- A suspected nuclear accident involving a new doomsday weapon killed a handful of people at a Russian weapons testing range earlier this month.
- Experts fear that as the strategic rivalry between Russia and the US heats up and the arms race kicks into high gear, more accidents are a real possibility.
- Russia in particular has a long history of accidents, many of which it has tried to cover up. Russia is accident-prone because it combines a willingness to take risks with outdated military infrastructure that simply can’t mitigate the dangers those risks pose.
- “Even though the Cold War didn’t end in wide-scale catastrophe, it still resulted in a series of small-scale catastrophes for many of the people who lived it,” an arms control expert wrote.
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A suspected nuclear accident involving a new doomsday weapon killed a handful of people at a Russian weapons testing range earlier this month, and this may be just the beginning as Russia races to expand its arsenal.
Russian President Vladimir Putin announced last year that his country is developing powerful new weapons designed to skirt US defences. One of these doomsday weapons, as experts have called them, is the 9M730 Burevestnik nuclear-powered cruise missile, a superweapon that NATO calls the SSC-X-9 Skyfall.
The strategic rivalry between the US and Russia has intensified as the US military increasingly focuses on the threats posed by great power competitors, and with the recent collapse of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, the US and Russia are both developing new ground-based missiles. The US tested an intermediate-range missile on Sunday, the first such test since the end of the 1987 arms control agreement earlier this month.
“The United States and Russia seem to be drifting into a new arms race, either out of some bizarre nostalgia or because no one can think of anything better to do,” Jeffrey Lewis, director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Program for the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey, wrote in a recent Foreign Policy article.
The Skyfall missile is said to be “invincible” and have “an unlimited range, unpredictable trajectory and [the] ability to bypass interception.” The missile might be able to do those things, assuming it actually worked.
Western experts and intelligence officials believe that a violent and deadly explosion at the naval weapons testing range in Nyonoksa was caused by another failed test of this new missile, and point to the spike in radiation levels nearby.
Accidents occur frequently in the Russian military, and many Russian service members and specialists, some of which have been posthumously named “national heroes,” have made the ultimate sacrifice for Russia’s advancements.
Jeffrey Edmonds, a Russia expert who previously served as a CIA analyst and member of the National Security Council, told INSIDER that the problem appears to be that Russia often combines a willingness to take risks with an outdated military infrastructure that simply can’t mitigate those risks, creating a dangerous environment where accidents are more likely.
“Russia really pushes an infrastructure that is old to try to keep up or gain parity with the United States,” Edmonds explained. “They’re pushing their fleet and pushing their military to perform in a certain way that is often beyond what is safe for them to actually do considering the age of the equipment and the age of the infrastructure.”
Lewis recently wrote that this new arms race poses a serious potential for new nuclear accidents, like the one that appears to have occurred in Nyonoksa.
“Even though the Cold War didn’t end in wide-scale catastrophe, it still resulted in a series of small-scale catastrophes for many of the people who lived it,” Lewis wrote.
In the wake of the recent disaster at the weapons testing range, Rosatom, Russia’s state nuclear agency that lost five of its employees, said simply that this sort of thing “happens when testing new technologies.” Alexey Likhachev, the head of Rosatom, said that “the best thing for their memory will be our further work on the new weapons.”
“Accidents, unfortunately, happen,” the Kremlin stated in response to the latest tragedy.
Details of the Nyonoksa explosion are few and far between as Russia appears to be covering up what many believe was a nuclear accident, one that triggered a brief spike in radiation levels in a nearby Russian town.
“Russia is prone to nuclear catastrophes. But these disasters don’t place Russians alone at risk. Sooner or later, they could place the world in danger,” a former professor of Russian national security studies at the US Army War College, warned in an op-ed last week.
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