U.S., Russian Officials Voice Confidence In Russian Control of Nuclear Forces


Craig Cerniello

IN RECENT MONTHS, there has been renewed controversy about the state of Russia's nuclear command and control system. Uncertainty about the safety and security of the Russian nuclear arsenal emerged in early February when then-Defense Minister Igor Rodionov made the startling announcement that Russia could no longer guarantee that its nuclear command and control system was reliable. Although Rodionov subsequently backed away from this statement, concern flared again in mid-May when excerpts from a leaked CIA report questioning Russia's nuclear control appeared in The Washington Times—the same day Rodionov arrived in Washington for high-level talks.

These concerns were promptly refuted by several high-level U.S. and Russian government officials, including U.S. Secretary of Defense William Cohen and Rodionov. In late May, Russian President Boris Yeltsin replaced Rodionov with General Igor Sergeyev, then-commander-in-chief of the Russian Strategic Rocket Forces, as the new defense minister. This appointment takes on added significance not only because Sergeyev has consistently stated that the command and control of the Russian nuclear arsenal is safe and reliable but also because he has been a strong supporter of START II, which continues to languish in the Duma (the lower house of the Russian parliament).


The Controversy Emerges

In a February 6 news conference, Rodionov painted a dire picture as to the state of Russia's nuclear and armed forces. In what many observers believe may have been an attempt to generate support for increased funding, Rodionov warned that "Russia might soon reach the threshold beyond which its missiles and nuclear systems cannot be controlled." Even though Rodionov scaled down his comments the following day, renewed interest in the safety and security of the Russian nuclear arsenal quickly developed.

In order to put these concerns to rest, Yeltsin ordered Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin to visit the command and control center of the Russian Strategic Rocket Forces located outside Moscow. After visiting the center on February 21, Chernomyrdin, who was accompanied by Rodionov and Sergeyev, said the Strategic Rocket Forces are in "reliable hands" and "are capable of effectively carrying out all tasks entrusted to them." Then, in a March 17 briefing to Yeltsin, Rodionov reported that Russia's nuclear command and control system "answers all demands" and is "reliable and stable"—a clear shift in his earlier position.


The CIA Report

Despite these assurances, concerns about Russia's nuclear command and control system did not disappear. On May 12, the day Rodionov arrived in Washington for meetings with Cohen and other U.S. officials, The Washington Times published excerpts from a classified CIA report that calls into question the safety and security of the Russian nuclear arsenal. Citing a former officer of the Strategic Rocket Forces, the report said, "[c]ommand and control equipment often malfunctions and on more than one occasion has switched spontaneously to combat mode."

Nevertheless, according to the article, the CIA continues to believe that the risk of an unauthorized Russian nuclear launch is low under "normal circumstances," especially because "many safeguards" exist to prevent such an occurrence. The CIA report contends that the switching of nuclear missiles to combat mode "would not necessarily result in an unauthorized missile launch" because other steps are also required, such as supplying missiles with the necessary targeting information. However, the report cautioned that if the command and control system continues to deteriorate due to funding shortfalls and lack of proper maintenance, then concerns about an unauthorized Russian missile launch will increase.

U.S. and Russian government officials immediately addressed these concerns. In a May 12 background briefing, a senior Defense Department official argued that there is no credible evidence suggesting that the risk of an unauthorized or accidental Russian launch "has been raised." That same day, State Department spokesman Nicholas Burns said, "We believe that nuclear weapons in Russia remain under the secure and centralized control of the Russian government." Burns also pointed to the success of the Defense Department's Cooperative Threat Reduction (CTR) Program, which assists Russia in the dismantlement and secure storage of nuclear weapons, as well as to the START agreements, which make the control of nuclear weapons more feasible by reducing their numbers.

Cohen and Rodionov concurred with this sentiment during their joint news conference on May 13. Cohen said that based on his conversations with Rodionov and General Eugene Habiger, the commander-in-chief of U.S. Strategic Command, Russia's strategic nuclear forces "are under secure control" and that the sides should focus on achieving Russian ratification of START II followed by negotiations of START III. In addition, Rodionov dismissed the Times story and said Russia "will do everything possible to ensure that the safety and protection of [its] nuclear arsenals would never decrease."


Yeltsin Sacks Rodionov

Clearly dissatisfied with the state of the Russian armed forces and the pace of military reforms, Yeltsin fired Rodionov on May 22 and appointed Sergeyev as the acting defense minister. This appointment is especially significant because Sergeyev has been a consistent advocate of the START process. Furthermore, Sergeyev will have substantial credibility with the Duma because, as the former head of the Strategic Rocket Forces, he can convincingly argue that START II is in Russia's national security interests. There also was speculation by some U.S. and Russian observers that Rodionov's support for START II was only lukewarm at best.

Sergeyev has repeatedly maintained that Russia's nuclear command and control system is safe and reliable. In a recent interview with Moskovskaya Pravda conducted before his appointment as defense minister, Sergeyev refuted the comments made by Rodionov earlier this year. Sergeyev said the command and control system of Russia's Strategic Rocket Forces is "under strict control" and that the present system "guarantees a very high level of nuclear security, which excludes not only unsanctioned launches, but all unsanctioned activity as well." Sergeyev also argued that the Strategic Rocket Forces today are "in the same state of combat readiness as they were 10 years ago."