Prospects for Unsanctioned Use of Russian Nuclear Weapons

September 1996

The Russian nuclear command and control system is being subjected to stresses it was not designed to withstand as a result of wrenching social change, economic hardship, and malaise within the armed forces.... despite official assurances, high-level Moscow officials are concerned about the security of their nuclear inventory.

Command posts of the Strategic Rocket Forces (SRF), the service in charge of nuclear missiles, and other units below the level of the general staff have the technical ability to launch without authorization of political leaders or the general staff.

Controls over tactical nuclear arms - battlefield nuclear arms and nuclear torpedoes - also are assessed to be poor. These appear to be the weapons most at risk.

Conspiracies within nuclear armed units to commit nuclear blackmail have become a concem as living conditions and morale have deteriorated in the military, even among elite nuclear submariners, nuclear warhead handlers, and SRF particularly nuclear units in the Far East where troop living conditions are particularly deplorable and where nuclear weapons might fall into the wrong hands.

One clear sign of the increased danger of unauthorized missile attacks is a new procedure set up by the Strategic Rocket Forces to report improper missile launches,

Blocking devices on all Russian strategic and many tactical nuclear weapons can be defeated. Given enough time, all technical [security] measures can ,,be circumvented - probably within weeks or days depending on the weapons involved.

Under normal circumstances the prospect of an unauthorized nuclear-missile launch or a blackmail attempt using nuclear arms is low, despite continuing turmoil, political uncertainty and disarray in the armed forces.

A severe political crisis, however, could exacerbate existing dissension and factionalization in the military, possibly heightening tensions between Russian political and military leaders and even splitting the general staff or nuclear commands.

Information about Moscow's nuclear control and release procedures is conflicting and incomplete.... ... some submarine crews probably have an autonomous launch capability for tactical nuclear weapons and might have the ability to employ SLBMs [submarine-launched ballistic missiles] as well.

The general staff, which holds all codes used to unlock nuclear weapons, remains conservative and historically has been at odds with political leaders.... Russian military writings still portray Western policies as hostile and ... Moscow's exercises have simulated short-warning nuclear attacks against Russian strategic forces and their supporting command structure

The Russian general staff, holding firm to its view of the United States as the enemy, might choose to launch a pre-emptive nuclear attack during an international crisis because of its diminished early-warning system and fears of a Western strike.

The general staff also has the full capability on its own to launch nuclear weapons without the authority of its two civilian command counterparts - Mr. Yeltsin and Defense Minister Igor Rodio nov, who each hold briefcases called "chegets" that authorize the use of nuclear weapons. Political authorities probably could neither execute a nuclear strike - even from a command post - without the cooperation of the general staff nor prevent the general staff (or perhaps some other national level command post) from launching on its own.

During the 1991 coup attempt in Moscow, the Russian GRU military intelligence facility in Cuba erroneously reported that US. strategic forces had gone to their highest readiness levels which could have prompted a pre-emptive Russian attack.

Moscow's potentially short fuse was evident in January 1995 when a Norwegian weather rocket triggered a tactical warning report that automatically activated President Yeltsin's cheget.

"Russian renegades Pose nuke danger CIA says arsenal lacks tight controls" By Bill Gertz THE WASHINGTON TIMES 22 October 1996 [italicized material is from this news report, apparently paraphrasing the original document -- other words are direct quotation]