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Disarmament Diplomacy

Issue No. 10, November 1996

CIA doubts Russia nuclear security

On 22 October, the Washington Times published extracts from a classified report by the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) entitled Prospects for Unsanctioned Use of Russian Nuclear Weapons. The report, concluded in September, states that: "The Russian nuclear command and control system is being subjected to stress that it was not designed to withstand as a result of wrenching social change, economic hardship and malaise within the armed forces." The report concludes:

"Under normal circumstances the prospect of an unauthorised nuclear missile launch or a blackmail attempt using nuclear arms is low, despite continuing turmoil, political uncertainty and disarray in the armed forces... A severe political crisis, however, could exacerbate existing dissension and factionalization in the military, possibly heightening tensions between Russian political and military leaders and even splitting the general staff or nuclear commands..."

The Administration moved quickly to reduce concerns, with State Department spokesperson Nicholas Burns insisting on 22 October that "the Pentagon, the State Department and the White House all agree, having looked at this question very carefully, that...the Russian government has control over its nuclear weapons force and over the nuclear material in the Russian stockpile." At the Defense Department's daily briefing, spokesperson Kenneth Bacon maintained that "the Russian strategic rocket forces are probably their most elite, or among their most elite, forces. We believe that they're well-disciplined and well-commanded." Bacon added:

"...it's no secret that we're concerned about the custody of nuclear weapons everywhere in the world, including in the United States. This is an issue of grave concern to us. The Russian forces are also concerned about the security of nuclear weapons in Russia. And we think that they've taken prudent steps to keep the forces safe and secure."

Russian officials also responded quickly. On 23 October, a spokesperson for the government's National Centre for the Reduction of Nuclear Danger said simply: "There can be no doubt about the control over strategic missile forces." The same day, a spokesperson for the Atomic Energy Ministry, Georgy Nasonov, reasoned: "Russian and American specialists are working hand in hand in the field of military use of nuclear energy and our American colleagues have expressed no reservations." However, also on 23 October, Alexei Arbatov, the Deputy Head of the Duma's Defence Committee, was less dismissive, arguing:

"...the installations where nuclear weapons are stored, and the equipment, are getting older and need urgent modernisation. This really is a serious problem... In this sense there is a bit of truth in the report."

Reports: Russian nuclear safeguards weaker, says CIA, Reuter News Reports, 22 October; Remarks by Department of Defense spokesperson Kenneth Bacon, Federal News Service Transcript (reproduced with kind permission), 22 October; Russia rejects CIA over nuclear arms safety, Reuter News Reports, 23 October.

© 1999 The Acronym Institute.

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