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Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, speaks to Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu in July.

POOL New/The Associated Press

Michael Byers holds the Canada Research Chair in Global Politics and International Law at the University of British Columbia

A massive explosion killed five nuclear scientists on an offshore platform in the White Sea, near the Arctic Circle, last week. According to Russia’s state nuclear energy corporation, they were working on an “isotope power source for a liquid engine unit.” In other words, they were testing a prototype of the nuclear-powered “Burevestnik” cruise missile.

The missile, which the North Atlantic Treaty Organization has already designated as the “Sky Fall,” is hardly a secret. In a televised speech last year, President Vladimir Putin bragged that Russian scientists had developed a “small-scale, heavy-duty nuclear energy unit that can be installed in a missile.” He even showed an animation in which a missile strikes the United States from the south, after a circuitous flight that takes it near Antarctica.

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Mr. Putin’s bragging combined with the very public accident make for a very dangerous mix. His claims about Russia’s continued status as a “great power,” and therefore his credibility with the Russia public, are undermined whenever an advanced piece of Russian technology fails in such a spectacular way. And there have been quite a few spectacular failures lately.

A nuclear-powered cruise missile would operate by using radioisotopes to rapidly heat the air moving through its engine, much like the consumption of kerosene creates thrust for a jet aircraft. Unlike kerosene, however, the radioisotopes would not be consumed, enabling the missile to fly almost indefinitely. Burevestnik is the Russian name for the storm petrel, a seabird known for long-distance flights.

Russian authorities were reluctant to admit that the explosion involved the Burevestnik, with the Ministry of Defence reporting that the accident occurred during the testing of a liquid-fuelled missile engine.

In nearby Severodvinsk, the municipal government’s website initially reported a 16-fold increase in radiation levels. Local stores quickly sold out of iodine, which, when ingested, can reduce the amount of radiation absorbed by the thyroid. But then the notice was removed and residents were told that radiation levels were normal.

In Moscow, television screens went blank for an hour, a breakdown later attributed to a malfunctioning storm-warning system. At the same time, a text message urged residents to remain at home because of a windstorm, which never materialized.

All of this is reminiscent of the deadly delay in reporting the Chernobyl nuclear accident three decades ago, as well as of the denials of any risk when the Ekaterinburg nuclear missile submarine caught fire when docked near Murmansk in 2011, when, in fact, it was fully loaded with warheads.

There is a difference today, however, in that commercially available satellite imagery can quickly reveal the damage from major fires and explosions, with that information then reaching ordinary Russians through a still-porous internet. Two U.S.-based companies have already published images of the scorched offshore platform and a nearby ship – one that is specially equipped for collecting waste from Russia’s nuclear-powered icebreakers.

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Old habits die hard. The Russian government under Mr. Putin is no less secretive, incompetent and vindictive than the Soviet regime in which he was trained. If the President wants a nuclear-powered cruise missile, all efforts will be made to build one – regardless of the risk. And all efforts will be made to shield him from blame when things go awry.

Yet, Mr. Putin’s grip on power is looser today than at any time since Boris Yeltsin opened his way to the presidency two decades ago. Incomes in Russia have fallen for five straight years due to the combination of low oil prices and stringent sanctions.

Initially, Mr. Putin benefited from the annexation of Crimea that prompted those sanctions. During a visit to Novosibirsk in 2014, I found otherwise liberal-minded intellectuals celebrating the reunification of “Mother Russia.” Roughly 90 per cent of Russians approved of Mr. Putin’s leadership at the time.

No longer.

Last Saturday, 60,000 people gathered on the streets of Moscow to protest the exclusion of independent candidates from the city’s municipal election. The regime responded by arresting more than 3,000 of them, often quite violently, because it knows that such protests reflect a much deeper and broader opposition to how Russia is governed.

Like many national leaders, Mr. Putin often uses foreign policy for domestic ends. However, his most recent international successes are difficult to translate into public popularity. Computer hacking and social-media hijacking may have delivered both Brexit and Donald Trump, but how does one take credit for something that has to be adamantly denied?

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For all these reasons, Russia’s nuclear weapons program is of great and growing importance to the self-image of Russians and therefore Mr. Putin’s grasp on power. Nuclear weapons enabled the Soviet Union to maintain parity with NATO for nearly half a century, and they remain the jewel in Russia’s crown today.

Yet, intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) offer no novelty factor in 2019. And so, Mr. Putin has very publicly pushed for new, technologically impressive means for delivering warheads.

Kremlin officials are staying on message. Days after the explosion on the offshore platform, spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters: “Our president has repeatedly said that Russian engineering in this sector significantly outstrips the level that other countries have managed to reach for the moment, and it is fairly unique.”

Of course, nuclear weapons are a mug’s game, since everyone loses if they are used. As Chernobyl demonstrated, radiation, once released, can be carried almost anywhere on winds and ocean currents. Only generals, politicians and arms manufacturers pretend that a nuclear war could ever be won.

Key to Mr. Putin’s claims of technological superiority is the fact that these claims cannot be disproved, since no rational actor would ever use the weapons in an actual war.

And this is why a spate of recent accidents will be very troubling to Mr. Putin, since there is now evidence building up in public against his claims. Just last week, an explosion at a military depot killed one person, injured 13 and forced the evacuation of 16,500. Last month, 14 sailors died in a fire on a nuclear-powered deep-sea submarine.

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Similar problems plague the Russian space program, another of Mr. Putin’s technological talismans. Last October, a Soyuz rocket failed halfway through a launch to the International Space Station, with the astronauts on board surviving only because the abort system worked as designed. In 2017, another Soyuz failed because someone forgot to enter new coordinates when the rocket was transferred from the usual spaceport in Kazakhstan to a new spaceport in the Russian Far East.

Russian scientists will not be surprised that the Burevestnik blew up. They know that the United States attempted to build a nuclear-powered cruise missile in the 1960s, before deeming the effort futile. But will anyone tell the Russian President this?

An incident last May is illustrative: While skating a victory lap after one of his regular games against Russian hockey heroes, Mr. Putin fell flat on his face. He was quickly lifted to his feet, and the celebration continued as if absolutely nothing had happened.

The fact remains that Russia has a potent nuclear force made of ICBMs that cannot be intercepted, because of their numbers, multiple warheads and the ease with which decoys – as simple as foil chaff – can be deployed. Many of these missiles are immune to first strikes, because they are located on submarines hidden under the Arctic sea ice.

As Mr. Putin fights to remain in power, Russia enters another troubled period in its long and tumultuous history. Change is coming, whether by assassination, coup, or revolution. Will all those ICBMs remain in their tubes? I’m not cheering for Mr. Putin, but I’m worried about what happens when he’s gone.

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