Most people asssume that the end of the cold war has erased the risk of nuclear confrontation. But the break-up of the Soviet Union has actually increased the risk of accidental or "unauthorised" nuclear strikesby Christoph Bluth / December 20, 1998 / Leave a comment
Published in December 1998 issue of Prospect Magazine
For four decades the world lived in the shadow of nuclear war. But in the mind of the general public the threat has now receded out of sight; and the nuclear issue arouses little passion. This is at odds with the real situation.
The end of the cold war did mean the dismantling of conventional and nuclear confron-tation in Europe, but strategic nuclear arsenals have stayed largely intact, even after the disintegration of the Soviet Union. This will not fundamentally change, even when the strategic nuclear arms reduction treaties are implemented. Moreover, as Russia experiences severe dislocation, new dangers have arisen. As a result of the degradation of command and control systems, and of the decline in the protection and maintenance of weapons, the risk of an accidental nuclear strike is now much greater. The threat of unauthorised use of nuclear weapons has increased too-whether by rogue individuals or by disaffected soldiers.
The nuclear era’s theories of deterrence assumed that the two powers had their arsenals and military establishments under tight control. In Russia this is no longer true. During the cold war, the Soviet Union built about 50,000 nuclear weapons. This weapons complex is now a serious threat both to Russia and the world. As the Russian analyst Alexei Arbatov observed: “Whether the world will survive the break-up of a nuclear superpower still remains to be seen.”
Russia’s nuclear mess
In the final years of the Soviet Union there was a weakening of control over many sections of society, including the armed forces. As military units found themselves short of basic necessities, the practice of selling surplus military equipment became widespread. Even strategic rocket force (SRF) bases did not receive enough food; as a result, officers went on strike in at least one location. Entire surface-to-air missile complexes were abandoned without guard, so that anyone could have taken the missiles or any of their components.
But when considering the security of nuclear weapons in Russia, we must draw a distinction between strategic nuclear weapons and tactical nuclear weapons. Land-based strategic missiles are comparatively secure. Launch sites for intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) are heavily protected by passive defences such as barbed wire, electrified fences, minefields and other unknown facilities. The guards on duty have an order to kill anyone who does not respond to the first order to freeze. The forces defending the missile launch centres are said to be sufficient to deal with a large, well-organised attack.