Russia's response to nuclear disaster: lie, cover up — and put the world at risk

Russia's response to nuclear disaster: lie, cover up — and put the world at risk
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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, as one very nearly did three decades ago.

A 1960 weapons test killed many senior military officials; Moscow covered up that disaster. Then, in 1986, Russian authorities first tried to cover up the Chernobyl power plant explosion even as it threatened hundreds of thousands of lives across Russia and Europe and eventually killed 4,000 to 16,000 people, according to conservative estimates. 

In 2000, they again covered up and published misleading reports on the Kursk nuclear submarine disaster. Then, last month, the nuclear-powered Losharik submarine, whose mission remains classified, caught fire, killing 14 senior officers.   

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And now, on Aug. 8, a nuclear explosion at the Nenoska weapons-testing range has killed at least seven people, including senior scientists. This latest catastrophe appears to have arisen from a testing failure with the so-called Burevestnik — “Thunderbird” or “Stormy Petrel” (NATO reporting name: SSC-X-9 Skyfall) — nuclear-powered cruise missile.

With radiation levels spiking in the region, Russian officials initially ordered the evacuation of one village — six days after the incident — and then reportedly canceled it. They have closed a portion of the nearby White Sea to civilian ships.

This new disaster, as in preceding cases, strongly underscores the enduring pathologies of Russian governance, pathologies deeply embedded in Russian political culture even before the October 1917 Revolution and revived by Russian President Vladimir PutinVladimir Vladimirovich PutinPelosi, Schumer hit 'flailing' Trump over 'sham ceasefire' deal Pompeo to meet Netanyahu as US alliances questioned Pelosi explains what she was saying to Trump in viral photo: 'All roads lead to Putin' MORE’s state.

They don’t only endanger Russians. Sooner or later, they will put much of the world in danger, as they very nearly did during the Chernobyl disaster. 

The first common denominator of these nuclear crises is instinctive, pervasive official mendacity and secrecy. These behavioral reactions to crises are ingrained in Russian bureaucracy, where one survives by avoiding responsibility and hiding the truth from the boss. In all cases — Chernobyl, the Losharik, and now the Nenoska debacle — local and central authorities not only hid critical details from domestic and foreign audiences, they actively lied as to what was going on.  

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Indeed, we still do not know and may never know exactly what caused this latest nuclear failure. Since nobody in Russian government is accountable to anything other than his or her superior, nobody has any incentive to be truthful about anything happening on their watch. 

The ingrained secrecy reflex derives not only from the ancient Russian folkway of not telling foreigners anything because they are the enemy, but also because the bureaucracy inherently believes it has a proprietorial right to information that nobody else has or should have. Officials deeply believe the public has no need or inherent right to know about events affecting their lives. 

Beyond secrecy and the fact that in Russia, to quote Tennessee Williams, “Mendacity is a system that we live in,” Chernobyl, the Kursk and Losharik submarines and, now, this tragedy also highlight just how incapable local officials are in coping with crises. It is not surprising that officials whose initiative and resources are systematically suppressed at almost every opportunity cannot or will not act on their own. That would mean taking responsibility, an inherently un-Russian bureaucratic behavior. Local administrations’ incapacity to function autonomously is another ongoing centuries-old pathology that continues under Putin’s ever more centralized, massively corrupt administration. 

Third, this episode, like so many other nuclear tragedies and so much of Russian history, shows the elites’ callous disregard for the welfare, interests and lives of the people. Twenty years ago Anatol Lieven, at the Carnegie Endowment, observed that Russian officials treat their “subjects” (not “citizens”) as less than human beings. Stalin memorably observed that we still have not learned to value the human factor. Clearly, neither has Putin’s government. 

Fourth, although there are many other enduring similarities between this and the other previous catastrophes, this one reveals much about Russian nuclear policy. Washington looked at the idea of a nuclear-powered cruise missile 60 years ago and abandoned it because of the risk. Somebody obviously sold Putin a scientific bill of goods (another typical event in Soviet and now Russian history) and prevailed because he proposed building a weapon that U.S. missile defenses could not stop. The idiocy of this decision is that innumerable U.S. and Russian experts have long confirmed that U.S. missile defenses cannot stop Russia’s existing nuclear missiles. 

Therefore, Moscow’s obsessive threat assessment concerning those defenses has no basis in reality. Instead, it reflects Moscow’s abiding hysteria and paranoia concerning foreign threats that actually do not exist other than in the minds of cynical, equally obsessed security services. That hysteria and paranoia, and the pervasive secrecy and mendacity, feed upon each other along with the callous disregard for human life. The tragic results are clear to all.

These and other enduring pathologies of Russian governance ensure that Russia will long see itself at war with the West if not the world, and that its paranoia about outsiders derives from its awareness of the regime’s own domestic illegitimacy. Given the growing domestic unrest in Putin’s Russia, this witches brew could, over time, revive another Russian tradition — mass popular unrest. 

Stephen Blank, Ph.D., is a former professor of Russian National Security Studies and National Security Affairs at the Strategic Studies Institute of the U.S. Army War College. He is also a former MacArthur fellow at the U.S. Army War College. Blank is an independent consultant focused on the geopolitics and geostrategy of the former Soviet Union, Russia and Eurasia.