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, PBS NEWSHOUR CORRESPONDENT:
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
The final death toll is unknown.
Russian nuclear officials have been slow to
But with long faces, they admitted Thursday’s
blast at their Nenoksa testing site was a
VALENTIN KOSTYUKOV, DIRECTOR, RUSSIAN FEDERAL
NUCLEAR CENTER (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
PRESIDENT VLADIMIR PUTIN, RUSSIA (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
JEFFREY LEWIS, MIDDLEBURY INSTITUTE OF INTERNATIONAL
STUDIES: 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
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.
WILLIAM BRANGHAM: For more on what these military
mishaps and protests mean, we turn to Angela
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
ANGELA STENT, GEORGETOWN UNIVERSITY: 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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
questioning about succession, this is already
going on, and they would like to have a different
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
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.