Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Report Says Premier To Get Nuclear Key

With uncertainty hanging over whether and how President Boris Yeltsin will formally give up control Russia's nuclear arsenal when he goes under the surgeon's knife at the end of the month, Russian television has devised its own most likely scenario for what will happen to the "nuclear button."

NTV's "Itogi" program, citing Kremlin sources, reported Sunday that the president, immediately prior to his heart bypass operation, will sign a decree giving the "nuclear button" to Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin.

As soon as he regains consciousness, Yeltsin will sign another decree taking back control over the nuclear trigger, the program said. Yeltsin aides have said the president still has not decided what to do with the nuclear button but have said he may only give up power for a matter of hours.

According to the NTV report, about 30 people from the Defense Ministry and secret services are involved in handling the "nuclear button," including one official who is always at Yeltsin's side.

"Details change all the time, but not the man who carries the case with the 'nuclear button'," NTV said. "If you want to see him, look out for an officer in a black navy uniform following the president wherever he goes."

The "button" is actually a system made up of several components. One is the "nuclear suitcase," which includes the codes containing the political authorization for launching nuclear missiles and a PC/modem-like device for transmitting those codes.

"That apparatus is actually higher-tech than the U.S. system," said Bruce Blair, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C. "We have basically given the president and his successors a little card that has the codes on it that are just read out over voice lines to the Pentagon. During the attempted assassination of [U.S. President Ronald] Reagan, that little code card was actually fought over by the Secret Service and the FBI."

"This [U.S.] code card has sort of gone to the laundry by mistake," joked Blair.

Russia's command-and-control system also includes communications equipment designed for emergency voice conferences among the president and the top leaders of the military in Russia. This equipment was apparently used in January 1995, when Yeltsin reported "linking up" with then-defense minister Pavel Grachev to track a U.S. scientific research missile launched from Norway which Yeltsin said tripped Russian early warning systems.

Portable command-and-control systems are kept in reserve for potential successors to the president, like the prime minister and the defense minister, said Blair.

Thus when Yeltsin is operated on, he said, "Chernomyrdin is unlikely to actually get Yeltsin's equipment. His own equipment system and suitcase will presumably be activated while Yeltsin's is deactivated."

But while it is the president or his successor who transmits the political command for a missile launch, it is the Russian General Staff that possesses the codes necessary to actually "unlock" the weapons for firing.

"The 'nuclear button' ... transmits presidential sanction for a use of nuclear weapons to command centers where General Staff officers are on duty around the clock," Alexei Arbatov, deputy chairman of the State Duma's defense committee, told "Itogi." Once the General Staff officers verify the authenticity of the order, they transmit their own codes to land-based missile sites and submarines, which are installed into the missiles' guidance computers.

In the final step, said Arbatov, the "launch keys are turned and the missiles blast off." The launch codes are kept in the General Staff headquarters in Moscow, as well as in two command-and-control centers -- one in Chekov, south of Moscow, the other in the Urals Mountains. If Russia's leadership were "decapitated" in a surprise nuclear strike -- or the president's nuclear button system deactivated, as happened to Mikhail Gorbachev during the August 1991 putsch -- a launch could be authorized by the defense minister in consultation with the chief of the General Staff, or, in the absence of the defense minister, by the General Staff itself.

"If the president is not available or something, the general staff can go it alone," said Pavel Felgenhauer, defense correspondent for the daily Segodnya.

Thus, while the president and his immediate successors are not technically essential to a launch, there is the theoretical danger that someone with access to the general staff headquarters could unleash an unauthorized attack.

During the abortive parliamentary uprising of October 1993, said Felgenhauer, there was some fear that one of Yeltsin's political opponents would get a finger on the button.

"The only time they were really nervous, I understand, was in the late evening of Oct. 3, when the General Staff building was surrounded by pro-Communist rebels," he said.