Failed Russian nuclear test: Is Vladimir Putin developing a weapon that could crack US defenses?

An explosion from what was likely an unsuccessful Russian nuclear test reveals Putin's emboldened aggression

By Matthew Rozsa
August 14, 2019 2:26PM (UTC)
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Vladimir Putin (AP/Photo montage by Salon)

A recent explosion likely related to an unsuccessful nuclear test suggests that Russian President Vladimir Putin is exploring ways to bypass American missile defense systems.

Five scientists were accidentally killed during military tests in northern Russia, according to Reuters. The incident that led to their deaths involved engineering and technical support of isotope power sources on a liquid propulsion system. Although Russian authorities did not provide further details, experts believe the accident was likely connected to a Russian nuclear-powered missile test.


The Russian government was likely working on a military goal that Putin has pursued since 2008 — namely, developing a cruise missile that could carry a nuclear weapon to any location on the planet.

"There's really no other possible scenario for this. All the pieces fit together. It's very difficult to imagine that it's anything else besides this," Vipin Narang, a politics professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who focuses on nuclear weapons, told NBC News.

Jeffrey Lewis, a nuclear expert at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies, expressed similar thoughts.


"We're kind of stumbling or drifting into this arms race with the Russians. But there is a real human cost to an arms race," Lewis told NBC News. "There were all kinds of disasters in the Soviet Union and the United States during the Cold War, because people felt so strongly about the need to do these dangerous things."

President Donald Trump responded to the news of the military accident Monday with a tweet.

"The United States is learning much from the failed missile explosion in Russia. We have similar, though more advanced, technology. The Russian 'Skyfall' explosion has people worried about the air around the facility, and far beyond. Not good!" the president tweeted.


In addition to his military program, Putin has also sought to increase his control over the geopolitical order by covert means that destabilize liberal democracies. This included a successful effort to meddle in the 2016 presidential election by releasing information that would harm Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton and using online resources to spread misinformation that would increase social divisiveness within the U.S.

"The consequence [if Putin wins], I think, is the end of the liberal international order," former US Ambassador Michael McFaul told Salon in January. "If he succeeds, that's what he's aiming to do. The breakup of states as you have in the UK, the breakup of alliances and NATO, the breakup of the European Union, those are all things that Putin thinks are in his national interest. Tragically, he had some wins lately."


He added, "Whether he aspires for Russia to be the world's lone superpower, I don't think he actually has that big an ambition. I think he just wants to weaken the West, and then after if everything worked out the way he liked – that we are just a collection of nation states – he will then forge bilateral relationships with Germany, with the UK, with United States, and with China. Which is to say that I think he's sober enough about Russia's potential in the next couple of decades to understand that in that world China would be first among equals. Key to his concept is that there would be several equals. It would become a multipolar world as opposed to a unipolar or bipolar world dominated by the United States and China."

Matthew Rozsa

Matthew Rozsa is a staff writer for Salon. He holds an MA in History from Rutgers University-Newark and is ABD in his PhD program in History at Lehigh University. His work has appeared in Mic, Quartz and MSNBC.

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