Security Brief

Botched Russian Weapons Test Leads to Radiation Leaks

A nuclear-powered cruise missile test in Russia goes wrong, John Bolton visits London, allies turn on each other in Yemen conflict, and more.

Russian President Vladimir Putin chairs a Security Council meeting at the Novo-Ogaryovo residence outside Moscow on August 5.
Russian President Vladimir Putin chairs a Security Council meeting at the Novo-Ogaryovo residence outside Moscow on August 5. Mikhail Klimentyev/AFP/Getty Images

Happy Monday, and welcome to Security Brief. It’s FP reporter Robbie Gramer here, filling in for Lara Seligman and Elias Groll. As always, we love to hear from readers for tips, suggestions, and ideas at securitybrief@foreignpolicy.com

What’s on tap: A nuclear-powered cruise missile test in Russia goes horribly wrong, John Bolton visits London to talk Iran and China, and the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen appears to be unraveling as allied factions turn on each other.


Russian Weapons Test Gone Bad

Radiation leaks after explosion. Two days after a mysterious blast at a Russian weapons testing range caused a spike in radiation levels in nearby Severodvinsk, Russia’s nuclear energy authority Rosatom confirmed Saturday that the explosion involved radioactive materials. 

U.S. officials and experts believe the explosion, which killed seven, came after a botched test of a new nuclear-powered cruise missile that Russian President Vladimir Putin has trumpeted as central to Russia’s 21st-century nuclear deterrent, the New York Times reports.

“The possibility that this was another Russian mishap with its nuclear-powered cruise missile is looking frighteningly plausible,” said Ian Williams, the deputy director of the Missile Defense Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, in an email to Foreign Policy.

The missile in question. Suspicion fell on the Burevestnik, a nuclear-powered cruise missile Russia is developing, dubbed “Skyfall” by NATO. The weapon is intended to fly for hours or even days in a bid to evade missile defense systems. “The system is part of several new strategic-range nuclear delivery systems that Russia is developing. Most are having testing problems, behind schedule, or unlikely to be fielded in large numbers, if ever,” said Kingston Reif, the director for disarmament and threat reduction policy at the Arms Control Association.


What We’re Watching 

London calling. U.S. National Security Advisor John Bolton headed to London to meet with new U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s team to talk about security challenges including China and Iran, according to NBC News. The Trump administration is hoping it can leverage the president’s cozy relationship with Johnson to coordinate closer on foreign policy priorities, including taking a harder line on Iran. Trump also appears eager to strike a trade deal with London after Brexit, but that plan might face stiff resistance in Congress, as Foreign Policy’s Keith Johnson reports.

Yemen. The Saudi-led coalition fighting Iran-backed rebels in Yemen appears to be at risk of unraveling after four days of deadly clashes in the port city of Aden. Saudi-backed government forces and a group of separatists backed by the United Arab Emirates, ostensible Saudi allies, turned their guns on each other for control of the city. The UAE-backed separatists began withdrawing from their positions, but it marked a significant blow to the efforts to roll back the Houthis. After over four years of war, Yemen is considered the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. 

Hong Kong. Hong Kong is entering its 10th week of massive protests to defy Beijing’s rule, with no signs of abating. Thousands of protesters have occupied the Hong Kong international airport, forcing the closure of one of the busiest transport hubs in the world. 

Terrorist attack averted in Norway. A gunman attempted to open fire in a mosque in Norway in what authorities are considering a possible act of terrorism. The suspect apparently espoused white supremacist views online. 

Russian thunder. Donning black leather and a mounting a motorbike, Russian President Vladimir Putin visited Crimea over the weekend to take part in the annual fest of the Night Wolves, a pro-Kremlin motorcycle club, in Crimea. Ukraine’s foreign ministry condemned the visit, calling it a “a crude violation by the Russian side of state sovereignty and the territorial integrity of our state.” 

U.N. casualties in Libya. Three U.N. officials were killed in Benghazi, Libya over the weekend when a car bomb exploded near a shopping center and the offices of the U.N. mission, which is trying to broker peace between warring parties. Nine, including three other U.N. officials, were wounded. 

Gun control debate draws in former top brass. In the wake of the latest spate of mass shootings in the United States, the former chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, Adm. Michael Mullen (Ret.), wrote in The Atlantic that the U.S. government needs to do more to stop the spread of assault rifles: “Assault weapons are designed to kill as many people as possible in the shortest time possible. They are for war; they are not for sport.”

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Movers and Shakers 

Embassy Row shake-ups. Canada’s ambassador to the United States, David MacNaughton, is stepping down from his post to join Silicon Valley firm Palantir Technologies. MacNaughton played a key role in the grueling behind-the-scenes negotiations over the U.S.-Mexico Canada trade agreement on behalf of Ottawa.

Meanwhile, South Korea has a new ambassador coming to Washington: Lee Soo-hyuck, a former career diplomat turned lawmaker. Lee has an uphill battle ahead of him. Even as North Korea conducts new missile tests, Trump has soured on South Korea in recent weeks, upping demands for Seoul to pay more to cover U.S. defense costs, and questioning the value of military exercises with South Korea. Another potential snag: In the past Lee has referred to Trump’s style as “treacherous.” And foreign ambassadors who criticize Trump don’t seem to last very long in the job

New man in Russia? After Trump’s ambassador to Russia Jon Huntsman announced he would step down, there’s a new name floating to take his place. Vox reports Stephen Biegun, the current State Department envoy on North Korea, is in the running to replace Huntsman, who is expected to run again for governor of Utah.


Military

U.S. service member killed in Iraq. A U.S. service member advising Iraqi forces was killed in northern Iraq on Saturday, the first combat-related American death in Iraq in 2019. Gunnery Sergeant Scott A. Koppenhafer of Mancos, Colorado, 35, was killed “after being engaged by enemy small arms fire while conducting combat operations,” according to the Pentagon. There are roughly 5,000 remaining troops stationed in Iraq as part of the U.S.-led coalition to defeat the Islamic State.  

Grounded. The U.S. Air Force temporarily grounded 123 C-130 aircraft after one of the big transport planes was found with “atypical cracking,” as Defense News reports. “This temporary removal of service will not impact ongoing C-130 support to overseas contingency operations,” Air Force Air Mobility Command said in a statement.

Take us to your leader. There’s been a steady drumbeat of op-eds pushing a senior Air Force officer to lead the newest branch of the military. As Military.com reports, supporters of Air Force Lt. Gen. Steven Kwast, currently commander of Air Education and Training Command, have been mounting a campaign to put him in the running to head the Space Force. 

Head, meet sand. The U.S. Navy has quietly dismantled a 10-year old task force devoted to studying the strategic impacts of climate change, E&E News reports. “Across all of [the Department of Defense], it is hard for me to see that climate change is taken as seriously at it should be,” said retired Navy Rear Adm. Jon White, who ran the Navy’s Task Force on Climate Change from 2012 to 2015. 


Quote of the Week 

“Shit, though hard and dry, still stinks even if it is wrapped in a flowered cloth.”

A not-so-subtle official North Korean Foreign Ministry statement bashing South Korea for continuing to conduct military exercises. 


FP Recommends 

Glimpse into a forgotten conflict. The Wall Street Journal was granted rare access to the Western Sahara, a disputed region controlled by Morocco. The impoverished plot of land in northwest Africa is simmering with tension, but is relatively quiet thanks to several hundred U.N. peacekeepers overseeing a ceasefire line between Moroccan forces and separatist militants. Now that peacekeeping force’s fate is in question, as U.S. National Security Advisor John Bolton tries to push both parties and the United Nations to resolve the conflict, or risk cutting off peacekeeping funds.


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Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

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