Democracy and Nuclear Weapons
No. 3 2005 July/September
Alexey Arbatov

Full Member of the Russian Academy of Sciences; Director of the International Security Center at the Institute of World Economy and International Relations; a member of the Russian delegation to the START I negotiations (1990); and Deputy Chairman of the Defense Committee of the State Duma (1994-2003).

On the eve of the Russian-U.S.
summit in Bratislava in March 2005, Russia’s political circles were
very agitated. The reason for this mood was due to the ‘leakage’ of
information about a Russian-U.S. plan for placing Russia’s nuclear
facilities and even its nuclear forces under American control.
Despite Moscow’s official denials of these reports, the rumor
continues to be the subject of intense debate by politicians and

In reality, of course, there are
no plans for U.S. “control” over Russia’s nuclear armaments.
Instead, the real debate involves the question of granting U.S.
specialists possible access to Russia’s nuclear facilities
(including repositories of weapon-grade nuclear materials and
munitions). Foreign countries provide financial and technical aid
in order to guarantee the physical protection of these facilities,
as well as elimination and utilization of their nuclear

In the 1990s, the West allocated a
total of U.S. $6 billion for these purposes under the well-known
Nunn-Lugar program. At the G-8 summit in Kananaskis (Canada) in
2002, Russia was promised an additional $20 billion under the
Global Partnership project. Providing a foreign country with such
large sums of money from the pockets of its taxpayers, Western
governments want to guarantee that the funds are appropriately
used. Besides, intelligence services are always eager to obtain
additional information on nuclear issues. Since this entire sphere
of activity remains hidden under a veil of strict secrecy, the
boundary between what is deemed to be secret and non-secret is
rather ambiguous and has for years been the subject of delicate
negotiations. Incidentally, foreign specialists have already
received considerable access to formerly secret facilities,
products and information in Russia under the programs sponsored in
the 1990s.

The above-mentioned reference to
the rumors of foreign control over Russia’s nuclear armaments
brings up a real problem: Russia’s own political and democratic
control over its nuclear weapons. This involves Russia’s policy for
the development, deployment, elimination and utilization of these
nuclear armaments either in keeping with international treaties, or
on a unilateral basis.

On the face
of it, there is no connection between this issue and the
sensational reports that Russia may place its nuclear facilities
under Washington’s control. Nevertheless, generally speaking, is it
possible to combine the incompatible – nuclear weapons and
democratic control? It is important not to rush to conclusions and
analyze the subject in more detail.


control over the state’s defense policy, with regard to both
nuclear and conventional armaments, is usually interpreted as a
decisive role of political leadership in the decision-making
process in this sphere.

Democratic control, on the other
hand, is a much broader concept and implies the role of the
legislative branch in devising a defense policy. This is attainable
through such mechanisms as the defense budget, major programs and
plans for the armed forces’ development, and the ratification of
treaties on arms limitation and disarmament. These efforts require
the transparency of defense information, including the discussion
of important issues in the mass media and specialized publications;
otherwise, parliament will become hostage to policies pursued by
executive agencies.

control is possible in the absence of democratic control. In
totalitarian or authoritarian countries, for example, the ruling
party’s official bodies and secret services guarantee this kind of

However, democratic control and
accountability cannot exist without political control, which
implies civilian control over defense and security organizations.
Civilians as heads of defense organizations are supposed to be
envoys of the political leadership in such organizations, as
opposed to representatives of the military bureaucracy, who cannot
but represent its own interests before the president or the prime
minister. Without control from the country’s political leadership,
neither civil society nor the legislative branch can directly
influence the powerful, united and secluded military

In other words, political control
over executive bodies is an integral part of democratic control and
accountability in the sphere of state policy in general, and
defense policy in particular.

In contemporary Russia, democratic
control over nuclear policy has not yet become a reality. First,
Russian society and the legislative branch have little influence on
state policy as a whole – partly due to their weakness, and partly
due to the general consolidation of the “executive vertical” in the
country. They exert still less influence on defense policy, and no
influence whatsoever over the holy of holies – the nation’s nuclear

Second, the very act of raising
the issue of democratic control and accountability in this sphere
can, at best, evoke bewilderment or, at worst, suspicion of evil
intentions. The significance of the factors surrounding nuclear
arsenals – their sophisticated designs, the secrecy surrounding
them (which also exists in the West although to much smaller
degree), and the specific nature of these technologies which
influences the strategy and plans for their application – may give
the impression that it is absurd to raise the issue of democratic
control in this field.

Yet, not only is democratic
control a legitimate issue, it is long overdue in Russia’s defense
and security policy.


Why does society need to know its
country’s plans for the development and application of nuclear
weapons? Furthermore, why should it influence them – and

General-purpose troops and
armaments, as well as the methods and goals of their application,
comprise a military sphere that is comprehensible for the public at
large; the Russian people have some idea of ongoing local
conflicts, as well as a historical memory of past wars. As far as
public opinion is concerned, general-purpose forces are not some
“virtual reality” or abstract thing like nuclear weapons, although
the new revolution in military affairs is dramatically changing the
face of these systems.

Most sober-minded people would
agree that the 60,000 tanks or 300 submarines, for example,
deployed by the Soviet Union in the 1970s-1980s were more than the
country needed for its defense. Presently, many discussions are
underway as to whether Russia really needs a 1.2-million-strong
army, whether it is a good idea to transform the conscript army
into a voluntary one, how much money military officers should earn,
and whether non-monetary benefits of the military are worth

Still more difficult are the
questions: Is Russia’s 5,000 strategic nuclear warheads force
(about the same number as in the U.S.A.) too large or too little?
Will the 1,700-2,200 warheads that both sides will have in 2012
under the Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty (signed in May 2002
in Moscow) be sufficient? For answers to these questions, it is
important to know the state and prospects of the evolution of the
strategic nuclear balance, various concepts for employing strategic
nuclear forces, criteria of the adequacy of deterrence, the logic
of strategic stability, and other esoteric matters not commonly
known to the public.

The employment of conventional
forces – even in undemocratic countries – requires, at the very
least, the tacit consent of the people. After all, some people will
be called upon to fight, while others will have to ensure the
domestic support for the army. Preparations for military activities
give society a possibility to form its attitude to these actions,
since they usually require much time (the U.S. war against Iraq,
for example, was prepared more than half a year in advance, while
preparations for the second Chechen campaign in Russia took several
months). In many countries, including the United States and the
Russian Federation, the declaration of a state of war or a state of
emergency, as well as the employment of armed forces abroad,
requires parliamentary or congressional approval.

The question of employment of nuclear-missile
weapons is quite a different matter. The flight time of a
long-range ballistic missiles varies from 15 to 30 minutes. Thus,
the political leadership of the target country will have, in the
best case, a few minutes to decide on whether or not to launch a
retaliatory missile strike. This means that the nation cannot have
any effect on a decision to employ nuclear weapons either directly
(through a referendum), or indirectly (through

Nuclear war does not
require any involvement of broad popular masses. It would involve
an insignificant part of the peacetime army, which does not exceed
one percent of the country’s population. After the decision to
employ nuclear weapons is made, the sanction is sent down the chain
of command; at this point, only several thousand officers on duty
get involved. In the most advanced command-control systems, the
missile launch signal is transmitted directly from the national
leadership’s highest command post via relay systems to launchers,
bypassing the missile forces’

Still, democratic control and accountability
with regard to nuclear weapons are not only possible but also
necessary, although in a very special way that conforms to the
nature of this class of weapon. This would be possible, however,
only if society recognizes the need for democratic control over the
entire range of state policy, including its defense


Although the citizens of a nation do not make
the final decision to employ nuclear weapons and do not participate
in nuclear war, it is the nation, that is, the civilian population,
which from the very beginning becomes the immediate target of
devastating nuclear strikes. This factor makes a nuclear conflict
very different from a conventional war, even a large-scale
conventional war. Even if nuclear strikes were to be concentrated
on military sites, command posts and industrial centers, in keeping
with an accepted modern strategy, the collateral damage to the
civilian population would amount to tens of millions killed during
the first few hours of such a war.

This is why the nation has
the right to influence nuclear policy. In the event of such a
conflict, this policy will determine its fate more than any
economic, social or political aspects of state policy, which are
traditionally relegated to the sphere of democratic control and
accountability. Thus, the very nature of these weapons prompts the
need for democratic control.


The second reason is as
follows. One of the important distinctions of nuclear weapons, and
most importantly, strategic nuclear weapons, from conventional
armaments is a rather limited range of their possible combat
missions and methods of employment. For example, the task of a
strategic missile or aircraft is very narrow: to hit a
predetermined pinpoint or area target. The methods of their
employment are limited as well: massive, grouped or single launch.
A nuclear strike can be the first (pre-emptive), retaliatory or a
launch-on-warning (carried out on a signal from a missile attack
warning system before the enemy warheads reach their designated
targets). In contrast, in various kinds of military and
paramilitary operations [that is, military actions during
peacetime, as well as operations involving local conflicts – Ed.],
conventional aircraft, tanks and ships, for example, may be used in
an infinite variety of ways.

The technical characteristics of the weapon
systems in service with the strategic nuclear forces, as well as
the strength and composition of these forces, largely predetermine
methods of their employment – at least against a nuclear-armed
enemy. Such an opponent is the main target of the nuclear
deterrence strategy. In turn, the probability of a nuclear
conflict, with all its catastrophic consequences, depends not only
on concomitant political factors, but also on the degree of
stability of the strategic balance between the parties. The degree
of stability depends on how strong is the incentive to deliver a
first nuclear strike (this may result from a desire to avoid
defeat, or the fear of a surprise enemy attack).

The above-mentioned
technical characteristics of the weapon systems in service with the
strategic nuclear forces (together with the force levels and
composition of these forces, which include control and warning
systems) tangibly affect this stability. Naturally, those technical
characteristics do not dictate the methods of employing the
strategic nuclear forces in any particular way. Yet, they logically
offer the most effective, preferable ways of military employment of
various systems.

In 1990, Moscow and Washington agreed to
classify as stabilizing the systems of strategic delivery vehicles
with a greater survivability at launch sites and with a smaller
number of warheads per delivery vehicle. These features make these
types of systems less suited for a first strike and more for a
retaliatory strike. And vice versa: the higher the vulnerability of
weapon systems at launch sites and the more warheads they carry,
the more they threaten their opponent, thus making themselves more
attractive for and vulnerable to a pre-emptive attack – a factor
which destabilizes strategic balance. The premise of this logic is
that a first strike aims, above all, at disarming the enemy;
otherwise, a devastating retribution would be

The accuracy of modern
guidance systems and the short flight time of strategic ballistic
carriers make silo-based intercontinental ballistic missiles of the
other party poorly suitable for a retaliatory second strike. As for
a launch-on-warning option, it is possible only if the warning and
command-control systems are highly effective. This is particularly
true if silo-based ICBMs are armed with multiple individually
targeted re-entry vehicles (MIRV), and if they threaten the
strategic nuclear forces of the enemy with a disarming strike (like
the U.S. MX Peacekeeper ICBM, or Russia’s RS-20 heavy missile,
designated RS-18 in the West). As these missiles combine high
strike power with vulnerability, they may be predominantly used in
a first strike, thus literally inviting a pre-emptive strike and
undermining strategic stability.

As for submarine-launched nuclear missiles –
such as Trident-2 system with W-88 warheads – these are highly
survivable. However, if these missiles are equipped with powerful
MIRVs, they are capable of delivering disarming strikes at fixed
targets (like ICBM silos and command centers) as well, and
therefore play a destabilizing role.

submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs) with a small number
of low-yield MIRV warheads, as well as ground-mobile ICBMs with a
single warhead or few MIRV warheads (Russia’s RSM-52
submarine-launched ballistic missile on 667 BDRM submarines,
designated Delta IV in the West, for example, and ground-mobile
Topol and Topol-M ICBMs) are stabilizing weapons. They have a high
survivability potential and do not threaten the other side with a
disarming strike, i.e., they are classical second-strike
retaliatory systems. Such systems reduce the probability of nuclear
war inasmuch as it depends on the state of military

Presently, Russian members of parliament
rejoice like children whenever they hear about preservation or
introduction of a new nuclear weapon in the Russian armed forces.
Unable to estimate the contribution of various systems to strategic
stability and security, they adhere to the principle “The more, the
better.” This principle is not always right, however: many weapons
are simply a waste of money. It would be better to use these funds
on the introduction and/or maintenance of a weapon that is capable
of strengthening the country’s defense capability and

An informed public and
parliament can influence arms programs and strategic balance if
they are aware of the importance of these factors; if they have the
knowledge of these issues, they may reduce the probability of a
nuclear war. In particular, Russian legislators could implement
these measures through budget allocations for various programs,
since, unlike their American counterparts, they do not have the
power to endorse arms programs directly. If defense information
becomes transparent enough, legislators may use the findings of
independent experts to forward alternative proposals based on the
understanding of all their strategic, political and economic

The third argument in favor of democratic
control in the military nuclear sphere involves the financial
aspect. Annual expenditures for the development and maintenance of
nuclear arms comprise no more than 10 to 15 percent of defense
expenditures. Yet, considering the 20-30-year life cycle of nuclear
weapons – their development, deployment, maintenance and final
disposal – this is a vast sum of money. Therefore, the rational use
of resources in this field requires democratic control and
accountability no less than other major parts of the federal

Finally, nuclear arms
policy has become a major part of foreign policy, being directly
associated with negotiations and agreements on the limitation,
reduction and nonproliferation of nuclear weapons. Society and
parliament participate in this process through the ratification of
treaties. However, if they do not have an adequate understanding of
nuclear policy or are unable to critically estimate it, their
participation turns into either an ideological opposition (as was
the case with the seven-year debates in the State Duma over the
START-2 Treaty) or a mere formality (as with the Strategic
Offensive Reductions Treaty in 2002).



Control from above, void of a democratic
foundation, guarantees political loyalty of the military generals
but denies the political leaders the ability to play a real role in
defense policy and development of the armed forces. Their role gets
limited to establishing the overall size of defense allocations, or
to being an arbiter in case the various bureaucratic agencies fail
to agree between themselves on some issues. Without alternative
options of a defense policy, established by independent experts and
discussed by parliament, political leadership has to deal with a
monolithic position elaborated at lower levels of the military and
defense-industry bureaucracy. Political leadership can have only
marginal effect on this position.

Naturally, it is
impossible for the head of state to be an expert in all spheres,
and especially in one that is as complex as contemporary defense –
and nuclear policy in particular. He must rely on the opinions of
his subordinates. However, in a closed format, without broad debate
occurring in parliament, in the press and at the independent
scientific centers, defense agencies will be able to push through
their decisions via the closest aides to the president, especially
as aides usually come from the defense agencies.

But perhaps this is a normal way of molding
defense policy? After all, the defense and security agencies and
their research institutes comprise highly skilled experts,
therefore, why not place full trust in

Experience shows that this approach is
incorrect, and not only with regard to defense policy but also to
any other sphere of state policy in a democratic country. Executive
control over all aspects of government is not a good idea because
bureaucracy often pursues personal, rather than national,
interests. Furthermore, bureaucratic agencies poorly coordinate
their actions. It would be incorrect to say that bureaucracy
comprises only malevolent or incompetent people. However, an
individual working for a powerful bureaucratic organization will
have to subordinate himself to its interests or leave.

The country’s political
leadership in the person of the president and parliament must
formulate national interests, as opposed to bureaucratic interests
of various agencies; and these national interests must represent
the priorities of various social groups within society. However, is
such a goal actually feasible with regard to defense and nuclear
policy when defense information remains strictly closed? How is it
possible to define the national interest when there are no
independent assessments and proposals available to the public, and
executive agencies have a monopoly on the information and resist
all attempts to criticize or amend their positions? The answer is
obvious, as is the inevitability of mistakes, some of which can do
serious damage to the country’s security and economy, examples of
which are abundant.

In 2000-2001, in order to redistribute
resources in favor of the general-purpose forces, the Russian
government sharply cut allocations for the national strategic
nuclear forces. The cuts primarily affected ground-based missiles,
the main component of these forces, including the procurement of
mobile Topol-M ICBMs, the main program for their modernization. The
technical characteristics of this system make it easily adaptable
to changing strategic situations and most stabilizing of all weapon
systems. Moreover, no other country besides Russia possesses a
similar weapon, nor will they have one in the foreseeable

As a result, the situation
with the general-purpose forces has not improved, because, most
importantly, the military reform has stalled, while the strategic
nuclear deterrence has been greatly undermined. If this policy
persists (and there have been no official statements yet that it
may change), in 10 to 15 years 90 percent of Russia’s strategic
nuclear forces may be vulnerable at their deployment sites to
hypothetical disarming strikes by the United States, Britain,
France and, possibly, even China. Of course, it is extremely
unlikely that these countries will attack Russia; nevertheless, the
strategic stability will be undercut – with all of the ensuing

Having such vulnerable strategic nuclear
forces, Russia will have to rely increasingly on the
launch-on-warning concept. However, in a situation when Russia’s
early warning satellite constellation is weakening and most of the
ground-based radar stations from the Soviet era remain on the
territory of other post-Soviet states (almost all of them,
incidentally, are now seeking NATO membership), continued reliance
on this concept is becoming ever more dangerous. This problem is
acquiring special importance considering the continuing
proliferation of nuclear-missile weapons around the world, and the
growing probability of accidental or provocative missile launches
from various directions.

Some of the negative
consequences of the decisions of 2000-2001 showed up immediately.
In particular, the U.S. lost any interest in the continuation of
negotiations with Russia on the limitation of strategic arms; the
ABM Treaty, the START-2 Treaty (ratified by Russia in 2000) and the
START-3 framework (signed in 1997) all

In a bid to improve the situation, Russia
purchased obsolete silo-based missiles and bombers from Ukraine and
extended the service life of its heavy ICBMs (in the same
vulnerable silos). These moves on the part of Russia were quite
expensive but did little to increase strategic stability. Later,
Moscow announced it had developed a “magic weapon” – a missile with
a gliding and maneuverable re-entry vehicle capable of penetrating
any missile defense system. The announcement, however, did not
impress Washington. No wonder: Russian armed forces buy only four
to six Topol-M ICBMs a year and the scale of new missiles’
deployment may not be great – they will be much more expensive.
Besides, the new missiles will need to be tested, put into
production and ensured a highly survivable basing mode. (Since
Russia has the U.S. in mind while developing these missiles, it is
essential that they are capable of surviving a disarming

Following the events of
September 11, however, a spirit of cooperation emerged in
Russia-U.S. relations, and in May 2002, Moscow and Washington
signed the Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty (SORT). This
treaty, however, will hardly influence the objective process of
strategic destabilization, since it does not limit either party in
any way. Besides, it remains rather an agreement of intent: it does
not establish any counting rules for warheads, or procedures for
dismantling armaments. The treaty provides no reduction schedule or
verification procedures. For example, the treaty calls for both
countries to have no more than 1,700-2,200 warheads 10 years after
the treaty’s ratification. The treaty, however, does not specify
what warheads will be limited or how they will be counted under the
established ceilings. SORT lacks the above set of instruments usual
for such agreements. Until the year 2009, though, the verification
regime of the START-1 Treaty will remain in force, but it will only
provide Russia with information about the U.S. strategic nuclear
forces rather than about the implementation of the Treaty by the
United States.


It would seem that Russia,
now lagging behind the U.S. in strategic nuclear potential while
possessing weak general-purpose forces, must give this issue a
greater importance. It must take avail of America’s interest in
cooperation in many other international affairs in order to ensure
an acceptable nuclear balance. However, Russia’s policy has been
surprisingly passive; the 2002 Treaty has not been filled with
legal or technical content. Washington’s nuclear arms policy has
been harshly criticized in the United States itself, in Western
Europe, in the United Nations and at the 7th Review Conference of
the Treaty on Nonproliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), which took
place in New York in May 2005. Nevertheless, Russia’s Foreign and
Defense Ministries have not put forward any new concerted proposals
and offer scant criticism of American policy. Had there been
democratic control and accountability in Russia’s nuclear policy,
and if the public and specialists had more access to information on
nuclear issues, such mistakes would have been

Consider another example. Of all large powers,
Russia is the most vulnerable to threats posed by the proliferation
of nuclear weapons and missile technologies: the majority of new
and potential nuclear missile-capable countries are either located
along the perimeter of Russian territory, or close enough to
Russian territory to be a threat. More importantly, nuclear
proliferation is creating favorable conditions for these
technologies to be accessible to international terrorists, who are
now engaged in armed struggle against Russia in the North Caucasus,
and are threatening this country’s security in Central

In light of these
conditions, one would expect Moscow to be the most ardent advocate
of strengthening the NPT, regimes and mechanisms of nuclear and
missile non-proliferation, and continuously introduce new
initiatives in this field. Instead, Russia only half-heartedly
reacts to new concepts of the U.S. and Western Europe (the
Proliferation Security Initiative, the renunciation of the export
of complete nuclear fuel cycle technologies, the obligation of
accession to the International Atomic Energy Agency’s 1997
Additional Protocol to the NPT, the code of missile technology
exports). It is hard to avoid an impression that nuclear-missile
proliferation does not really concern Russia and that the efforts
to combat proliferation are being perceived as an annoying
hindrance to Russia’s Atomic Energy Agency’s deals for the export
of nuclear technologies and materials. Here again Russia’s public
and parliament remain in blissful ignorance of this problem and
fail to raise the issue of a serious revision of the state

Finally, returning to the issue mentioned at
the beginning of this article: international cooperation in
ensuring the safe storage of nuclear munitions and materials, the
elimination of their surpluses, and the dismantling of
decommissioned nuclear submarines. Obviously, by providing Russia
with billions of dollars in aid, the West seeks to ensure its own
security: if nuclear weapons or materials come into the hands of
rogue states or terrorists, or if an ecological catastrophe should
occur, the entire world will suffer the consequences.

Meanwhile, the U.S. and
other countries have to address the same problems of the
elimination of nuclear and chemical weapons; but it is them who
help Russia, not vice versa. Hence, the growing tensions in
relations between the parties. Apart from technical issues, there
are many other factors impeding Russian-Western cooperation in this
field (suffice it to mention Russia’s demand that the West pay
value-added tax in keeping with its tax law, or the issue of
liability for possible damage). In return for its aid, the West
demands access to Russian nuclear facilities (beside the strategic
nuclear forces inspected under START-1), yet Russia cannot make
similar demands. Only as a goodwill gesture, the U.S. allows
Russian representatives to visit some of its facilities. At the
same time, Russia continues to develop new nuclear weapon systems,
including strategic ones that would be capable of penetrating ABM
defenses. Thus, Western countries raise the question: Why alleviate
Russia’s financial burden caused by the elimination of weapons and
allow it to spend more on new ones?

Perhaps if there was democratic control over
Russia’s nuclear policy, the state could adequately estimate its
financial needs concerning the elimination of obsolete weapons.
This might make it possible to allocate much more funds for the
elimination and disposal of armaments (the lack of funding for this
budget item has been continuing for over a decade) and thus remove
Russia’s dependence on foreign countries. However, if Russia
decides to continue accepting foreign aid, it must negotiate
measures to develop partnership and cooperation in order to
transform mutual nuclear deterrence, thus resolving the issues of
contention for cooperation in this field.

Unfortunately, here too
Moscow’s priorities remain undefined because of the
compartmentalized bureaucratic narrow-mindedness and lack of
coordination in mapping out state policy, as well as because of the
absence of democratic control and


If Russia had an effective system of democratic
control and accountability, it would be possible to ask several
questions concerning the sensitive issue of the authorization of
the employment of nuclear forces. The information publicly
available on this issue is very scant and not officially confirmed.
It is possible, of course, that the actual state of affairs in this
realm is quite satisfactory. However, if the available information
is correct at least to some extent, then it may be prudent to
question the implementation of a particular constitutional
provision, which gives the power to authorize the use of nuclear
forces only to the president – the supreme commander of the Russian
armed forces.

According to published
information, Russia’s Kazbek system, put into operation in the
early 1980s, allows the head of state, no matter where he may be at
a particular moment, to receive information about a missile attack
and issue an order to deliver a nuclear strike by means of a
portable electronic terminal named Cheget. This so-called ‘nuclear
briefcase’ sends a signal, encrypted in a personal presidential
code, to the central command post, which is then relayed to the
command posts of ICBMs and nuclear-missile submarines. As is common
within the sphere of strategic armaments, the Soviet Union followed
the example of the U.S., which introduced such a system in the
early 1960s.

Yet, there have always been fundamental
differences between the two ‘briefcase’ systems as regards
organizational and legal aspects. There is plenty of information on
the U.S. system from official sources and from a library of expert
publications. In the United States, the decision to employ nuclear
weapons must receive the consent of primary individuals involved in
this process. However, only the U.S. president is in possession of
the ‘briefcase,’ and he is always accompanied by a military
officer. If the president is unable to perform his duties as
commander-in-chief (due to illness, absence in the country, a
security threat, etc.), the terminal is passed over to the
vice-president. That is why the president and the vice-president
never leave the country simultaneously. Furthermore, a special law
specifies the procedures for passing over command in case both top
executives die or lose communication in the event of a war. The
chain of command consists of more than ten officials, beginning
with the speaker of the House of Representatives, the Secretary of
the Treasury, and so on. The Secretary of Defense is far behind
them, while there are no military officers on the list.

The equivalent Soviet
system operated in a different way from the very beginning, and
Russia has borrowed this system unchanged. In addition to the
presidential ‘nuclear briefcase’ (in the past, this terminal was in
possession of the Communist Party General Secretary), there are two
more such ‘briefcases’ – one remains with the minister of defense
and the other with the chief of the Armed Forces General Staff.
This setup begs the question: How can these three terminals issue
an order to launch a missile strike? In unison, as three parts of a
single code, or each on an individual basis? There is no answer to
this question from official

If the signal to launch strategic nuclear
forces proceeds from all the three sources that would seem rather
strange, since the defense minister and the chief of the General
Staff are not equal to the president: the first is subordinate to
the head of state, while the second is subordinate to the minister.
From the legal point of view, the supreme commander’s decision to
use nuclear weapons does not require confirmation from the other
two officials. Furthermore, how can the country react to a surprise
missile attack if the president is abroad or is unable to issue an
order for some other reason? (In Boris Yeltsin’s times, there were
many sarcastic suppositions to this effect.)

It would be appropriate
here to recall the coup attempt in Moscow in August 1991, when
President Mikhail Gorbachev was denied access to the “nuclear
button,” while one of the coup leaders, Defense Minister Dmitry
Yazov, was separated from his terminal after the coup attempt
failed. Did this mean that the “beheaded” country temporarily lost
the ability to deliver a retaliatory nuclear strike in response to
a surprise attack? It seems it did not; at least, no one in the
Soviet Union or abroad showed any concern about such a possibility,
because the third terminal apparently remained at the General
Staff, which means control over the strategic nuclear forces was
never lost.

If it is true that the three terminals do not
operate in unison, while the individual possessors of the “Chegets”
can give missile launch orders separately, is there a technical
possibility of starting a nuclear war without the decision of the
president? According to the Russian Constitution, if the president
is unable to give orders, he is succeeded not by the defense
minister or the chief of the General Staff but by the prime
minister. Such a succession occurred only once: in 1996, Boris
Yeltsin underwent a heart surgery, and then-prime minister Victor
Chernomyrdin took over the nuclear briefcase. Lately, the mass
media has not reported about the handover of the nuclear terminal
to the Cabinet chairperson during the president’s frequent visits
to other countries. Moreover, the president and the prime minister
often go abroad simultaneously, so how is it possible they are
performing their “nuclear duties?” Who, at this time, has the
powers of such an important decision and what about the principle
of political control over the main decision in defense

There is no doubt that
presently both the defense minister and the chief of the General
Staff are politically loyal and administratively subordinate to the
president and will never act against his will, especially in such
an important sphere as the employment of strategic nuclear forces.
Times change, however, just as the personnel at the highest state
posts do. It is impossible to predict how the “triple button” will
operate in a possible crisis if the president is suddenly out of
reach. What would transpire should the proliferation of nuclear
missiles result in an accidental or provocative missile strike
against Russia? What would happen in the event of a nuclear
terrorist act?

In the Soviet Union, there was no notion of
political or civil control over the army; there was only unified
“military-political” control, which was in line with the Soviet
totalitarian political regime. In today’s Russia, which is
following a democratic path, as President Putin said in his April
25, 2005 address to the Federal Assembly, the political leadership
must have firm and technically guaranteed control over the most
important of all decisions – the decision to employ nuclear


Making information available to the public
about nuclear armaments requires a well thought-out approach; after
all, there is much information that must remain secret. This
includes technical aspects of many existing and future weapon
systems and nuclear munitions, command-control and warning systems,
operational plans for the combat employment of forces, and their
target lists.

A similar secrecy practice
is in force in many democratic countries, including the U.S., Great
Britain and France. Those countries may make mistakes in their
nuclear policies, as well. However, the advantage of a democratic
system is not that it guarantees against mistakes, but that it
allows free discussion on nuclear issues based on reliable
information, and the timely correction of mistakes before they
cause irreparable damage.

As for Russia, much of the information on the
deployed forces, programs for their development, the allocation of
financial resources, and measures to strengthen strategic stability
must be transparent. This is especially the case since Russia
shares much of this information with foreign countries (information
exchanges, for example, under the START-1 Treaty) and the United
Nations (which Russia informs about its nuclear program funding).
There is no good reason to classify this data – if, of course,
government agencies do not seek to preserve their monopoly on
decision-making and conceal their mistakes. In order to remove the
senseless veil of secrecy surrounding such information, essential
amendments are required in the law On State Secrets.

The legislative branch must have a greater role
in forming defense policy in general, and nuclear policy in
particular. This can be accomplished through parliamentary
hearings, investigations and, possibly, an amendment to the
constitution that would give the Federal Assembly control powers
(now it has only legislative and representative powers). Parliament
deputies need more information than just the size of budget
allocations for utility services or clothing allowances for the
Army and the Navy. They need funding information that will let them
form an opinion about major priorities of defense policy and
military development. These would include nuclear deterrence at the
global level and in theaters of operations, offensive and defensive
strategic systems, and general-purpose forces, the potential for
conducting large-scale and local wars, rapid response forces and
forces for peacekeeping operations, as well as the distribution of
resources for countering possible threats from the west, south and
east of the country. To make this a reality, the law On Budget
Classification needs to be revised.

In addition, the law On
Defense requires amending in order to legalize the institution of
civilian control over the Ministry of Defense. This proposal
includes the defense minister’s staff subordinated only to him and
capable of objectively assessing proposals coming from the
commanders of the armed forces and the General

It is also necessary to adopt a special law
that would considerably enhance the role of Russia’s Security
Council. The Council must not be just an advisory body to the
president, but a supradepartmental organization intended to analyze
the positions of the country’s defense and security agencies. It
would focus on coordinating the efforts of the security bodies in
implementing presidential and parliamentary security policy,
especially in areas where domestic and external problems and
challenges converge.

The possibility of
changing the high-level nuclear control system (Kazbek) with
reference to Russia’s political system, together with the
introduction of a law On the Succession of Supreme Command,
warrants consideration. This would establish the order in which
state officials, besides the president and the prime minister,
assume power in a war to decide on the use of nuclear

Finally, the government should strongly
encourage expert studies and listen to recommendations of
independent scientific and public organizations and individual
authoritative experts. Given free access to ample and trustworthy
information, they will be able to propose alternative approaches to
security problems, which would be free of departmental pressure.
Their efforts will help the president and parliament make the best
decisions on the long-term state strategy.