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Russia launches new submarine capable of carrying nuclear-armed drones

Russian President Vladimir Putin during an interview in July 2018. (Kremlin/Released)

This article was originally published by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and is reprinted with permission.

Russia has launched a special-purpose, nuclear-powered submarine that is believed capable of carrying nuclear-tipped underwater drones that when fully developed could threaten U.S. coastal cities.

The submarine Belgorod was launched on April 23 in the northwestern city of Severodvinsk. Russian President Vladimir Putin watched the proceedings via video link from the Severnaya Shipyard in St. Petersburg.

State-run TASS news agency said development work on the Belgorod will continue and that tests will begin next year with a goal of deploying the vessel by the end of 2020 or early 2021.

It measures 184 meters long, the longest submarine ever built, and will be capable of carrying six underwater drones. The drones themselves are expected to be ready for service in 2027, according to media reports citing a U.S. intelligence assessment.

Construction on the vessel started in 1992 but was delayed several times due to financing issues.

Journalists were not allowed to photograph or film the launch as the submarine’s operational characteristics have been classified.

Russian media reports say the Belgorod will carry deep-water rescue vehicles and autonomous underwater drones.

In November 2015, a state television channel briefly showed a document with drawings and details of a planned, nuclear-capable, submarine-launched drone.

The document said the purpose of the drone was to “strike important enemy economic facilities in coastal areas” and create “zones of extensive radioactive contamination that are unfit for military, economic, or other activity for a long period of time.

The Kremlin quickly dismissed the report as a mistake, although analysts speculated the reveal was deliberate.

In his annual state-of-the-nation address on March 1, 2018, Putin discussed a number of new weapons undergoing testing and development, including a nuclear-capable undersea drone.

Using colorful graphics and video, Putin said the high-speed drone could target both aircraft carriers and coastal facilities with nuclear weapons. Putin claimed the drone would be impossible to intercept.

The drone was later named Poseidon.

In his most recent state-of-the-nation address on February 20, Putin announced that the first submarine equipped to carry the Poseidon would be floated out before summer.

TASS reported that Moscow plans to eventually deploy more than 30 underwater nuclear-capable drones carried on four submarines.

Putin’s bellicose 2018 speech came at a time of high tensions with the United States over sanctions imposed after Russia’s 2014 annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea region and Moscow’s support of separatist formations waging a war in eastern Ukraine, as well as a U.S. intelligence assessment that Russia interfered in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

At the time, U.S. President Donald Trump was warning that the United States could withdraw from the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, citing alleged Russian violations. Washington made that move in October 2018.