At the funeral for 14 Russian sailors, Captain Sergei Pavlov hailed the “blameless heroes” for dousing the fire that broke out on their nuclear spy submarine, called the Losharik, during a secret mission last month.
“At the cost of their lives,” Pavlov said, “they prevented a catastrophe on a planetary scale.”
But as Russia tests and deploys an array of exotic new nuclear weapons, fears are mounting that the next nuclear mishap may not be so easily contained.
This summer alone, Russia has suffered some two-dozen casualties in accidents related to exotic nuclear hardware, including the mysterious explosion linked to the Skyfall missile program that killed seven and sent local radiation levels spiking in a nearby city.
The deadly incidents are stoking fears of a return to Cold War-style runaway nuclear arms development, accompanied by dangerous accidents and Soviet-style cover-ups.
You can blame the renewed U.S.-Russian arms race, which nuclear experts warn is driving Russia to recklessly experiment with “absurd” new ideas.
“We need to acknowledge that the Russians are engaged in wacky programs,” said Aaron Stein, a nuclear nonproliferation expert at the Foreign Policy Research Institute. “It’s indicative of an arms complex that has been cut loose to pursue exotic, silly projects. And it’s dangerous.”
Things that go boom
The U.S. and Russia have bitterly accused each other of violating arms control obligations for decades (Putin still likes to complain about George W. Bush’s decision to ditch an anti-missile defense treaty in 2002). But even in this context, the recriminations and missile-waving have ratcheted up in recent years.
President Trump shares some of the blame. Since taking office, he’s proposed billions more in spending on nuclear programs, and began manufacturing low-yield, tactical warheads that could be deployed in a more limited way on a battlefield, a factor making them more likely to be used.
He stoked further outrage in Russia and much of the international community by officially withdrawing the U.S. from the INF Treaty, which US officials and independent experts say Russia had been violating for years.
The Cold War-era INF Treaty banned land-based short and medium-range missiles, and its demise means that both sides will likely begin developing new nuclear missiles designed to be launched much closer to their targets that was previously allowed.
Putin, for his part, has kicked things up a notch by personally unveiling several new nuclear weapons. In a massively-hyped rollout last spring, Putin boasted they’d be “invincible” to U.S. missile defense systems, and showcased a video of warheads raining down on Florida to thunderous applause from a roomful of Moscow’s ruling elite.
But while shiny new nukes may earn him love at home, ultimately Putin’s solving a problem Russia doesn’t actually have: Russia has so many missiles it could easily swamp American defenses.
“The current Russian strategic arsenal faces no strategic challenge, and won’t in the foreseeable future,” said Joshua Pollack, editor of The Nonproliferation Review.
His race for nuclear supremacy, however, appears to be driving Russian weapons developers into weirder and riskier technologies.
“It’s as if the nuclear and arms complexes have been unleashed to pursue their fantasies and daydreams, as if it’s the late ‘70s or early ‘80s again,” said Pollack
Some are downright “absurd,” given Russia’s overwhelming missile power, said Stein.
Putin’s new weapons programs include:
Skyfall: A cruise missile intended to achieve infinite range via an onboard nuclear-powered engine. A similar idea was abandoned by U.S. war planners in the 1960s as too dangerous, in part because the engine spewed radioactive exhaust in its wake.
Poseidon: A long-range nuclear torpedo designed to unleash a radioactive 500-meter tall tsunami against a coastal city. Western experts say the weapon appears best suited for targeting a seaside civilian population, rather than military targets.
Dagger: A plane-launched hypersonic glide missile designed to evade missile defense with advanced speed and maneuverability.
Avangard: A hypersonic winged glider weapon that’s fired high into the atmosphere before reemerging and traveling in unpredictable patterns to get around defense systems.
Disasters and cover-ups
The hush-hush atmosphere surrounding these military programs is raising anxiety that any mistakes won’t be properly accounted for — and that locals won’t get vital information they need to stay safe after a nuclear accident.
Such fears appeared to be borne out after the mysterious Aug. 8 explosion that killed seven people and sent local radiation readings spiking 16 times above average in a nearby city of almost 200,000 people.
Independent researchers, and President Trump in a tweet, linked the blast to a failed test of the Skyfall missile program. Afterwards, Russia stopped sharing data with international observers tracking nearby radionuclide monitoring stations — either for fear of causing panic, or of giving hints about the nature of their work.
Russia’s fearsome FSB spy agency reportedly forced doctors treating the wounded to sign non-disclosure agreements, and didn’t warn them patients might be radioactive. On Monday, Russia said air tests had found four kinds of radioactive particles that had been released after the explosion.
And that wasn’t an isolated incident. In July, an international team of researchers traced the origins of a huge, mysterious radioactive cloud that blanketed Europe in 2017 back to — you guessed it — Russia.
The team said the cloud posed no threat to Europe, but warned the area around the release might have faced much more serious fallout. If it did, nobody from Russia admitted it.
Naturally, after all that, Russian officials chose last week to launch a controversial floating nuclear power plant, dubbed the Akademik Lomonosov, into some of the most forbidding waters on the planet, near the Northeastern Russian coast near Alaska.
Environmentalists warn the ship is a “nuclear Titanic,” and a disaster waiting to happen.
Of course, it takes two to make a nuclear arms race, and western experts say the U.S. shares the blame for spurring on Russia’s recent recklessness, after backing away from arms control treaties and engaging in provocative testing of its own.
“I think both sides are to blame,” said Sarah Bidgood, director of the Eurasia Nonproliferation Program at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies in Monterey, California. “But each side wants to point the finger at the other guy.”
Just last week, the U.S. test-launched a medium-range cruise missile in California for the first time since backing out of a Cold War-era treaty banning those weapons.
In response, Putin accused the U.S. of “escalating military tensions,” and ordered his defense ministry to “prepare a reciprocal response.”
Somehow, things could still get worse. Moscow has accused Trump of failing to answer calls to open up negotiations on extending the New START treaty, which reduced the number of strategic nuclear missile launchers and is set to expire in 2021.
Failure to extend New START will be “quite fatal,” warned Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, on Monday.
And without further precautions in Russia, or a new push toward transparency, these new programs are likely to carry on in the dark, where they’ll likely cause more fatal mishaps, experts said.
“We’ll undoubtedly see more accidents,” said David Szakonyi, who studies Russian affairs at George Washington University in Washington D.C. “If you don’t put new safety mechanisms in place, this is just going to keep happening and happening. I don’t see this getting better before it gets worse.”
Cover: Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, listens to President of National Research Center "Kurchatov Institute" Mikhail Kovalchuk, as he visits Kurchatov Institute of Atomic Energy, the home of the Soviet nuclear weapons program and later Soviet and Russian non-military nuclear technologies in Moscow, Russia, Tuesday, April 10, 2018. (Alexei Nikolsky, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP)