Defense, Foreign Affairs

How Russia Is Tempting Fate—And the Next Chernobyl

Putin’s most dangerous weapon system is a threat to his people, but also a source of profit to his oligarchs.
August 15, 2019
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(Photo by Mikhail Svetlov/Getty Images)

The world learned why the Russian defense industry could be categorized as “unsafe at any speed” last Thursday when a huge explosion occurred at the Nyonoska missile test range in the far north of Russia on the White Sea. Radiation levels in Severodvinsk immediately spiked to 20 times the normal level, making it clear that this was a nuclear accident of some kind.

Initial reports from Rosatom, the Russian state nuclear energy corporation, admitted the explosion was from the test of a “radioisotope source of energy,” while representatives of the corporation told Fontanka, the St. Petersburg-based Northern Russia news outlet, that the mishap involved “a nuclear battery.” Early emergency service announcements in the region even mischaracterized what happened as an explosion from a nearby military ammunition dump. 

Immediate speculation, which has now been confirmed, was that this was another test of the 9M730 Burevestnik (SSC-X-9 Skyfall) missile. At least seven people were killed in and an unverified number injured. Residents of a nearby village were finally advised to evacuate on Tuesday.

Vladimir Putin first revealed the weapon in a State of the Nation speech to the Federal Assembly in March 2018, in what was basically an infomercial for six nuclear delivery doomsday weapon system that are in various stages of development. Besides the Burevestnik were a new liquid-fueled ICBM called the Sarmat that supposedly carries enough warheads to devastate an area the size of France, a hypersonic cruise missile that carries a single two-ton nuclear warhead, an unmanned robot submarine designed to travel for weeks and then surface offshore New York or Los Angeles or in Baltimore harbor to rain enough enhanced radiation warhead weapons to render the ports unusable, and a missile called Kinzhal that can be launched from the centerline of a single Russian MiG-31 fighter aircraft.

These weapons, if ever made operational, would be unimaginably destabilizing to the world’s delicate nuclear balance. But until they have been tested adequately, they probably pose more danger to the Russian people themselves than they do anyone else.

The Burevestnik has the greatest chances for creating a real disaster, a fact picked up immediately by none other than the former oligarch and Putin critic-in-exile, Mikhail Khodorkovskiy.  In a short video response delivered almost immediately after Putin’s presentation, he zeroed in on the Burevestnik when he highlighted Putin speaking “of tests that have already taken place of a new missile that supposedly has an on-board nuclear engine.  And where did these tests take place?  Overhead of the territory of Russia.”

“And of this missile with an on-board nuclear motor – what is that exactly?  It is a missile that has a five millimeter internal canister that holds a wildly dangerous radioactive substance and if that missile crashes into some hillwell you can yourselves clearly imagine that this is a territory that will be permanently contaminated.  I do not know, but does he [Putin] understand this?  And the people who are listening to himdo they understand this?  These people who are watching and applauding.  You peopledo you realize that you are being told that Chernobyl is flying overhead above you?”

The Burevestnik is designed to be like any other cruise missile with a nuclear warhead – except that this missile is supposed to have an on-board nuclear reactor that powers its propulsion system. It is not a conventional, air-breathing, small jet engine-powered cruise missile that has a finite supply of jet fuel on-board and therefore range limitations.

In theory, a nuclear-powered engine gives the Burevestnik unlimited range. It is designed to be able to hit targets thousands of miles away, so that in the event of a nuclear exchange, Russian submarines or bombers would not have to come within so many miles of the U.S. to launch conventionally powered nuclear weapons. It could be launched from anywhere: a true end-of-the-world weapon system.

Khodorkovskiy’s worst predictions seem to have come to pass. And Moscow’s explanation is nearly as feckless as the immediate reaction to the infamous 1985 nuclear reactor meltdown in Ukraine.

“Calling this huge explosion from what is clearly a nuclear weapon system test the consequence of a ‘nuclear battery’ is as ridiculous as what the people were told after the Chernobyl disaster,” said a retired military officer in Kiev. “Back then we were all told that ‘there has a been an event.’ No adequate, truthful explanation to warn people properly of the danger they were in. A ridiculously unconscionable, misleading warning designed to try and hide the full scope of what had happened from higher-ups in the Communist Party. Now these people in a small, northern Russian village are being told the same kind of fairy tale, that radiation levels are off the scale because of a ‘battery failure.’ Where have we seen this before?”

That no one in Russian leadership wants to own up to the potential disaster this weapon presents is unsurprising given the country’s history. But it also has to do with Putin’s mindset. 

Khodorkovskiy echoes an endless number of Russians and Ukrainians from older generations who have “fond memories of [Leonid] Brezhnev, who had lived through a war and knew what war was really about. What I take away from Putin’s address today … is that in his mind war assumes a quality not unlike that of these neatly packaged films that are shown to him [by his underlings].

“War is a bloodbath and nuclear war means death for everyone,” Khodorkovskiy continued, “and for Putin to speak of this so easily and in a manner when he acts so aroused and excited – for a man to do this who has the ‘red button’ just off to the side of one hand – this is just incredibly dangerous.”

Yulia Latynina is one of the best-informed and spot-on critics of Putin and writes for Novaya Gazeta—about the only newspaper in all of Russia with any editorial independence left.  She was forced to leave Russia two years ago after multiple attacks ( including her automobile being burned) in reprisal for her anti-Putin articles.  She lives abroad now in a location she does not reveal.

In an article on August 10 she used Khodorkovskiy’s moniker for the Burestevik program: “Flying Chernobyl.”  She also correctly assesses how embarrassing this failed test is for Rosatom by contrasting how it was advertised when Putin presented pictures and CGI film footage to the Federal Assembly in March 2018—and how it was described last week after the explosion.

When Putin is presenting its capability for destruction “it is a nuclear-powered rocket,” she writes, showing how the Russian president thumps his chest to show these parliamentarians what a strongman he is. “Nuclear-powered rocket” sounds scary and something uniquely destructive, a traditional Russian specialty.

But when the test failed the system mysteriously and suddenly lost its magical qualities. “When it exploded,” she observed, it became “a liquid installation with isotopic sources.” It is, to say the least, an underhanded way of describing what transpired. Those who offer this explanation undoubtedly hope it would be so confusing that the uninformed observer would not realize that these two weapons were actually one and the same.

If the truth were known, this is at least the third failed test of the missile. The first two tests prior to Putin’s March 2018 presentation resulted in the nuclear motor failing to engage after the conventional first-stage booster propelled it to cruise flight altitude. This time, the nuclear motor did apparently ignite, albeit with these disastrous results.

Intelligence reports state that the Russian designers had warned their political masters that the weapon’s design was far from being ready for testing but were overruled. U.S. specialists familiar with similar attempts in the 1950s and 60s by the U.S. and others to deploy this technology found it to be unworkable and infeasiblein addition to unacceptably hazardous.

Of course, the Kremlin continues to pour money into this program for the benefit of a few, despite the dangers.

Since October 2016, Sergei Kiriyenko has been the “first deputy chief of the presidential administration,” one of the most powerful positions in the country. He was also the general director of Rosatom from 2005-2016, and he still sits on the company’s board. This agency runs the program that is responsible for the Burevestnik’s design and testing, which gives him and others the chance to profit from the programas is common in Russiaby skimming from its budget. And being Putin’s right-hand man also means Kiriyenko will have little difficulty making sure that the program continues to receive priority funding.

When you consider these arrangements, this may be the most dangerous Russian leadership we have ever seen. If Putin wants to continue testing this Flying Chernobyl there is nothing to stop him from contaminating his own land and irradiating his own people.  But the first test that is conducted in which this vehicle flies out beyond Russia’s air space has to be condemned and appropriate sanctions imposed commensurate with its potential for creating an ecological catastrophe.

Reuben Johnson

Reuben F. Johnson is a veteran reporter covering the aerospace industry.