Moscow’s purported use of a hypersonic missile also carries a political message.
Russia’s alleged use of its new hypersonic missile, the Kinzhal, or “Dagger,” a modified Iskander or “Alexander” ballistic missile, in Ukraine has caused an outpouring of attention from media, policy analysts, and even US President Joe Biden. It is a weapon that can travel fast, manoeuvre mid-flight, evade radar, and which no country has any defences against.
Moscow’s apparent use of hypersonic missiles in the Ukraine conflict serves to rally the nation as a distraction from its military setbacks and failure to take Kiev. As the incursion into Ukraine passes the one month mark, the conflict risks becoming a live-action Russian arms expo, similar to Moscow’s use of Syria for similar purposes during its civil war.
The purpose of this arms expo is to sell weapons, as the arms industry of Russia—the second-largest arms exporter in the world—is a significant source of revenue after oil and gas exports.
Yet while the media turns its attention to the use of new military weapons, Russian President Vladimir Putin has achieved his objective of shaping the narrative around the conflict. Russia’s cheaper, unguided weapons—“dumb bombs” dropped from the air, mines along the civilian corridors and artillery hitting the cities from Kiev to Mariupol—actually cause more damage to Ukraine. But Russia’s missiles, while still inflicting physical violence, also serve as a means of weaponised communication and intimidation.
The missile is the message
A previous article in this publication highlighted media theorist Marshall McLuhan’s most remembered phrase, “the medium is the message.” The conflict in Ukraine vividly demonstrates his assertion that irrespective of the messages sent by various forms of media, newspapers, radio, or TV, the medium, in and of itself, has a message embedded in it.
Visual media is especially powerful in its ability to instil great horror, fear and sadness into the viewer through images of fleeing women, the cries of children, screeching explosions, and destroyed cityscapes. The message of the audio-visual news is the actual graphic horrors and intensity of war, available to mass audiences on-demand, 24 hours a day.
The Russian hypersonic missile not only carries a physical payload, such as a warhead but also carries a political message intended to intimidate adversaries. This tactic actually began during the Syrian war.
The Syrian testing ground
Syria had become a testing ground for Russian missiles as early as 2015 when it first intervened on behalf of Syrian regime leader Bashar al Assad. From fall 2015 to the summer of 2016, Russia tested out long-range Kalibr cruise missiles over Syria, ostensibly against Daesh (ISIS) targets.
There were Russian planes stationed in Syria whose deployment would have been more accurate and effective in targeting Daesh, not to mention cheaper than using costly cruise missiles. However, an air raid would not have delivered the same political message for Putin.
The range of the cruise missiles launched from the Caspian Sea demonstrated to the US and NATO the advances in Russian military technology, more related to Moscow’s tensions with the West over Ukraine.
The 2015 missile attacks were documented by the Russian Ministry of Defence on YouTube, giving Russian citizens the chance to “like” these missiles of the nation’s arsenal in a show of post-modern missile nationalism. The video of the 2015 missile launches garnered nearly eight million views.
In Ukraine, Russia has launched volleys of Kalibr cruise missiles and the Iskander ballistic missile, but the Kinzhal has generated more media coverage.
Putin began communicating the message of this missile in March 2018, when he convened his annual state of the nation speech, not in the usual venue, the Kremlin’s gilded Hall of St George, but in the more austere Manezh auditorium, which could accommodate massive video screens.
The reason for this move was not apparent until two hours into the speech when Putin turned from the state of the Russian economy into a bellicose video demonstration of Russia’s hypersonic missiles. Startled observers heralded the speech as a renewal of Cold War rhetoric and a new arms race, culminating in the assault on Ukraine a few years later.
This broadcasting of Moscow’s missiles in different contexts served to inculcate a form of missile nationalism amongst the Russian masses and intimidate NATO.
The Ukrainian testing ground
There is doubt whether the latest Kinzhal missile launch footage is even real. However, it doesn’t need to be.
The US and NATO member states have provided the Ukrainian military with anti-aircraft missiles, anti-tank missiles, and drones. Moscow is demonstrating that it brandishes the one weapon that the US doesn’t possess, and that the West cannot help Ukraine defend itself from.
For all the fixation on new, high-tech weaponry, it was Russia’s older, conventional artillery and missiles that forced thousands of Ukrainians to spend the first week of the conflict in a bomb shelter in Kiev, coming up occasionally to breath fresh air and to find soup, until the air sirens called them back. Life in Ukraine was now punctuated by the time in between the sirens, with the occasional, ephemeral lull before another round of bombing struck their neighbourhood.
It did not matter what missile caused Ukrainians to flee underground. On the road fleeing Kiev it was conventional missiles they feared the most.
From a human security perspective, all of Russia’s weapons are a threat to Ukraine. But instead of focusing on the arms themselves, the targets, the human victims of these munitions, need to be remembered, whether they were Syrians in the past or Ukrainians in the present.
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