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."

All these Soviet warnings were little more than disingenuous attempts to exploit the anxieties--and pocketbooks--of Western governments and publics.  There are real dangers stemming from instability in the Soviet Union, but the emergence of "fifteen nuclear powers" is not one of them.  The likelihood that a separatist group would ever capture a nuclear weapon is virtually zero; and the possibility that such a group, if it could capture a nuclear weapon, would actually be able to use it is, for all practical purposes, non-existent.

The Lay of the Land

Until recently, the Soviet Union's nuclear arsenal, totaling some 33,000 weapons, was scattered among all fifteen republics.  But the geographical distribution of these weapons was always uneven.  Except for two [cm;1]ss[cm;0]-18 missile fields located in northern Kazakhstan, all Soviet long-range strategic missiles have been based entirely in the three Slavic republics--Russia, Byelorussia, and the Ukraine.  None of these republics has yet been the site of violent ethnic unrest.  Although the Ukraine has now embarked on the road to independence, republic officials have indicated that they have no intention of laying claim to the nuclear weapons on their soil.  Instead, all such weapons will either be eliminated or transferred to Russian territory.  As for Kazakhstan, the area around the missile fields is inhabited mainly by ethnic Russians, and most of the [cm;1]ss-[cm;0]18s in that republic are due to be eliminated under the newly completed Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty.

Nuclear munitions based in the other non-Slavic republics, where unrest has often flared up, have been deployed either on bombers or on short-range, tactical weapons, not on strategic missiles that can strike the United States.  The distinction between the two types of weapons is important.  Soviet strategic missiles are maintained at a high level of combat readiness, and are therefore always deployed with operational nuclear warheads.  Soviet tactical weapons, by contrast, are normally maintained at a low level of readiness, and can be deployed without their nuclear payloads if necessary.  The warheads, in that case, are stored separately at secure locations until needed during a severe crisis or in wartime.

If nuclear warheads were actually still present on Soviet tactical weapons, the capture of one or more of these weapons by insurgents would be of some propaganda value (though how much is uncertain).  Reports surfaced in January 1990 that a group of Azerbaijani nationalists had attacked a Soviet nuclear depot near Baku, and that the assault had been swiftly rebuffed.  Whether these reports were accurate is as yet unclear, but even if they were, the important thing is that the attempted seizure was easily thwarted.

Since that time, Soviet leaders have been acutely aware of the risk that another, better-armed group of separatists might try to attack a nuclear weapons site.  As a result, numerous steps have been taken to ensure that the danger never materializes.  In the spring of 1990, Soviet troops began removing nuclear munitions from the most turbulent republics--the Baltics and the Transcaucasus--and keeping them under very close guard on Russian territory.  The Soviet government also has significantly bolstered the size and weaponry of elite [cm;1]kgb[cm;0] units that protect all remaining nuclear weapon installations.  The chance that a tactical nuclear weapon could be captured by insurgents is now virtually nil--the warheads have been removed from the areas of greatest concern and the weapons left are heavily guarded and could easily and quickly be transported out.

The relocation of nuclear warheads would be reason enough for skepticism about predictions that Soviet nuclear weapons will "end up in the hands of rebels."  But for the sake of argument, suppose that--unlikely though it may be--something went wrong and a separatist group did capture a nuclear weapon.  Would they be able to use it?

Precise information about Soviet nuclear weapon design practices is unavailable, so the answer to this question cannot be absolute.  (Once upon a time, the best means of keeping track of Soviet design practices was through detailed analysis of fallout and debris from Soviet nuclear tests; but that has been impossible since 1963, when atmospheric nuclear testing was proscribed by the Limited Test Ban Treaty.)  Nevertheless, based on what we do know about Soviet weapons design--which is more than most people suspect--the answer is overwhelmingly no.

Essay Types: Essay