinciding with Russia’s Defender of the Fatherland Day and amid the leader’s repeated nuclear threats directed at Ukraine’s Western allies. Analysts say the RS-28’s deployment could challenge existing arms control frameworks and complicate the logic of strategic deterrence.

In light of Russia’s February 2023 suspension of its New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) participation, deploying the RS-28 Sarmat has significant implications for both the Ukraine war and wider strategic stability.

In a February 2023 article for the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), Heather Williams notes that Russia’s suspension of New START could impact the war in Ukraine in three ways.

First, Williams says the decision indicates that Russia will expand its strategic nuclear arsenal and break out of New START limits. Although she notes that Russia needs more drones and personnel than nuclear warheads, its missile production includes dual-capable systems like the Kh-101 cruise missile. She says this shows Russia’s ability to expand its nuclear arsenal even under Western sanctions and the Ukraine war’s ongoing attrition.

Second, Williams notes that Russia’s suspension of its participation in the New START is part of its efforts to advance its narrative portraying the US and NATO as the aggressors in Ukraine. Finally, Williams mentions that Russia’s decision to suspend its New START participation has killed off one of the few remaining forums for meaningful US-Russia dialogue.

According to Williams, the conflict in Ukraine has raised new awareness of the dangers associated with nuclear weapons and highlighted the importance of establishing effective communication channels in times of crisis.

Williams says that although there have been occasional talks between US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin and Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, these discussions need more transparency and predictability for arms control.

She points out that the future of arms control is challenging due to a lack of trust on both sides, Russia’s record of non-compliance and Russia’s accusation that the US is refusing to “play fair” in the New START. Still, she emphasizes that arms control is not dead and that the US should pursue integrated arms control as part of its strategy of integrated deterrence.

From a technical and operational standpoint, the RS-28 Sarmat may only have a limited strategic impact. In a June 2022 International Institute for Strategic Studies article, Timothy Wright mentions that the expected delivery and loadout of the RS-28 Sarmat remain unclear.

Wright points out that past delays in the RS-28’s testing program may delay its weaponized deployment, potentially putting pressure on the aging SS-18 Satan’s inventory.

The RS-28 Sarmat is designed to replace the aging “Satan” line of missiles pictured above. Image: Twitter.

He points out that if Russia prioritizes equipping the RS-28 Sarmat with Avangard hypersonic glide vehicles (HGV) or multiple independent re-entry vehicles (MIRV), it will fulfill Russia’s objective to maintain nuclear warhead parity with the US.

However, he mentions that prioritizing MIRVs over HGVs may mean Avangard missiles will remain deployed on the older SS-19 Stiletto until enough missiles can be delegated for HGV delivery, meaning these new nuclear-armed weapons may have limited implications for strategic stability between Russia and the US until the end of the decade.

Maxim Starchak says in a January 2023 Jamestown Foundation article that while Russia is actively modernizing its nuclear arsenal, developing strategic weapons such as the RS-28 Sarmat faces severe limitations. Starchak argues Russia is rushing its defense industry and insisting on producing weapons with a reduced testing period.

According to Starchak’s analysis, Russia is unlikely to implement its nuclear modernization plans by 2023 due to the impact of Western sanctions, which he argues has decreased the efficiency and quality of production and the weapons themselves. He thus expects Russia’s nuclear rhetoric to be more reserved through the rest of this year.