Warheads and Soviet Chaos

September 1, 1991 Topic: Security Regions: RussiaEurasia Tags: Nuclear WeaponsSoviet UnionPostmodernismSociology

Warheads and Soviet Chaos

Mini Teaser: The attempted overthrow of Mikhail Gorbachev by a coalition of Soviet hardliners in August has heightened unease in the West about the control of Soviet nuclear weapons.

by Author(s): Mark Kramer

The attempted overthrow of Mikhail Gorbachev by a coalition of Soviet hardliners in August has heightened unease in the West about the control of Soviet nuclear weapons.  This unease has centered on two issues: 1. the possibility that the coup leaders could have ordered the launching of nuclear missiles, and 2. the prospect that growing ethnic turmoil could result in the seizure and use of nuclear weapons in outlying republics.

Anxiety about these matters is understandable.  The United States has an obvious stake in ensuring that Soviet nuclear weapons are not launched by unauthorized personnel.  Since the beginning of last year,  the [cm;1]cia[cm;0] has even been offering detailed advice on nuclear weapons security to [cm;1]kgb[cm;0] officials.  No doubt, those exchanges will increase now that the political climate in the Soviet Union has taken a decisive turn for the better.

Nevertheless, it is still worth asking whether most of the fears about the security of Soviet nuclear weapons are warranted.  Prudent concern is one thing; but undue alarm is quite another.

Soviet nuclear command practices have long included certain authorization codes to put weapons on higher alert, and a separate set of codes to initiate the launching, firing, and detonation.  Some of these codes reside with the national command authority, and another set are controlled by the Defense Ministry.  (The [cm;1]kgb[cm;0] traditionally served as a backup.)  Unless both sets of codes are implemented together in stages by authorized commanders, no weapons can be used.  At every stage, unauthorized actions will be thwarted either by technological safeguards or by the numerous officers responsible for carrying out the full procedures.  The mere possession of codes does not confer on the possessor either the authority or the ability to use nuclear weapons.

It is true that during the abortive coup, Soviet nuclear command authority was briefly confused, as certain authorization codes were apparently removed from Gorbachev's vicinity.  Nevertheless, contrary to some Western press reports, this confusion did not increase the risk of an unauthorized nuclear launch; just the opposite.  Because Soviet launching procedures are so complex and require such a precise sequence of combined actions, anything that would have disrupted those procedures would make it more, not less, difficult for the Soviet Union to use nuclear weapons.  Thus, the removal of the codes actually decreased the likelihood that Soviet missiles could be launched under any circumstances (even for such "authorized" purposes as retaliation against foreign attack).  It is not surprising that at no time during the crisis was there the slightest hint that any of the participants even remotely contemplated, much less attempted, the use of nuclear weapons.

The Bush administration confirmed that there "was never any concern about a nuclear threat of any kind" during the abortive coup, but the administration has been more circumspect about the notion that ethnic insurgents or breakaway republic governments could obtain a nuclear capability.  When William Webster stepped down as head of the [cm;1]cia[cm;0] in May, he warned that if events deteriorate further, the Soviet Union could dissolve into a group of nuclear powers.  Webster urged the U.S. intelligence community to "pay a lot of attention to the possibility that the central [Soviet] government will lose its control" over nuclear missiles in "areas of ethnic violence and rivalry."  This same threat has been cited by numerous other officials in both Washington and Moscow.

In reality, however, concerns about the emergence of "fifteen nuclear powers" are unwarranted.  Not only are most of these concerns technically ill-founded, but they have played into the hands of those within the Soviet Union who are determined to retain forcible control over independence-minded nationalities.

Indeed, the concern expressed by U.S. officials has done more harm than good.  Soviet military officers and Communist Party functionaries scoffed at these Western fears until they realized that the specter of nuclear proliferation could be used against ethnic minorities seeking independence.  Accordingly, even before the coup, hardline forces in Moscow took up the "fifteen nuclear powers" argument with gusto.  Last spring, Soviet Defense Minister Dmitri Yazov (who was later arrested for his part in the coup) referred ominously to "voices that are being raised for the transfer of nuclear weapons to individual republics."  The commander-in-chief of the Soviet Union's strategic missile forces, General Yuri Maksimov, issued dire warnings about the "unprecedented danger" that would ensue if the non-Slavic republics became independent.

In the same way, Soviet officials who tried to obtain many billions of dollars from the West earlier this year used the nuclear scenario to spur their prospective creditors into action.  Gorbachev conveyed this message in his pleas for economic assistance from the West, arguing that without aid, perestroika could collapse and bring "chaos" to the Soviet nuclear arsenal, which would be "a catastrophe not just for our country but for the whole world."  Similarly, in an article published in International Economy, Soviet economist Grigori Yavlinsky and one of Gorbachev's top advisers, Yevgeni Primakov, warned that if the West failed to provide large-scale subsidies, "dangerous  geopolitical problems" would ensue, including "a reduction of control over one of the world's largest nuclear potentials."

Essay Types: Essay