The Russian Nuclear Button

New questions about the Soviet legacy of three briefcases.


In the event of a nuclear missile attack on Russia, three hard-shell briefcases filled with electronics are set to alert their holders simultaneously. Inside each is a portable terminal, linked to the command and control network for Russia’s strategic nuclear forces. One of them accompanies the Russian president, Dmitry Medvedev, wherever he goes. It is known as the Cheget, and allows the president to monitor a missile crisis, make decisions, and transmit those decisions to the military. It’s similar to the nuclear "football" that accompanies the American president.

But a new book by a leading Russian security analyst points to a surprising disconnect in the system, a potential flaw that has not been widely understood. Under Russia’s 1993 Constitution, the president is the commander in chief, and if incapacitated in any way, all of his duties fall to the prime minister. Yet the prime minister does not have a nuclear briefcase at his disposal. The other two Cheget briefcases are actually held by the defense minister and the chief of the general staff, as was the case in Soviet times. The resulting ambiguity, warns Alexei Arbatov, could be dangerous in the event of a nuclear crisis. In today’s Russia, neither of the military men has the constitutional or legal responsibility to make a decision about how or whether to launch a nuclear attack. Certainly, they would be among the top advisors to the president at a time of crisis, but they are not decision-makers.

Why the danger? The United States and Russia still maintain nuclear-tipped missiles on alert for rapid launch. The land-based U.S. missiles can be ready to launch in four minutes. Warning of an imminent attack might require a president to make very rapid decisions with limited information. In such an emergency, whether in the White House or the Kremlin, you’d want very precise roles for each decision-maker, without ambiguity or uncertainty.

But it seems like there is still some uncertainty in Russia, where the command-and-control system is shrouded in secrecy, as it was in Soviet times. This makes it all the more interesting that Arbatov is airing his concerns in public. His critique is included in his new book, Uravnenie Bezopasnosti, or The Security Equation, just published in Moscow. The volume, in Russian, covers a wide range of security issues, from Europe to Iran, from nuclear terrorism to tactical nuclear weapons. His comments on the nuclear command and control system come in a chapter titled "Democracy, the military and nuclear weapons."

Arbatov, who heads the Center for International Security at the Institute of World Economy and International Relations in Moscow, is also a scholar in residence at the Carnegie Moscow Center and one of the foremost Russian analysts of strategic weapons and security issues. He has been a long-time member of the liberal Yabloko bloc, and in earlier years served in the lower house of parliament, the State Duma, where he was deputy chairman of the Duma defense committee.

Arbatov wants Russia to bring the nuclear weapons launch procedure — the three briefcases — in synch with the Russian Constitution. He wants to make sure it is the president and the prime minister who are making the big decision. He is a strong believer in the idea that democracy means civilian control over military affairs.

The Soviet Union created the current command and control system at the peak of the Cold War in the early 1980s. The three nuclear briefcases were put on duty just as Mikhail Gorbachev became Soviet leader in 1985. They are linked to a redundant network, called Kavkaz, made of cables, radio transmissions, and satellites. The three briefcases are essentially communications terminals to give those using them information about a possible attack, and allowing them to consult with each other. Initially, they were given to the Soviet general secretary, defense minister, and chief of the general staff because, in the Soviet system, the military has historically played a larger role in decisions about nuclear war.  If a nuclear launch were ordered, it would go from the Cheget to a receiving terminal called Baksan, located at the command posts of the General Staff, rocket forces, navy, and air force. The overall communications network is called Kazbek.

The Cheget does not by itself contain a nuclear button. Rather, it is a transmission system for permission to launch. The launch permission would be received by the military, and distributed by them to the proper branch of service and the weapons crews.

After the Soviet collapse, Arbatov notes, the system of the three briefcases was preserved intact, and handed over to Russia. Yet he points out the Soviet Union was a one-party totalitarian state, consisting of a single military-political leadership, while Russia chose to be a democracy. Arbatov insists that a democracy must have solid, guaranteed control of the political leadership over the most important of all decisions: the use of nuclear weapons. He notes that in the United States, the principle of civilian control is well established.

Arbatov raises some fundamental questions about the three briefcases. If they must all work together, he asks, then why are two of them given to the defense minister and chief of the general staff, who are not formally nuclear decision-makers? And if the briefcases don’t work jointly, what is the difference between them? Could any single one be used to issue a launch order? Arbatov does not offer answers to these questions, saying there isn’t reliable information from official sources. He points out that the three figures with briefcases are not equal: the president is commander in chief, by the Constitution; the defense minister reports to him, and the chief of the general staff to the defense minister.

Arbatov is particularly concerned about what happens if the president is incapacitated. The Russian Constitution clearly states, in Article 92, paragraph 3, that "In all cases when the president of the Russian Federation shall be unable to perform his duties such duties shall be temporarily performed by the chairman of the government of the Russian Federation," also known as the prime minister. If the president can’t give a launch order, Arbatov says, his successor is the prime minister, not the defense minister or the chief of the general staff. Yet they are the ones with the Cheget briefcases.

In the history of the new Russia, Arbatov recalls, it is known the nuclear briefcase was handed to the prime minister when Boris Yeltsin underwent heart surgery in 1996. There are no other reported instances of a transfer. In Vladimir Putin’s years as president, from 2000 to 2008, Arbatov reports, there is no public information that the briefcase was ever given to the prime minister while the president was out of the country. Even more than that, Arbatov laments, both president and prime minister are sometimes out of the country at the same time. Who, then, would make the decision about nuclear war, if they can’t?

Arbatov’s questions are particularly important now that Medvedev, the president, and Putin, the prime minister, seem to be sharing power. By Arbatov’s reasoning, both Medvedev and Putin should have a nuclear briefcase. As it stands, Putin, who is often described as the real power in the dual structure, does not.

Given the fact that missiles are still on launch-ready alert, a weak link in the chain is not an isolated problem. If there’s an ambiguity or uncertainty in the Russian components of command and control, it is a potential worry for the United States, too. Both countries are no longer Cold War rivals, poised to launch a first strike at the other, but they still must safely manage the devastating weaponry that is a legacy of that earlier era.

Arbatov says that Russia needs to sort all this out, including the question of succession if the president can’t act. While one might assume the defense minister and chief of the general staff will always heed the will of the president, he warns that times can change. He asks how the three briefcases — the "triple key" — would function if the president is out of commission. It’s not enough at that moment to rely on personal relationships, Arbatov insists. He calls for legislation to define the process more clearly –and then to give the Cheget briefcases to the right people. Arbatov had proposed such legislation several years ago when he was in the lower house of parliament, but it went nowhere.

This debate is not unique to Russia. In his 2004 book, Rise of the Vulcans: The History of Bush’s War Cabinet, James Mann recounted how in the Reagan years, a plan was designed to sustain the U.S. government in the event of nuclear war. Three different teams would be sent from Washington to three different locations, and each would be prepared to proclaim a new American "president" and assume command of the country. Each time a team left Washington, it brought along a single member of Reagan’s cabinet who was designated to serve as the next American "president." Some of them had little experience in national security. Mann wrote that the program was extralegal and extraconstitutional, establishing a process that was nowhere authorized in the U.S. Constitution or federal law.

Since the 9/11 attacks, there has been new attention to the issue. A panel was created, chaired by former senators Alan K. Simpson and David Pryor. The Continuity of Government Commission has issued a series of reports, identifying weaknesses, and uncertainties in the line of succession to the American president, especially in the event of a catastrophic attack that left several figures in the line of succession dead or incapacitated. The commission has made recommendations, but they have yet to be acted upon.

If the president of Russia were wiped out in an attack, Arbatov told me, Russia has no law in place defining a line of succession beyond the provision in the Constitution that the prime minister shall perform the president’s duties.

Arbatov does not raise it, but in my book The Dead Hand, I describe a Soviet-era system for guaranteed retaliation to a nuclear attack. The system, put on combat duty in the 1980s, about the same time as the Cheget briefcases, is called Perimeter. In a doomsday scenario, if the leadership is wiped out and nuclear attack is underway, the decision about whether to launch nuclear missiles would fall to a group of surviving duty officers in a deep underground bunker. The system still exists. It is another bit of leftover business from the Cold War that ought not be neglected.

 Twitter: @thedeadhandbook

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