Russia tests hypersonic missiles as experts fear Putin may launch Christmas offensive

US and Europe urge Moscow to enter talks after Russian president's threats

Russian soldiers take part in drills in the Rostov region in southern Russia. Concerns over a 'lightning' strike on Ukraine have risen. AP Photo
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Concerns have been raised over a potential Russian offensive in Ukraine over the Christmas period, following threats from President Vladimir Putin.

Military analysts fear that with people distracted by the long break and the significant rise in Covid-19 infections, the Russian president is taking his brinkmanship to the “very edge”.

With an estimated 122,000 troops supported by armour and aircraft on Ukraine’s eastern frontier, concerns over a “lightning” strike have risen.

Mr Putin said on Friday that the Russian military successfully fired a simultaneous salvo of its Zircon hypersonic missiles, calling it “a big event” for the country.

As world powers race to develop advanced weaponry, Russia has carried out a number of successful tests of its Zircon hypersonic cruise missile.

This was however the first time that Russian authorities reported a successful simultaneous launch test of several Zircon missiles.

Speaking at a government meeting on Friday, Mr Putin said that the salvo launch of the missile had been conducted overnight.

“The tests were conducted successfully, immaculately,” Mr Putin said in televised remarks.

The Russian leader has lauded the missile as part of a new generation of unrivalled arms systems.

It came a day after Mr Putin was asked, during his annual press conference on Thursday, for assurances that he would not invade. He gave an ominous response.

“We just want to ensure our own safety,” he said. “Stuff your concerns. We want to ensure Russian security and we will do what we think we need to do. We can do anything at any cost.”

His bellicose language prompted a robust response from Britain’s foreign secretary.

“I condemn the Kremlin’s aggressive and inflammatory rhetoric against Ukraine and Nato,” said Liz Truss. “Any Russian incursion would be a massive strategic mistake and would be met with strength.”

But President Putin said he was running out of patience with his demand for Nato to withdraw its forces from central and eastern Europe and missiles deployed on his border.

Analysts believe that he is attempting to divert attention away from Russia's economic crisis, as well as the 1,000 deaths a day Russia is suffering from Covid.

“It they attack over Christmas nobody could say it was a surprise because it's been pretty heavily signalled,” said retired British army officer Hamish de Bretton-Gordon.

“This is classic Putin brinkmanship and he’s jolly good at it, particularly at this time of the year when there is a bit of unrest in the country. It's typical Putin to try and get the focus off other things but he still remains a serious threat.”

Military sources believe Mr Putin is playing to a domestic audience but that it is still uncertain whether he is preparing to launch another invasion, as he did in 2014 taking Crimea.

“It might be Christmas but we cannot for one moment take our eye off the ball on this,” a defence source said. “We know there’s heavy armour and troops on the border and it just takes one order from Moscow to send them marching into Ukraine. Things are tense, to say the least.”

Mr Putin’s main motivation is thought to be ensure that Ukraine does not become part of the western alliance that would pose a threat to Russia.

“He absolutely wants to avoid Ukraine becoming part of Nato because that would give Nato the strategic advantage,” Mr de Bretton-Gordon told The National.

“At the moment I expect people think the strategic situation is well balanced. But if he does invade it’s still highly unlikely there will be an East-West conflict. Nobody believes that spilling British or American blood to save Ukraine is something that we're likely to do.”

If Russia did seize part of Ukraine then it could face a dangerous and bloody insurgency similar to that experienced in Chechnya, or Afghanistan – a country it invaded 42 years ago today.

A US State Department official said Russia was increasing its troops' strength on the border but warned of “massive consequences” if it invaded.

Europe and America have called for urgent talks with Moscow in early January to address Mr Putin’s concerns and de-escalate the tension.

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Updated: December 25, 2021, 6:34 AM