The Russian Nuclear Button

New questions about the Soviet legacy of three briefcases.

In the event of a nuclear missile attack on Russia, three hard-shell briefcases filled with electronics are set to alert their holders simultaneously. Inside each is a portable terminal, linked to the command and control network for Russia's strategic nuclear forces. One of them accompanies the Russian president, Dmitry Medvedev, wherever he goes. It is known as the Cheget, and allows the president to monitor a missile crisis, make decisions, and transmit those decisions to the military. It's similar to the nuclear "football" that accompanies the American president.

But a new book by a leading Russian security analyst points to a surprising disconnect in the system, a potential flaw that has not been widely understood. Under Russia's 1993 Constitution, the president is the commander in chief, and if incapacitated in any way, all of his duties fall to the prime minister. Yet the prime minister does not have a nuclear briefcase at his disposal. The other two Cheget briefcases are actually held by the defense minister and the chief of the general staff, as was the case in Soviet times. The resulting ambiguity, warns Alexei Arbatov, could be dangerous in the event of a nuclear crisis. In today's Russia, neither of the military men has the constitutional or legal responsibility to make a decision about how or whether to launch a nuclear attack. Certainly, they would be among the top advisors to the president at a time of crisis, but they are not decision-makers.

Why the danger? The United States and Russia still maintain nuclear-tipped missiles on alert for rapid launch. The land-based U.S. missiles can be ready to launch in four minutes. Warning of an imminent attack might require a president to make very rapid decisions with limited information. In such an emergency, whether in the White House or the Kremlin, you'd want very precise roles for each decision-maker, without ambiguity or uncertainty.

But it seems like there is still some uncertainty in Russia, where the command-and-control system is shrouded in secrecy, as it was in Soviet times. This makes it all the more interesting that Arbatov is airing his concerns in public. His critique is included in his new book, Uravnenie Bezopasnosti, or The Security Equation, just published in Moscow. The volume, in Russian, covers a wide range of security issues, from Europe to Iran, from nuclear terrorism to tactical nuclear weapons. His comments on the nuclear command and control system come in a chapter titled "Democracy, the military and nuclear weapons."

Arbatov, who heads the Center for International Security at the Institute of World Economy and International Relations in Moscow, is also a scholar in residence at the Carnegie Moscow Center and one of the foremost Russian analysts of strategic weapons and security issues. He has been a long-time member of the liberal Yabloko bloc, and in earlier years served in the lower house of parliament, the State Duma, where he was deputy chairman of the Duma defense committee.

Arbatov wants Russia to bring the nuclear weapons launch procedure -- the three briefcases -- in synch with the Russian Constitution. He wants to make sure it is the president and the prime minister who are making the big decision. He is a strong believer in the idea that democracy means civilian control over military affairs.

The Soviet Union created the current command and control system at the peak of the Cold War in the early 1980s. The three nuclear briefcases were put on duty just as Mikhail Gorbachev became Soviet leader in 1985. They are linked to a redundant network, called Kavkaz, made of cables, radio transmissions, and satellites. The three briefcases are essentially communications terminals to give those using them information about a possible attack, and allowing them to consult with each other. Initially, they were given to the Soviet general secretary, defense minister, and chief of the general staff because, in the Soviet system, the military has historically played a larger role in decisions about nuclear war.  If a nuclear launch were ordered, it would go from the Cheget to a receiving terminal called Baksan, located at the command posts of the General Staff, rocket forces, navy, and air force. The overall communications network is called Kazbek.

The Cheget does not by itself contain a nuclear button. Rather, it is a transmission system for permission to launch. The launch permission would be received by the military, and distributed by them to the proper branch of service and the weapons crews.

After the Soviet collapse, Arbatov notes, the system of the three briefcases was preserved intact, and handed over to Russia. Yet he points out the Soviet Union was a one-party totalitarian state, consisting of a single military-political leadership, while Russia chose to be a democracy. Arbatov insists that a democracy must have solid, guaranteed control of the political leadership over the most important of all decisions: the use of nuclear weapons. He notes that in the United States, the principle of civilian control is well established.

Arbatov raises some fundamental questions about the three briefcases. If they must all work together, he asks, then why are two of them given to the defense minister and chief of the general staff, who are not formally nuclear decision-makers? And if the briefcases don't work jointly, what is the difference between them? Could any single one be used to issue a launch order? Arbatov does not offer answers to these questions, saying there isn't reliable information from official sources. He points out that the three figures with briefcases are not equal: the president is commander in chief, by the Constitution; the defense minister reports to him, and the chief of the general staff to the defense minister.

Arbatov is particularly concerned about what happens if the president is incapacitated. The Russian Constitution clearly states, in Article 92, paragraph 3, that "In all cases when the president of the Russian Federation shall be unable to perform his duties such duties shall be temporarily performed by the chairman of the government of the Russian Federation," also known as the prime minister. If the president can't give a launch order, Arbatov says, his successor is the prime minister, not the defense minister or the chief of the general staff. Yet they are the ones with the Cheget briefcases.

In the history of the new Russia, Arbatov recalls, it is known the nuclear briefcase was handed to the prime minister when Boris Yeltsin underwent heart surgery in 1996. There are no other reported instances of a transfer. In Vladimir Putin's years as president, from 2000 to 2008, Arbatov reports, there is no public information that the briefcase was ever given to the prime minister while the president was out of the country. Even more than that, Arbatov laments, both president and prime minister are sometimes out of the country at the same time. Who, then, would make the decision about nuclear war, if they can't?

Arbatov's questions are particularly important now that Medvedev, the president, and Putin, the prime minister, seem to be sharing power. By Arbatov's reasoning, both Medvedev and Putin should have a nuclear briefcase. As it stands, Putin, who is often described as the real power in the dual structure, does not.

Given the fact that missiles are still on launch-ready alert, a weak link in the chain is not an isolated problem. If there's an ambiguity or uncertainty in the Russian components of command and control, it is a potential worry for the United States, too. Both countries are no longer Cold War rivals, poised to launch a first strike at the other, but they still must safely manage the devastating weaponry that is a legacy of that earlier era.

Arbatov says that Russia needs to sort all this out, including the question of succession if the president can't act. While one might assume the defense minister and chief of the general staff will always heed the will of the president, he warns that times can change. He asks how the three briefcases -- the "triple key" -- would function if the president is out of commission. It's not enough at that moment to rely on personal relationships, Arbatov insists. He calls for legislation to define the process more clearly --and then to give the Cheget briefcases to the right people. Arbatov had proposed such legislation several years ago when he was in the lower house of parliament, but it went nowhere.

This debate is not unique to Russia. In his 2004 book, Rise of the Vulcans: The History of Bush's War Cabinet, James Mann recounted how in the Reagan years, a plan was designed to sustain the U.S. government in the event of nuclear war. Three different teams would be sent from Washington to three different locations, and each would be prepared to proclaim a new American "president" and assume command of the country. Each time a team left Washington, it brought along a single member of Reagan's cabinet who was designated to serve as the next American "president." Some of them had little experience in national security. Mann wrote that the program was extralegal and extraconstitutional, establishing a process that was nowhere authorized in the U.S. Constitution or federal law.

Since the 9/11 attacks, there has been new attention to the issue. A panel was created, chaired by former senators Alan K. Simpson and David Pryor. The Continuity of Government Commission has issued a series of reports, identifying weaknesses, and uncertainties in the line of succession to the American president, especially in the event of a catastrophic attack that left several figures in the line of succession dead or incapacitated. The commission has made recommendations, but they have yet to be acted upon.

If the president of Russia were wiped out in an attack, Arbatov told me, Russia has no law in place defining a line of succession beyond the provision in the Constitution that the prime minister shall perform the president's duties.

Arbatov does not raise it, but in my book The Dead Hand, I describe a Soviet-era system for guaranteed retaliation to a nuclear attack. The system, put on combat duty in the 1980s, about the same time as the Cheget briefcases, is called Perimeter. In a doomsday scenario, if the leadership is wiped out and nuclear attack is underway, the decision about whether to launch nuclear missiles would fall to a group of surviving duty officers in a deep underground bunker. The system still exists. It is another bit of leftover business from the Cold War that ought not be neglected.



Kandahar Through the Taliban's Eyes

As the U.S.-led coalition attempts to retake Afghanistan's critical southern provinces, they should first attempt to look at the conflict from their enemies' perspective.

For U.S. President Barack Obama, ruminating about the course of the war in Afghanistan from Washington, the distant provinces of Helmand and Kandahar cannot be far from his mind. Winning back Afghanistan's critical southern heartland is the primary focus of the 46-country International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), which is surging its troop strength past the 100,000 mark. As if to highlight the allied forces' anxiety, this month U.S. commanders downgraded the Kandahar offensive to a "process."

Whatever you call it, shifting the locus of attention to Kandahar makes strategic sense. Kandahar city is the birthplace of the Islamist movement, considered even before the birth of the Taliban as the "Philadelphia of Afghanistan" for its central role in the creation of the modern state. Kandahar, once the capital city of 18th-century Afghanistan, has been swelled by an influx of refugees and is now the home of approximately 900,000 people.

With around 70 percent of the province's population, Kandahar city offers a unique development opportunity for ISAF to put its strategy of "population-centric warfare" into effect. By cracking down on the culture of impunity embodied by Afghanistan's warlords, re-engaging the Kabul-based government in the affairs of the provinces, and providing Kandahar with services such as electricity, a victory in Kandahar could be a "head-turning" moment in the campaign -- one that could shift the war's momentum.

As ISAF commanders prepare for this pivotal campaign, they should put themselves in the shoes of their enemies. The Taliban enjoy considerable advantages in the fight due to a lack of accountability and their ability to provide amenities to the local population that the government doesn't. To understand where the Taliban are coming from and therefore jump-start our thinking on how to counter these advantages, I propose a thought experiment: If I were a Taliban commander in Quetta, anticipating the Kandahar offensive from the other side of the battle lines, what would my hopes and fears be right now? What traps would I be setting for the ISAF? And what potential ISAF missteps might I be praying for?

Poor governance: As Taliban, we work hard to stir up resentment over Afghanistan's lack of progress, rampant corruption, and widening inequality since our fall from power in 2001. Corruption takes many forms, from backhanders to policemen at dozens of formal and informal checkpoints, drug trafficking, and nepotism in the big international security and construction contracts. Instead of taxes being paid to Kabul, Afghans are taxed continuously by those who themselves have to pay for their positions. The $50,000 it costs to become a police chief comes directly out of bribes imposed on the citizenry. It works the same way up and down the hierarchy of government. And it's music to my ears to hear that many of the key players are very closely related to each other, by marriage and by tribe, and to the bigwigs in Kabul. These webs of influence and corruption fuel opposition to government and provide support and recruits to our cause.

It is gratifying to watch ISAF ignore Afghans' complaints over their country's lack of governance and instead empower these warlords. These grievances were also key to our rise to power in the mid-1990s. I also realize that some Afghan warlords would like to perpetuate the conflict as long as possible because they are making huge sums of money from trucking, construction, and security contracts secured with ISAF. These are people who create their own demand. I smile when I hear them described by the international community as "local power brokers."

I hope that ISAF will continue wringing its hands as it tries to strike a balance between working with these warlords to improve security and getting them to clean up their act. My fear is that ISAF will find the means to control the warlords, getting them to clean up their act and invest their ill-gotten gains back into the community by stressing the importance of the government's legitimacy or, more aggressively, tracing and freezing their international bank accounts. Pashtun perceptions of the warlords' continued impunity and our links to the top of the Kabul power structure play right into my hands.

Kabul's disinterest: I am satisfied with Kabul's disinterest in the provinces' affairs. I was delighted to learn that only one Afghan government minister had visited Kandahar's neighboring province, Zabul, in the last 12 months -- and then for just two hours. I also enjoyed hearing Kandahar Governor Tooryalai Wesa complain: "I have never heard a minister cancel his trip to Europe. But they do so regularly to Kandahar. And then if they come, they only do so to [the ISAF base at] Kandahar Airfield for a few hours."

Grid problems: The international community has a gratifying habit of neglecting obvious solutions. As a Taliban commander, I thrive off the dissatisfaction this produces. I particularly relish hearing Afghans complain of the 85 factories forced to close in Kandahar because of a lack of electricity, and citizens' widespread complaints about the lack of street lighting and power in their homes. The darkness that shrouds the city at night encourages crime: These are, in fact, the very conditions that brought us to power in the 1990s.

Today, Kandahar city receives just enough electricity to give each citizen enough power to run a single light bulb for approximately six hours each day. A surge of electrical power would help create the conditions for businesses to take root and, by improving the quality of life, give locals a stake in defeating the Taliban. But for want of $100 million annually -- the cost of putting 100 U.S. troops in the theatre for a year -- three times more power has not been delivered. Even though international donors acknowledge the urgency of finding a short-term solution, we chuckle when we hear them balk at paying for diesel.

We were pleasantly surprised to hear that the U.S. government has opposed the electrification expansion program for Kandahar, in spite of the advice given by those working there. As Taliban, we think this is excellent news, for which we are very grateful to Washington. I am impressed that U.S. legislators can ignore the needs of their troops on the ground so easily. I wish I could do that.

Regional diplomacy: I certainly do not want ISAF and Pakistan to get their act together and remove us from our safe havens, and our diplomats, mujahideen, and mullahs work hard to prevent this. It amuses us that everyone knows of our safe houses in the border town of Chaman, in Pakistan's Baluchistan province, but appears powerless to act.

I am pleased that Afghans and Pakistanis cannot find the diplomatic common sense to allow even the simplest of exchanges, such as permitting each other's trucks to cross the border without having to transfer their shipments to other trucks. I would also be very unhappy if the Iranians began cooperating more with Kabul, bringing supplies to Afghanistan and helping to secure the Afghan-Iranian border. The more they argue with the Americans, the happier I am.

Army's reputation: I am displeased that the Afghan National Army is visibly growing in stature and professionalism. However, the fact that it is perceived as a Tajik, northern-dominated force alien to many southern Pashtuns is some consolation. I am more content that the Afghan National Police has a near-universal reputation as a corrupt, inefficient force, more likely to prey upon citizens than protect them.

My war plan: As a Taliban commander, I realize that I must fight ISAF using political, military, and economic means. My strategy is simple: exploit ISAF's weaknesses as a multinational force fraught with inter- and intragovernmental disagreements and undermine any sympathy it enjoys among Afghans.

Anything that makes ISAF unpopular helps me. I celebrate when its soldiers' lack of restraint causes civilian deaths. I smile when its convoys and the private security it employs cause delays and resentment on our roads.

As I survey the scene in Helmand and Kandahar, the last thing I would want is for ISAF to provide Kandahar city with electricity, crack down on corruption, and re-establish Kabul's relationship with its provinces. Above all, I hope that ISAF continues to ignore the factors that help the insurgency in what we too hope will be the pivotal confrontation in this long war.