Analysis

Mysterious Nuclear Blast Shreds Another Piece of Putin's Global Ambitions

When it comes to mishaps in its strategic weapons programs, Russia still stays true to the path of secrecy, cover-up and negligence paved by the long gone Soviet Union, leaving Moscow's 'doomsday weapon' to endanger mostly its own citizens

Vladimir Putin inspects an assembly department of the Ufa Engine Industrial Association plant in Ufa, January 24, 2018.
Alexey Nikolsky/Sputnik/AFP

It took President Vladimir Putin 11 days to utter any public statement about the disaster that occurred on August 8 off the White Sea coast, where an explosion during a missile test killed seven Russian nuclear scientists. The president's remarks came only when he had no way of avoiding questions from international media during his Monday meeting with French President Emmanuel Macron.

"There’s no threat there," Putin assured reporters, "and no increase in the background" radiation. All that was happening, he said, were "preventative measures being taken so that there aren’t any surprises." The casualties were carrying out the "most important national tasks" and would all receive medals, he promised. As always, military failures are covered up with medals.

Some media outlets have dubbed the mysterious explosion "Putin’s Chernobyl," drawing comparisons to the 1986 nuclear disaster in a Soviet reactor, which the Kremlin had denied and tried to conceal while tens of thousands remained exposed to radiation. Clearly, the two incidents are in no way comparable in scale, but there certainly are some similarities — the secrecy, the cover-up and the levels of safety and security — which show that even today, nearly three decades after the Soviet Union's demise, Russia has yet to kick its old habits.

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Two weeks after the explosion, little is known for certain. What has been confirmed is that during a test of the Burevestnik — a cruise missile with a nuclear propulsion mechanism designated by NATO SSC-X-9 Skyfall — a massive explosion occurred.

Reports of a radioactive cloud, a thousand gas masks ordered by local authorities, plans to evacuate a nearby village, threats to medical personnel treating the casualties and warnings not to eat fish from the White Sea remain unsubstantiated. Four Russian atmospheric monitoring stations have been cut off from an international network in recent days, but stations in neighboring Norway detected only minor changes.

People gather for the funerals of Russian nuclear engineers killed by a rocket explosion in Sarov, August 12, 2019.
Russian State Atomic Energy Corporation ROSATOM via AP

Not much is known about the Burevestnik either, beyond the fact that it was designed to combine the advantages of a cruise missile, with its low and winding flight path making it difficult to intercept by missile defense systems, along with the much longer range of an intercontinental ballistic missile. Putin himself revealed the missile's development in a speech he gave in March 2018 when he announced a series of nuclear and laser weapon programs, which are just part of a much wider upgrade of Russia's military and its conventional and nonconventional weapons.

The Burevestnik's nuclear device is supposed to provide an almost inexhaustible source of fuel. But it is unclear how the Russian scientists managed to miniaturize it, into a tiny reactor or nuclear "battery," so it fits into a missile and generates thrust stable enough to aim at a precise target. (An American attempt at developing a nuclear-powered missile was abandoned in the 1960s.)

Even if the Russians succeed in solving the technological issues, it is hard to see them having sufficient resources to produce hundreds of Burevestniks. If ever operational, it's more likely to be produced in very small quantities as a "doomsday weapon" with a nuclear warhead.

The recent explosion is part of a series of military disasters in Russia. On July 1, an explosion, and then fire, occurred in the Losharik nuclear spy submarine, which is designed to operate deep underwater on the ocean floor (probably to tap into and disrupt intercontinental communication cables). Fourteen men on board, including senior naval and intelligence officers, were killed.

On August 9, a day after the Burevestnik disaster, two massive explosions at a large Siberian munitions dump killed one person, wounded dozens and caused the temporary evacuation of some 16,000 people. It looks as if, despite recent modernization attempts, the Russian military has yet to emerge from long years of neglect in the post-Soviet period.

Syria lays bare Russia's shortcomings

With September marking four years since Russian forces arrived in Syria, their involvement in the Middle East also helps to explain the latest developments in Moscow. Putin's decision to prop up his client dictator Bashar Assad was a strategic success. He prevented the Assad regime’s collapse and restored its control over Syria's main cities and much of its territory. As side benefits, Putin emphasized the geopolitical vacuum left by the inaction of U.S. presidents Barack Obama and Donald Trump, and established a significant Russian presence in the region.

Tactically, however, the Syrian deployment also underlined the qualitative inferiority of Russian weapons systems. Moscow intended to use the Syrian battlefield to showcase its relatively new aircraft, namely the Sukhoi Su-34 bomber. But what it actually presented was its lack of capability to carry out accurate attacks using guided munitions. Instead, the Russian forces mainly used "iron" and cluster bombs, which are effective in sowing death and destruction among a civilian population, but not so much against paramilitary targets. The Kalibr cruise missiles launched from long-range bombers and warships often fell far short of hitting their targets, sometimes by tens or even hundreds of kilometers.

Vladimir Putin attends a Russian fleet parade as part of the Navy Day celebration in Saint Petersburg, July 28, 2019.
Alexey Nikolsky/SPUTNIK/AFP

The deployment of Russia's sole aircraft carrier, the creaking and smoky Admiral Kuznetsov, to Syria's Mediterranean coast was a costly and wasted PR exercise. During its short presence offshore, Kuznetsov's fighter jets were incapable of carrying out full shipborne attack missions, and two of the aircraft were lost during the voyage. Russian command and control systems were also shown to be severely lacking when, in September 2018, insufficient coordination led to an Ilyushin Is-20 spy plane being shot down by Syrian missile fire, with the loss of all 15 crew members.

Russian military power has been sufficient to intervene on behalf of the Assad regime and beat rebel militias — with no backing from major state players — into submission. But the Syrian campaign also proved that Russia is still far from rehabilitating what was once the great Red Army and becoming a full-fledged strategic rival to the West. In many fields Russia military technology is still lagging two generations behind that of the United States, which for example was fielding "stealth" fighter-bombers, such as the F-117, back in the mid-1980s and currently operates hundreds of stealth aircraft, including the B-2, F-22 and F-35.

Russia, in comparison, is still struggling to make a handful of its first stealth fighter aircraft fully operational; the Sukhoi Su-57 made a short visit to Syria but failed to play a significant role in warfare. Many of the "new" Russian military projects are not new at all, but were on the drawing boards already in the Soviet era and have now been dusted off and rushed back into development. The Losharik submarine, for example, was laid down originally in 1988, but only became operational in recent years.

Western nations often also take over a decade to develop and put into use new weapons systems. But the United States, unlike Russia, has the military-industrial infrastructure, along with the resources, to conduct long-term research and development and critical quality control, in order to ensure that new technology regularly becomes operational.

Russia simply isn’t built to carry out such an ambitious program of advanced weapons development at the speed Putin is aiming for. The Burevestnik explosion proves Russia's new missiles are a long way from becoming a strategic threat to the West, and for now endanger mostly Russians.