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Opinion | What Happened at Russia’s Missile Test Site?

Nearly as soon as an explosion ripped through the Nenoksa Missile Test Site in northern Russia on Thursday, briefly raising radiation levels in the region, the Kremlin went into crisis mode. That, to anyone familiar with the immediate aftermath of the Chernobyl accident, means clamping down on information, insisting that nothing really bad happened, that it happens everywhere and that the government is in full control.

This time, thank Heaven, the radiation leak appears not to have threatened residents in the region, and no increases were registered in neighboring Finland or Norway. But the pathetic, inchoate evasiveness of Russian authorities proved once again that the Kremlin is far more concerned with covering its behind than telling its people or the world what happened and how great the risk it carried.

When city authorities in nearby Severodvinsk reported the brief spike in radiation levels soon after the explosion, sending panicked people in search of iodine, which protects the thyroid gland against absorbing radiation, Moscow’s reaction was to take the information off the city’s website. Initial reports were only of a “liquid fueled rocket engine” blowing up, with assurances that such accidents were a normal risk in the important research that was underway and that such mishaps had occurred also in the United States and Japan. The five scientists who perished, Russians were proudly informed, were great heroes who would receive major decorations and their families many rubles.

Oh, and yes, officials noted two days later, the scientists had been “involved in servicing isotope power sources on a liquid fuel engine.” That was followed by a lot of scientific jargon (the research involved “the creation of sources of thermal or electric energy using radioactive materials, including fissile materials and radioisotope materials”) but no concrete information about what the poor scientists — who according to some reports were flung into the White Sea by the blast — had been working on.

Sorting through what hints were available in the statements, United States intelligence officials said one project potentially involved in the blast was the development of a nuclear-powered cruise missile capable of evading American missile defenses on very long flights, known to NATO as the Skyfall and to Russia as the Burevestnik. President Vladimir Putin had bragged of such a weapon in his annual state of the nation address in 2018.

If that’s what it was, the setback in the testing program would be a serious blow to Mr. Putin at a time he is facing weekly demonstrations in Moscow by tens of thousands of Russians irked by the exclusion of opposition politicians from the race for the Moscow City Council, and more broadly by the erosion of living standards. A nuclear accident in a costly arms program that he publicly embraced is not what Mr. Putin needs.

The folly of the accelerating post-Soviet Cold War is a major issue in itself, as is Mr. Putin’s illusion, carried over from the Soviet Union, that military might, however prohibitively costly and unnecessary, equals national greatness. Secrecy is critical to any arms race to keep the adversary off balance, and Moscow has always been obsessive about shrouding its military programs from view.

Yet the Kremlin should have understood with brutal clarity after Chernobyl that there can be no secrecy surrounding a nuclear accident, no matter now great or small, no matter how clandestine its source. Thousands of lives might have been saved at Chernobyl with prompt warnings.

Fortunately, the accident on the White Sea was no Chernobyl, and it will most likely pose no further threat to people’s lives. And the real threat to Mr. Putin is not the failure of a missile test, nor whatever light it shed on Russian nuclear weapons programs that Mr. Putin himself so publicly announced. The greatest danger is that the government’s instinctive lies and denials will only make the Russian public, and the world, even less likely to believe in anything Mr. Putin or his minions say or do when the next crisis hits.

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