TAMPA — During his annual state of Russia speech, President Vladimir Putin unveiled what he called a devastating new intercontinental ballistic missile.
To illustrate how it works, he showed the audience a video that ended with warheads raining down on the United States — specifically, what appears to be the Tampa Bay area.
For one local expert in Russian military operations, the speech was reminiscent of the depths of the Cold War. And it left some wondering why Putin would choose Tampa to make his point.
The speech had "a little bit of Back to the Future flavor," said Greg Celestan, a retired Army lieutenant colonel from Tampa who was a Russian expert in the U.S. Central Command intelligence directorate and spent time in the former Soviet Union as a U.S. Army liaison to its military.
"This is a type of speech that I would have expected 30 years ago. This reminds me of the song, Don’t You Forget About Me," Celestan said.
Russia was recently singled out for criticism during congressional testimony by Army Gen. Joseph Votel, commander of CentCom, which is headquartered at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa. Votel called the Russians both firefighters and arsonists in the ongoing Syrian civil war.
Celestan, however, doesn’t see any specific reason why Putin would want to attack Tampa. He noted that Russia has sent representatives to an international coalition CentCom created after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
"I’m not sure if that had any relevance or meaning," he said. "They are aware of MacDill and have had representatives at Coalition Village over the years, so they know the significance of a base with two four-star commands. I don’t place any significance to it, per se."
After 9/11, CentCom created an international coalition of nations assisting in the fight against jihadis in its region.
The conical projectiles that appear to be falling toward Florida are pictured high enough in the atmosphere that their target might be elsewhere in Central Florida. Even Disney World. The weapon that Putin talked about in his speech would devastate much of Florida regardless of where the warheads landed — including President Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago estate.
Rob Schaefer, a retired Green Beret lieutenant colonel who was once stationed at a Russian nuclear weapons center to ensure treaty compliance, said Putin’s goal is simple.
"I think he’s doing what he does best — trying to mess with our heads," Schaefer of St. Petersburg said. "But really, could we even think that MacDill isn’t on his top 10 — with it being the HQ for multiple senior important commands?"
U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., called the video displayed an intimidation tactic.
"Vladimir Putin is no friend of the United States," Nelson said in an email to the Times. "He’s an old Soviet-style KGB officer who is trying to use this video as an intimidation tactics. And until the Trump administration starts cracking down on Russia, Putin is going to keep getting away with this."
Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn called the Tampa image and Putin’s message to be "overheated rhetoric."
"I have the utmost confidence in our national security, military and intelligence community to secure our borders and protect our country," Buckhorn said in an email to the Tampa Bay Times. "It is unfortunate that Mr. Putin chose to include Tampa Bay in his threat, but at this point will write it off as overheated rhetoric designed to prop up his failing regime."
The Russian embassy in Washington, D.C., did not immediately return an email seeking comment.
According to Republic, a Russian media outlet, the video used by Putin is actually from a 2007 presentation that showed the first iteration of what is now known as the Satan 2 missile.
Mikhail Golub, who first posted a screenshot of the video shown by Putin, told the Times that the Russian leader was delivering a message to the United States and its allies over the placement of anti-ballistic missiles in Europe.
"He is more worried about the U.S. anti-missile program in the EU," said Golub, director of a consulting firm called TLFRD, which has worked for the Ukrainian government, the European Union and the United States. "Basically, his point was, ‘Now you got to listen to us.’?"
Like Celestan, Golub does not understand why Putin would have singled out the Tampa area.
"Florida makes no sense," Golub said.
He sees no connection between the video and Votel’s testimony, especially since the original video ran more than a decade ago.
As for whether Putin can deliver on his threat of a weapon that can avoid defense systems, Celestan seemed doubtful.
"It is very possible that they have the technology to build those weapons," he said. "But it is doubtful that the weapons would be operational without some country’s intelligence agency knowing about it."
Contact Howard Altman at [email protected] or (813) 225-3112. Follow @haltman.