The Kremlin approved wholeheartedly the “exceptionally right decision” to award the 2005 Nobel Peace Prize to the International Atomic Energy Agency and Director-General Mohamed ElBaradei, noting particularly that “he does not react on various shouts and is a very reliable partner” (Newsru.com, October 7). Apparently, Moscow wants to interpret this award as a sign of approval of its complicated intrigue in the IAEA centered on the Iranian nuclear program, an issue that has been referred to the UN Security Council against Russian and Chinese objections. There is, however, a particular warning for Russia in this decision, since the Norwegian Nobel Committee certainly had no intention of interfering in the Iranian problem but wanted to remind that, 50 years after Hiroshima, nuclear disarmament “is at a standstill” (Aftenposten, October 8).
In Russian security strategy, disarmament is indeed not a goal but rather a threat, so much effort is devoted to slowing down the process of ageing in the vast Soviet nuclear arsenal inherited by Russia. Strategic missiles are the main focus of these efforts, and recent weeks saw a series of test launches, including the first successful launch of the new submarine-based missile R-30 “Bulava” on September 27 (Voenno-promyshlennyi kurier, October 5-11; EDM, October 5). Five other tests, however, including the September 30 launch from the Georgii Pobedonosets from the Pacific Fleet and the October 7 and 8 launches from Borisoglebsk of the Northern Fleet, involved missiles of old types that have to be tested repeatedly, since technically they are past their expiration date. This inevitably leads to all kinds of technical failures, and the new space “parachute” Demonstrator that constituted the payload in the October 7 missile launch was lost in the Okhotsk Sea (Kommersant, October 8). That was the fourth failed test of this device, and the launches of international space vehicles Kryosat and Kosmos-1 on October 8 and June 21 were also unsuccessful due to missile failures (Lenta.ru, October 8, July 15). Perhaps the most embarrassing case was the two successive failures to launch missiles from nuclear submarines Novomoskovsk and Kareliya in the February 2004 exercises observed by Russian President Vladimir Putin (Kommersant, September 30).
Playing down the recurrent failures, the Russian authorities insist that the strategic forces are fully combat capable and undergo modernization in order to deter new kinds of threats. Showing personal commitment, Putin took a ride in a strategic bomber during the August exercises and saw the launch of a new long-range cruise missile (Lenta.ru, August 17). In his September nationwide Q&A session, Putin emphasized that such first-hand involvement was not “tourism” but a part of his duties as commander-in-chief (Polit.ru, September 27). In staging that confidence-boosting plane ride, Putin certainly took personal risks, not only since he is not qualified to take controls of any plane but also because every technical glitch would have been “negative PR,” which must be avoided at any cost, according to Kremlin “political technologists.” Everything worked smoothly at those exercises, but the disasters followed shortly, including the bad landing of a Su-33 fighter on the deck of the aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov and the crash of a Su-27 fighter in Lithuania leading to an awkward political scandal (Vremya novostei, October 7; EDM, September 27).
The most spectacular catastrophe was certainly the colossal explosion in the naval ammunition depot in Kamchatka on September 30, when some 8,000 people had to be evacuated from adjacent villages (Nezavisimoe voennoe obozrenie, October 7). It is unfortunately nothing unusual to have explosions from old Soviet stocks of artillery shells, bombs, and missiles: In both 2002 and 2003, Vladivostok was shaken by such blasts, while in May 2004, Melitopol in Ukraine heard a cannonade that lasted a full two weeks.
The real question here is about the safety of nuclear storage facilities where any accident could trigger a disaster comparable with Chernobyl, which will mark its twentieth anniversary next April. Russian authorities assert in the most affirmative terms that there is no risk whatsoever of any detonation, or for that matter, theft of nuclear material and, fortunately, there is no need to rely entirely on these words. Since 1991, the Cooperative Threat Reduction programs authorized by the U.S. Congress under the Nunn-Lugar legislation have been taking care of this problem. This is a remarkable success story that probably deserves the Nobel Peace Prize no less than the IAEA. What makes it even more remarkable is the very reluctant cooperation on the Russian side in providing access to its nuclear facilities despite the new agreements reached at the February 2005 Bush-Putin summit in Bratislava. This reluctance is not accompanied by any readiness to invest sufficient funds in upgrading the safety of nuclear stocks that could have freed those hundreds of millions of U.S. dollars that the G-8 annually spends in Russia for its program aimed at checking the spread of weapons and materials of mass destruction.
Investing instead in new weapons, the Russian authorities refuse to see that the poor compatibility of modern technologies and rusty Soviet hardware increases the risks of malfunctioning in every complicated weapon system, while the poor training of conscripts who are performing all sorts of manual maintenance work makes human failure a near certainty. Putin is always keen to praise new missiles that could penetrate any strategic defense “being developed by certain of our partner countries.” An honest assessment of risks posed by his own unreformed and neglected armed forces could have shown the irrelevance and even indecency of such bragging.