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What we know about deadly radiation explosion at Russian military site

An explosion at a Russian missile testing site last week killed at least seven people and caused widespread fears of a radiation leak. While officials offered little clarity, analysts believe the Russians were testing a nuclear-powered cruise missile – one President Vladimir Putin boasts can’t be stopped by U.S. missile defenses. William Brangham talks to Angela Stent of Georgetown University.

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  • Amna Nawaz:

    An explosion at a remote site, shifting stories from the Russian government and nuclear officials, public concern about radiation exposure — we're not talking about Chernobyl 33 years ago. We're talking about two Russian military accidents near the Arctic Circle, one just last week.

    Our William Brangham has the details.

  • William Brangham:

    Somber crowds lined the streets of Sarov today, bearing witness to funerals cloaked in mystery after a nuclear reactor explosion at a nearby missile testing site killed at least seven scientists. The final death toll is unknown. Russian nuclear officials have been slow to disclose details. But with long faces, they admitted Thursday's blast at their Nenoksa testing site was a tragedy.

  • Valentin Kostyukov (through translator):

    A chain of tragic incidental events and uncertainties led to this happening. Although, after a preliminary analysis, we have seen the testers were fighting to get the situation under control. Unfortunately, they did not succeed.

  • William Brangham:

    Authorities say they will evacuate the town of Severodvinsk. Officials say gamma radiation there is four to 16 times greater than background levels.

    Analysts believe the accident involved a new nuclear-powered cruise missile, the kind Russian President Vladimir Putin boasted about last year.

  • Vladimir Putin (through translator):

    A real technologic breakthrough is the creation of the advanced strategic missile system with a totally new combat equipment and programming cruise unit. Its testing was completed successfully.

  • William Brangham:

    Jeffrey Lewis is the director of the East Asia non-proliferation program at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies.

  • Jeffrey Lewis:

    Since about late 2017, Russia has been developing a nuclear-powered cruise missile. Because this cruise missile uses a nuclear reactor at its power source, it seems like it's incredibly finicky. The easiest way to think of this missile is as a flying, a tiny flying Chernobyl.

  • William Brangham:

    Moscow's push for new missile technology is aimed at outsmarting defense systems the U.S. is building, and this resurgent arms race has cost other lives. Just last month, 14 Russian sailors died after an explosion on one of their nuclear submarines.

  • Jeffrey Lewis:

    The people who were killed were all very high ranking, and that's not typical to have so many high-ranking officers on a submarine. As relations between the United States and Russia get worse, the Russians are stepping up all these kind of traditional Cold War behaviors. So, we're seeing all kinds of new systems and new systems often have problems.

    So, it's — it's sad, right, that these people keep dying, but this is kind of what an arms race looks like.

  • William Brangham:

    These developments come as a major U.S.-Russia arms control treaty is set to expire in 2021, and after the U.S. withdrew from the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, saying that Russia was in violation of that agreement.

    On top of that, with Western sanctions mounting, the Russian economy and Putin's approval ratings are both declining.

    Moscow has also been erupting in enormous protests, as Russians took to the streets to complain about the Kremlin's tight grip on domestic politics. Police turned violent as they arrested more than a thousand demonstrators this weekend who were out demanding more open elections.

    For more on what these military mishaps and protests mean, we turn to Angela Stent. She directs the center for Eurasian, Russian and East European studies at Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service. Her latest book is "Putin's World: Russia Against The West And With The Rest."

    Angela Stent, welcome back to the NewsHour. I wonder if you could — is there anything else that you can tell us about Russia's testing or this accident that happened around this missile?

  • Angela Stent:

    I think no more than what we already heard on the broadcast, which is they really are giving the minimum amount of information, but because of Chernobyl and because of what happened 33 years ago, the Russian people are very suspicious when they heard about this. This is why there was a run on iodine immediately after they heard rumors of this. So, this pattern really hasn't changed very much. And we just don't know.

    I think that most American specialists will say that the U.S. tried to develop a nuclear-powered cruise missile and gave it up in the 1960s. It's just not practical. It's, as we heard, you know, like a flying Chernobyl.

    And so, we don't really know what the Russians do or don't have. We do know that last year, Vladimir Putin, as you said, demonstrated a picture, a video of this missile, which can evade U.S. missile defenses and finally landed in Florida and dropped something on what suspiciously looked like Mar-a-Lago. In other words, the Russians are trying to develop weapons that can totally evade the elaborate missile defense systems that the U.S. has been creating.

  • William Brangham:

    With this secretive shifting story, tight-lipped response from various Russian officials, is that what we're just supposed to expect when this kind of a military mishap occurs?

  • Angela Stent:

    Well, we have never seen anything else from the Russians. When the Kursk submarine sank early into Putin's tenure, there was a total blackout on information for a long time. They are not good about giving out accurate information or at least enough information to try and save their population from needless radiation and other effects.

    I myself was in Moscow during the Chernobyl explosion, and I know how frightening it was for everyone to figure out what was happening, where the radiation was, and this pattern doesn't seem to have changed.

  • William Brangham:

    Amidst these two different accidents that have happened, we're also seeing this seeming escalation in the arms race between Russia and the U.S. Can you just give us a sense of the lay of the land with regard to arms control and arms development between the two nations?

  • Angela Stent:

    Certainly. So as you said, the treaty on Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces is dead since August 2nd of this month. So, neither the United States nor Russia abound by that, and we will both now be developing new classes of intermediate range missiles.

    Our defense secretary has said that we will. And I think the first place they could be deployed is in Asia. That's if we'll have any allies that will take them. The Russians have also said they're developing a new class of weapons.

    I think the real thing to watch is the new START treaty regulating strategic nuclear weapons. It's set to expire in 2021. It could be extended for five years just by mutual agreement, but our national security advisor John Bolton has frequently said that he regards these kinds of arms control agreements as antiquated and useless. And, in fact, he said in a speech two weeks ago that he didn't really see any reason to extend this new START agreement.

    So what we're talking about is in 2021 we could be in the situation, if this new START agreement isn't extended, where for the first time since 1972, since President Nixon went to Moscow and signed a similar agreement with Brezhnev, while the U.S. was mining Haiphong Harbor, by the way, will be the first time we won't have any agreement that regulates the nuclear arsenals of the world's two nuclear superpowers who between them control 90 percent of the world's nuclear weapons.

  • William Brangham:

    Shifting gears just a tiny bit, we saw these protests erupting in Moscow over as I mentioned what seemed like somewhat provincial local elections.

    Does this crack down and this response by the Russian citizenry in Moscow say anything broader about Putin and his hold on power?

  • Angela Stent:

    I think it does. I think this is more than just a squabble about who is going to sit on a 45-person municipal council and regulate refuse collection and taxi licenses.

    I think younger Russians particularly who have been out on the streets, 50,000 people on Saturday, realize looking ahead that they have very little control over their political system. They have very little choice. They understand that even though President Putin's term doesn't expire until 2024, this kind of interagency and the rivalry for power and the questioning about succession, this is already going on, and they would like to have a different system. They would like to be able to have, again, more choice in the system.

    So, it's not just about a municipal election. It's about the principle of having people who are not a member of the official united Russia party and who have independent views have some say in this system.

  • William Brangham:

    We've certainly seen here in the U.S. a lot of discussion about Russia's interference in our last election. We've also seen Russia trying to flex its muscles in Europe, in the Middle East, in Syria, in Turkey. You wrote a recent piece where you were trying to get Americans to recognize that judo is Putin's sport of choice, not chess as a game.

    What did you mean by that?

  • Angela Stent:

    So what I meant by it, and judo — and Vladimir Putin became a judo champion as a young man. He said in his own autobiographical essay, it helped him to get out of the rut and the hardscrabble background that he had. What I meant by that was that in judo, even if you are maybe weaker than your opponent, if you sense their own distraction, if you sense their own weakness, if you can distract them, you can in fact prevail over what would appear to be a stronger opponent.

    And I think what Putin has done very effectively is to take advantage of the opportunities presented to him by distraction in the West, by the divisions, by the polarization, and by the fact, I would argue, that the United States did not have a very coherent idea about what it wanted to do after the Soviet Union collapsed.

    And when Putin came to power in 2000, he had a pretty clear idea that he wanted to restore Russia as a great power. And so, he's managed to take advantage of this and restore Russia as a global player. And when you look at the fundamentals in Russia, a GDP which is the size of that of Italy, a declining population, an economy that's overwhelmingly dependent on raw materials revenues, you realize that he's played a weak hand quite effectively.

    And, of course, he's been in power for 20 years now, and he's seen American presidents and other leaders come and go, and he feels that he has the upper hand in many ways, despite all these problems.

  • William Brangham:

    All right. Angela Stent of Georgetown University, thank you so much.

  • Angela Stent:

    Thank you.

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