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‘Missile Attack’ on Russia Was Just a Science Probe : Defense: News agency is falsely informed that a weapon was shot down. Norwegian rocket is untouched.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

An attack that never occurred created a brief alarm Wednesday after a news agency erroneously reported that Russian forces had shot down an incoming combat missile that had violated Russian airspace.

The cause of the commotion, which briefly jolted world currency markets, turned out to be a peaceful Norwegian research rocket, fired on a trajectory away from Russia on a previously announced mission to study the polar lights.

But in a sign that some Russian officials remain jittery about the possibility of a nuclear attack from the north, unnamed sources in the Russian Defense Ministry told the Interfax news agency, hours after the report was known to be false, that “it is too soon to tell” if the launch was aimed at testing Russia’s early warning radar system.

Norwegian officials were baffled as to how the rocket launch could have been so misconstrued.

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“Missiles are going up and going down all the time,” said Tore Tanum, a spokesman for the Norwegian Embassy in Washington. “It’s a matter of interpreting the radar, I guess.”

On Dec. 14, Norway had notified Russia, the United States and other nations that the rocket would be fired from a civilian-run range on the northern island of Andoya, said Capt. Stig Karlsen, spokesman for the Norwegian Defense Ministry.

Karlsen said 607 research rockets have been launched from the same site, although Wednesday’s was the largest to date.

“The whole operation was informed about in a normal way, as they do every time they fire a rocket,” Karlsen said.

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The four-stage, solid-fuel rocket, which weighed six tons and reached a maximum altitude of 900 miles, was designed to study the northern lights during daytime.

While some military experts said it could have been briefly mistaken for a missile, the rocket was launched in the morning, never strayed off course or moved closer than 185 miles from the Russian border and landed as planned in the Spitzbergen archipelago, 969 miles northwest of its launch site, Norwegian officials said.

At 4:15 p.m., the respected Interfax news agency received a call from an unnamed Russian military source announcing that a “combat missile” had violated Russian airspace from a northern European country but that it had been intercepted.

Georgy Viren of Interfax’s political information unit said the agency was given false information. But he described the source as well placed, previously reliable and in a position to have access to such facts.

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The report briefly propelled the U.S. dollar up against the German mark, which tends to be sensitive to any bad news from Russia because of close trading ties between Bonn and Moscow.

About 50 minutes after the first report, Interfax quoted a different unnamed source in the air defense command, saying a missile had been fired from Norway but as soon as its trajectory was observed it became clear that it would land outside Russian territory, which it did at 9:48 a.m.

Spokesmen for the Russian Defense Ministry and Strategic Rocket Forces referred all inquiries about the incident to the Air Defense Press Center, where the telephone went unanswered. Russian officials later confirmed that Norway had given advance notice of the launch and said they had not fired at the research rocket.

The status of Russia’s once-vaunted air defenses has been a touchy subject here ever since 1987, when German teen-ager Mathias Rust flew a single-engine Cessna from Helsinki to Moscow in broad daylight without being detected and landed in Red Square.

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In another embarrassing incident last year, the Moscow power company shut off electricity to the Strategic Rocket Forces headquarters for at least 74 minutes after the elite guardians of the Russian nuclear arsenal failed to pay their $645,000 overdue bill. The underground bunker that controls the nuclear weapons switched to emergency power and was not affected.

Wednesday’s incident demonstrates that Russia’s radar system can still detect potential threats far over the horizon. But the claim that Russia shot down a ballistic missile is “totally preposterous” since it does not have a functioning missile system capable of intercepting such a strike, said Bruce Blair, a nuclear expert at the Brookings Institution in Washington.

Precisely this shortcoming has made Moscow especially jittery about the possibility of an attack from the North Atlantic, the Norwegian Sea or even the closer Barents Sea, said Blair, author of a recent book called “The Logic of Accidental Nuclear War.”

Historically, the North Atlantic and the Norwegian Sea have been patrolled by submarines, including the Trident, equipped with powerful, accurate ballistic missiles, he said. These missiles now pose the most serious strategic nuclear threat to Russia.

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“From forward locations in Greenland or Norway, they could launch a deadly missile that could land on Moscow in under 15 minutes,” Blair said. Theoretically, such a strike could decapitate Russia’s nuclear command headquarters in Moscow, “so they are very nervous about this particular weapon system.”

Blair said Wednesday’s false alarm could have been a scare tactic or the result of rumors generated by the radar report of the launch--or simply the work of a crank.


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