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Russia: Analysis From Washington -- An Explosion That Changed The World

  • Paul Goble

Washington, 27 August 1999 (RFE/RL) - The testing of the first Soviet atomic bomb 50 years ago this Sunday catapulted the USSR into superpower status and defined both the nature of the Cold War and the limits of international conflicts ever since.

On August 29, 1949, Soviet scientists exploded their country's first nuclear device not far from the city of Semipalatinsk in the Central Asian republic of Kazakhstan. And while the bomb itself was relatively small, the fallout from its testing continues to affect not only the immediate region but the world as a whole.

This Sunday, residents from the area near the testing range as well as scientists and anti-nuclear activists will meet in Semipalatinsk to remember the more than 1.6 million people whose health was undermined by Soviet nuclear testing over the next 40 years.

But as significant as those consequences were on a human level and as great a claim as they have on the conscience of the world, the three geopolitical consequences of the August 1949 test are far greater.

First, the Semipalatinsk test broke the American nuclear monopoly, and as a result, the USSR became the second superpower. Even though Moscow could not compete with the West in any other way, its possession of the most frightening weapon of all time meant that no one could ignore its demands.

In the short run, that development meant that the West could no longer dictate to the Soviet Union as it had concerning Moscow's World War II-era occupation of northern Iran. In the longer term, it placed enormous burdens on both countries and exacerbated suspicions on both sides because of the role espionage played in the Soviet breakthrough.

Even today it means that the Russian Federation, as the Soviet Union's successor state, can claim a seat in the highest councils even where it is economically or politically unqualified in every other way. And that in turn has made Moscow ever more reliant on its nuclear arsenal precisely because these weapons are a symbol of power.

Second, the test 50 years ago defined the limits of the Cold War. The enormous destructive power of nuclear weapons as demonstrated by the American attacks on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki made each side more cautious in its dealings with the other.

On the one hand, this often meant that one or the other side was prepared to go to the brink in the expectation that the other side would blink. And on the other, it meant that officials in both Moscow and Washington began to learn what the limits were and began to define their relationship in terms of developing a nuclear control regime.

That was the basis for most East-West contacts during the Cold War, and those contacts in turn helped bring that frightening competition to an end. Indeed, one of the most difficult challenges for those involved in such talks has been the demise of the Soviet state, a demise that left them in some cases without an obvious interlocutor.

And third, the Soviet test a half-century ago this weekend -- by highlighting both the importance of nuclear weapons and relative ease of producing them -- encouraged other countries around the world to think about "going nuclear."

Few of them have succeeded, but the possibility that they could had an unexpected impact on Soviet-American relations: It gave the two sides a vested interest in limiting the spread of nuclear weapons.

Neither Moscow nor Washington wanted to see its own status diminished by such a development, and consequently the two rapidly came to recognize that they in fact had a set of shared values within their overarching competition.

That led to efforts on both sides to limit the proliferation of nuclear weapons, efforts which also contributed to overcoming some of the early suspiciousness which the Semipalatinsk test itself set off.

Those joint efforts have been remarkably effective, and where they have broken down -- as in the recent testing of nuclear devices by India and Pakistan -- both the impulse to limit the spread of nuclear weapons and the shared commitment to preventing their use has had the effect of restricting the likelihood that these weapons will in fact be used.

When the Soviet Union exploded its device in 1949, no one saw all these political possibilities, both good and bad. Now, they are more obvious. But the enormous destructive power of nuclear weapons remains unchanged. And on this anniversary, coping with that fact remains unchanged as well.