Brian Mark Weber / August 16, 2019

Have We Entered a New Arms Race With Russia?

If nothing else, the period of nuclear control has come to an abrupt end.

A deadly explosion last week in Russia spread radiation across a broad area, endangering the lives of citizens and fueling questions about the superpower’s intent to spark a new arms race with the U.S.

Information about the explosion has been reminiscent of the secret cloak that surrounded the infamous Chernobyl disaster in 1986.

NBC News’s Alexander Smith reports that “authorities have drip-fed details of the incident to the public. But Monday, Vyacheslav Solovyov, scientific director of the Russian Federal Nuclear Center, confirmed that at the time of the blast, nuclear scientists at the Nyonoksa military range were working on ‘small-sized energy sources using radioactive fissile materials.’”

Smith adds, “Another factual morsel came when Russia’s state nuclear agency, Rosatom, said the accident happened while testing ‘isotope power sources within a liquid propulsion system.’”

Facts about the blast are minimal due to Soviet-style misinformation, but President Trump didn’t waste time in offering some insight of his own. The president seems to think the failed test relates to Russia’s secret nuclear weapon called Skyfall, a guided missile with the capability of evading detection by U.S. missile defense systems.

After the explosion, the president said: “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!”

Initially, it seemed as though the impact of the incident was minimal.

Jake Rudnitsky and Stepan Kravchenko write at that “Norway said it had stepped up radiation monitoring after the incident but hadn’t detected anything abnormal. On Monday, Norway’s Nuclear Safety and Environmental Protection department said its local and European monitors hadn’t shown any increase in radiation levels.”

But emerging information points to a situation more dire than first realized, with Russian officials ordering the evacuation of a nearby village just two days ago.

In fact, The New York Times reported that “Russian officials have released a flurry of misleading or incomplete statements playing down the severity of the accident,” adding “that pattern of murkiness continued on Tuesday, as news reports and official statements offered only the vaguest explanation for the evacuation, and hours later seemed to indicate that it had been called off.”

What’s interesting about this latest Russian nuclear disaster is that the explosion came just days after the U.S. pulled out of the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty due to concerns over Russia violating the ban on ground-based nuclear weapons, a carryover from the Cold War era.

So what’s the concern over Putin’s new Skyfall weapon?

NBC News reports that the weapon “would not only be nuclear-armed but also nuclear powered, carrying a relatively small reactor to heat the air in its jet engine. It would fly at a lower and on a less predictable trajectory than an intercontinental ballistic missile, making it theoretically capable of evading U.S. missile defenses.”

So why is Putin so dedicated to pursuing these new weapons? He claims the U.S. plan to deploy missile defense systems in eastern Europe is a direct threat to Russian national security. In a speech earlier this year, Putin made that crystal clear. National Review’s Mairead Mcardle recalls that “Russian president Vladimir Putin warned during his State of the Nation speech in February that while Russia does not seek aggression, the country’s nuclear weapons would be pointed toward the U.S. if the White House deployed missiles in Europe.”

And Putin has more than one weapon in his laboratory.’s Patrick Goodenough writes that in addition to Skyfall, Putin’s announcement in 2018 revealed “a heavy ICBM which he said would be capable of reaching targets via both the North and South poles; a ground-based laser weapon; a hypersonic air-borne ballistic missile; a submarine-launched hypersonic missile; and fast, unmanned submersible vehicles able to carry conventional or nuclear warheads, boasting ‘unlimited range.’”

Does Putin’s desire to develop new weapons signal the beginning of a new era?

The editors of The Wall Street Journal think “the reality is that Russia under Mr. Putin is breaking out of arms-control restraints to develop new weapons and the means to deliver them. He can’t be trusted to follow new treaties, as his violations show. The salient question is whether the U.S. will also develop the weapons and defenses to prevent Mr. Putin from gaining a military advantage.”

Some experts may assume that the explosion of Skyfall along the coast of the White Sea is an indicator that Russia still has a long way to go in matching America’s own military technology. But the fact that these weapons are being developed in the first place might make that assumption dangerous. What this signals, if nothing else, is that the period of nuclear control has come to an abrupt end.

More startling is the fact that we may very well have entered a new arms race with Russia.

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