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Tobin Harshaw

Why Putin’s Nuclear-Powered Superweapon Went Up in Smoke

A Q&A on the deadly Russian missile explosion, China’s growing arsenal and the new nuclear balance.

Gunning for military supremacy.

Gunning for military supremacy.

Photographer: Alexey Nikolsky/AFP/Getty Images

Vladimir Putin is a man who loves his toys. He’s never happier than when blasting away with his Kalashnikov Chukavin sniper rifle, chasing cranes on a motorized hang-glider, “hunting” endangered Siberian tigers with a tranquilizer gun, scuba diving for ancient relics in the Black Sea or, of course, cruising on his three-wheeled Harley Davidson with his biker gang, the Night Wolves.

Even so, the world was taken aback by his gumption last March, when the Russian president announced a host of new superweapons, including a nuclear-powered cruise missile with essentially endless range; hypersonic glide missiles able to evade any ground-based defense; a nuclear-armed torpedo; and a laser-weapon array, the Peresvet, named after a warrior-monk who drove the Mongols out of Russia in the 14th century.