Andrew L. Urban
Western leaders shrivelled in the face of an undefined threat of escalation by Vladimir Putin, as they tried to tailor their military assistance to Ukraine according to whatever Putin found acceptable. He has nukes! Yes, he has 1,588 nuclear warheads deployed and ready to use, out of a total of 5,997. But they are not slung around Putin’s waist like a cowboy’s gunbelt, ready to draw and pull the trigger.
Even in Putin’s authoritarian regime, there is a chain of command and set rules for the launch of a nuclear weapon, which involve senior military leaders. Some of them may not be as mad, bad and dangerous as Putin appears to be.
The rules first: according to Reuters Factbox there are four scenarios which could justify the use of Russian nuclear weapons.
1 – responding to nuclear weapons or weapons of mass destruction against Russia or its allies;
2 – the launch of ballistic missiles aimed at Russia or its allies;
3 – an attack against military facilities that undermine Russia’s nuclear response capabilities;
4 – use of conventional weapons against Russia “when the very existence of the state is in jeopardy”
Obviously, 1 and 2 are much the same thing: nuclear threat. All four rules are defensive. Russia has never used a nuclear weapon in war.
The Cheget is a small briefcase always within the President’s reach, but it does not contain a nuclear launch trigger. It contains facilities for the President to securely transmit launch orders to the military central command. Here, the General Staff has access to the launch codes, sending individual weapons commanders to execute launch procedures. The attack instructions need to be set out in precise detail as to target or targets, timing and nuclear load (how big).
The threat was delivered by Putin in a theatrical gesture, the ‘High Alert’ order. The threat generated the required headlines: “Russian nuclear forces placed on high alert” but in reality it was a hoax, dressed in the language of a propagandist. Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu told Putin that “shifts on duty at the command posts of the Strategic Missile Forces, the Northern and Pacific Fleets, and the Long-Range Aviation Command began to carry out combat duty with reinforced personnel,” Interfax quoted the ministry as saying.
The phrase enhanced, or special combat duty does not appear in Russia’s nuclear doctrine, leaving military experts puzzled over what it might mean.
As Reuters reported, Pavel Podvig, a senior researcher at the United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research in Geneva, said on Twitter that the order might have activated Russia’s nuclear command and control system, essentially opening communication channels for any eventual launch order. Alternatively, he said it might just mean the Russians added staff to their nuclear facilities.
It actually meant nothing more than ‘let’s scare ‘em off’’.
Turning to the chain of command, this is where Putin’s order for a nuclear attack – in response to a no-fly zone over Ukraine, for instance – would most likely be sabotaged and result in his demise (one way or another).
As the strike order is initiated, it passes through a group of enabling military personnel – the first opportunity for it to be sabotaged. If this happens, the back-up system, Perimetr, enables the General Staff to directly initiate the launch of land based missiles, bypassing all immediate command posts.
But the General Staff is comprised of military whose self interest is no less alert than their subordinates’ – and who are well aware of the consequences of an unjustifiable nuclear attack – or attempt at one.
What is more scary than Putin’s empty nuclear threat is the lack of meaningful analysis by the key Western leaders to deconstruct it and to thus disarm it. That is behind the failure to provide an effective counter attack to protect Ukraine.
It comes as a further capitulation after the US and the UK ignored the provisions of the 1994 Budapest Memorandum, which they signed, along with the Russian Federation, when Ukraine divested its nuclear weapons to the Russians. It clearly obliges all the signatories to protect Ukraine. Of its six articles, three are especially relevant:
1 – to respect the Independence and Sovereignty and the existing borders of Ukraine.
2 – obligation to refrain from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of Ukraine, and that none of their weapons will ever be used against Ukraine except in self-defense or otherwise in accordance with the Charter of the United Nations.
3 – will consult in the event a situation arises which raises a question concerning these commitments
The Russian Federation’s violation of this agreement does in no way negate the validity of the agreement on the other parties to it.
Andrew L. Urban is the co-author (with Chris McLeod) of the forthcoming book, Zelensky – the unlikely Ukrainian hero who defied Putin and united the world (Wilkinson).