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Russian President Vladimir Putin chairs a Security Council meeting at the Novo-Ogaryovo residence, outside Moscow, Russia, on Nov. 22, 2019.

Yekaterina Shtukina/The Associated Press

Russian President Vladimir Putin has handed state awards to the widows of nuclear engineers who died in an explosion at the navy’s testing range, saying they sacrificed their lives to develop a cutting-edge weapon that will protect the country “for decades ahead.”

Speaking in remarks televised Friday, Putin hailed the five men who died in the Aug. 8 incident in Nyonoksa on the White Sea as heroes and patriots.

“Each of them has brought an invaluable contribution to the strengthening of the Russian state,” he said in a sombre speech at the ceremony. “They were involved in the most difficult and critically important work on the most advanced technology that has no analogues in the world.”

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The Russian leader pledged that Russia will work to complete the development of the weapon involved in the incident, saying it will “ensure sovereignty and security for Russia and peace for our children for decades ahead.”

“The very fact of possession of such unique technologies is the strongest and the most reliable guarantee of peace on the planet,” Putin said. “We will undoubtedly develop it to perfection.”

Putin didn’t name the weapon and his spokesman Dmitry Peskov refused to give any details of the official probe into the incident, saying the results won’t be made public because it involves a new weapons system.

Russian officials have offered scant and contradictory information about the incident that led to a brief spike in radioactivity and fuelled radiation fears in a nearby city. Along with the five nuclear engineers, the explosion also killed two servicemen and injured six people.

Rosatom nuclear state corporation said the explosion occurred on an offshore platform during tests of a “nuclear isotope power source” of a rocket engine – a cryptic description that made many observers conclude that the test involved one of Russia’s most secretive weapons – the prospective Burevestnik (Storm Petrel) nuclear-powered cruise missile, code-named “Skyfall” by NATO.

Putin first revealed the existence of the missile in his 2018 state-of-the-nation address, claiming that it will have an unlimited range, allowing it to circle the globe undetected by missile defence systems. He claimed then that the missile had successfully undergone the first tests, but many observers have remained skeptical, arguing that such a weapon could be very difficult to handle and pose a threat to the environment.

Speaking at a separate meeting of the presidential Security Council on Friday, Putin said that Russia should focus on developing new drones, laser and hypersonic weapons.

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He charged that Russia now has weapons that place it “a step ahead” of other leading military powers.

“Naturally we must try to maintain that in the future,” he said.

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