PR stunt? Russia's new missile seen connected to Putin's waning popularity
MOSCOW -- A deadly explosion at a Russian testing site has focused attention on President Vladimir Putin's bid to build a nuclear-powered missile.
But the questionable feasibility of such an enterprise, combined with Putin's growing unpopularity at home and increasing problems on the international front, has led many observers to conclude that this is all a public-relations stunt.
At the same time, a series of deadly mishaps hitting the Russian military suggest the Kremlin simply would be incapable of orchestrating such a complex project.
Analysts have linked the fatal blast at the Nyonoksa test site on August 8, which caused a sharp spike in local radiation levels, to the 9M730 Burevestnik nuclear-powered cruise missile first revealed by Putin in 2018.
However, the Kremlin has not confirmed that the accident was linked to the Burevestnik project, and the identity of the missile that exploded remains uncertain.
Fears of a new arms race intensified after the collapse this year of the Cold War-era Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty.
"Russia bears sole responsibility for the demise of the treaty," NATO said in early August.
The aim of developing a nuclear-powered missile is to give it theoretically unlimited range, said Corentin Brustlein, director of security studies at the French Institute of International Relations (IFRI).
"This also, in theory, frees you up from the constraint of the amount of fuel that you can carry," he told AFP.
Russia still has an "obsession" over American missile defence dating back to the Cold War, said Brustlein.
But while a nuclear-powered missile with the theoretical ability to strike any target on earth may seem attractive, analysts warn the technical difficulties and risks may outweigh any strategic gain.
The technical demands of manufacturing such a missile are huge, requiring the miniaturisation of a nuclear reactor so it can fit on the missile.
And the risks for the scientists and operators -- especially in the early phase of development -- are clear.
Such safety considerations would normally act as a brake on the development of the weapons, a former chief of a French intelligence service, who asked not to be named, told AFP.
But "Russia does not respect the same security guidelines because they consider them to be too heavy," he said.
"Overall, is it worth it? We thought not, and we are not the only ones."
Developing a nuclear-powered missile was "extremely complicated" for the sake of a "very dubious operational interest", said Brustlein.
"The number of technical challenges that are needed to scale down a nuclear reactor to such a size and the constraints on tests are enormous," he added.
"If you put together the technical challenges, the political, environmental consequences and the operational interest, you end up with a very negative equation," Brustlein said.
Radiation levels were up to 16 times the norm in nearby Severodvinsk after the August 8 explosion at Nyonoksa, said Russia's weather service. The news prompted residents to buy iodine, which can help prevent the thyroid gland from absorbing radiation.
In Central Asia, Russian mishandling of radiation is well known.
Residents of the area around Semey (Semipalatinsk), Kazakhstan, are still grappling with elevated cancer and birth defect rates after almost 460 Soviet nuclear weapon tests took place there between 1949 and 1989.
The missile is "completely useless and superfluous", said Russian military analyst Alexander Golts.
The Kremlin's aims may go well beyond simple military strategy at a time when Putin's popularity is on the wane, with Moscow rocked by the biggest protests it has seen since 2012.
Putin's popularity plummeted after the Kremlin antagonised many Russians by shoving through an increase in the retirement age in 2018 and then by preventing various opposition candidates from running for the Moscow City Council in 2019.
Mass protests and arrests are now a weekly occurrence in Moscow and other parts of the country.
Russian citizens are also upset at five straight years of declining incomes and a crumbling economy.
Touting military superiority remains a strong card for the Kremlin, with Putin threatening to deploy "invincible" weapons against "decision-making centres" in the West.
"There is the aspect of nationalistic posturing, which is extremely important. Putin wants to show that Russia is developing systems that the US does not have and that it is sustaining a technological competition," said Brustlein.
"There is an important political dimension for Vladimir Putin -- he wants to show that Russia is still a great military power," added the anonymous French ex-intelligence chief.