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Russia's Dangerous Nuclear Arsenal

by Mario Seiglie Estimated reading time: 7 minutes. Posted on 3-Oct-1999
In some ways the world is closer to nuclear conflict than in the 1950s and '60s. Then, at least, the Soviet nuclear forces were under tight control and the military was well paid.

“Russian military officers stared wide-eyed at the glowing image on their radar screens: an incoming missile on course to hit Moscow in 15 minutes ... One buzz went to the three nuclear code briefcases assigned to President Boris Yeltsin and his top two military officials. The officer carrying Yeltsin’s case rushed to the President and flipped it open. On an electronic map inside, they saw a bright dot over the Norwegian Sea. Beneath the map was a row of buttons, offering a menu of attack options on targets in the U.S. On military bases across Russia, red lights flashed and horns blared, alerting the troops in charge of the country’s strategic nuclear weapons to get ready to use them.”

This may sound like another plot out of a Hollywood blockbuster, but it isn’t. It really happened on Jan. 25, 1995. Then why are we still alive?

“Yeltsin and his military commanders, linked by phone, waited to hear whether an attack had been confirmed. About 12 minutes after the mystery missile soared onto the radar screens, military analysts could see that it was not heading for Russian territory. It turned out to be a Norwegian scientific rocket sent aloft to observe the aurora borealis. The Norwegians had dutifully notified the Russian embassy in Oslo, but the word was never relayed to the military. ‘For a while,’ says Sergei Yushenkov, a member of the Russian parliament’s Defense Committee, ‘the world was on the brink of nuclear war’ ” (Newsweek, “Nuclear Disarray” (May 19, 1997).

Mix-ups Common

In light of this scenario, Russia’s December announcement that, in spite of its precarious financial condition it intended to deploy the Topol-M, should cause the world serious concern. The Topol-M is a powerful new intercontinental ballistic missile.

U.S. News & World Report asked in a headline, “Just When You Thought You Were Safe ... Could a False Alarm Still Start a Nuclear War?” (Feb. 10, 1997).

Conditions leading to the possibility of potentially catastrophic mix-ups are becoming more prevalent. The Newsweek article reports that, because of the lack of maintenance of their nuclear arsenal, “the Russians might wrongly think they were under attack from the West and fire their rockets. This danger has greatly increased because the Russian early-warning system is not what it used to be. It has lost major radar stations in the new nations of Ukraine, Latvia and others. Some of its satellite-tracking stations have gone to Ukraine, Georgia and Kazakhstan. The high command is now partially blind, which increases its apprehensions, produces false alarms and makes good decisions harder.”

The U.S. News article describes human mistakes bringing us to the brink of disaster not once, but several times: “Human error is more than a theoretical concern. In the Norwegian case, Moscow had been notified in advance of the launch, but no one thought to pass word to senior military officials. In more than one instance, real launch orders have been transmitted by mistake during American nuclear training exercises. And in 1979, the inadvertent introduction of training data into the NORAD [North American Aerospace Defense] early warning system computer mimicked a large Soviet attack. Soviet leaders got the same treatment in 1983, as a solar storm duped early warning satellites into indicating a massive U.S. attack.”

Defense Minister Igor Rodinov goes even further in the Newsweek article: “Last year [1996], the nuclear strategic forces received 10.5 percent of the funds needed for maintenance. The result, he predicts, is that, ‘We may lose the entire system.’ The links between radar and headquarters, the computer management of missiles and the physical security of the warheads could all break down.”

To add to their woes, troops of the Strategic Nuclear Forces (SNF) are earning an average of $100 to $200 a month—when they are paid. The same article reports, “One major, who has served 24 years in the SNF and will retire in six months, did not see a paycheck for four months.” Another officer commented: “We’re living in poverty. That’s all you need to know.”

The Newsweek article concludes: “The potential is there for some form of nuke-napping—grabbing weapons for ransom or nuclear blackmail—or sales to rogue states or terrorists, or unauthorized launches by renegade commanders. Some Russians even fret about a nuclear civil war. If a region in Siberia were to declare its independence, a retired senior officer in Moscow speculates, ‘The entire missile force in the area might cut itself off from the chain of command and control and get re-programmed to be able to launch at will.’”

False Sense of Security

Meanwhile, the world is being lulled into thinking everything is peachy when it’s not. Another Newsweek article, from June 2, 1997, mentioned the mood in the United States: “The country has rarely felt so secure from the threat of war. The bomb silos on the Great Plains are on their way to becoming curious museums; to today’s children, the three little triangles that denote bomb shelters might as well be an odd form of teenage graffiti” (page 4).

Yet, in some ways, we are closer to nuclear war than we were in the 1950s and ’60s. Then, at least, the nuclear forces were well controlled and well paid. At that time only two superpowers were eyeing each other. Now a host of nations could detonate nuclear bombs. Russia still has an estimated 22,000 nuclear warheads and the United States 12,000. Last year was a bad one for Russia’s economy, and the troops have not seen their lot improved.

On the other hand, breakdowns in the strategic nuclear system were so alarming in 1997 that, at the urgings of Americans, some improvements took place in 1998 to increase the security of the nuclear arsenal. “Not all the news from Moscow is bad,” reports Newsweek. “Russia has sharply upgraded security at more than 30 sites containing fissile material” (May 25, 1998).

Yet many problems remain. How long will the underfed and underpaid forces go on without something giving? What about deficient radar systems? Will they continue to deteriorate as funds become scarcer? No one knows, but the dangers of mix-ups, accidents or thefts are real.

Nuclear Threats

Some think that, since Russia’s warheads are no longer targeted at U.S. cities and military bases (and the United States is trying to persuade China to adopt a similar policy), the world is much safer. But this is simply not true. The difference between having missiles aimed or not is simply a matter of a minutes. The missiles’ computer memory retains their former targets, and they can quickly be reprogrammed.

As long as Russia remains unstable economically and politically, a distinct military threat exists, especially because Russian possesses such a large nuclear arsenal. The rest of the world cannot breathe a sigh of relief, particularly America.

Based on recent developments, it appears the world’s dangerous nuclear arsenal will continue to spread, especially as other nations, including India and Pakistan, join the nuclear club. Only recently the United States announced it would upgrade and modernize its nuclear missile systems so they would be in optimum condition beyond the year 2025. In spite of its economic weakness, Russia, along with other nations of the nuclear club, will attempt to do the same.

As we stand poised to enter the 21st century, the world remains dangerously overstocked with high-tech nuclear weapons, and they will be an even greater threat as less-stable and more-radical powers gain access to the technology.

Jesus Christ’s prophecy in Matthew 24:22 seems especially sobering when we consider the threat facing our generation and the next: “And unless those days were shortened, no flesh would be saved ...”

Our disregard of the continuing nuclear threat also brings to mind another warning by Jesus Christ: Don’t assume the world is safe when it is not. He tells us to beware of the attitude that will prevail among mankind shortly before God’s intervention in human affairs:

“But take heed to yourselves, lest your hearts be weighed down with carousing, drunkenness, and cares of this life, and that Day come on you unexpectedly. For it will come as a snare on all those who dwell on the face of the whole earth. Watch therefore, and pray always that you may be counted worthy to escape all these things that will come to pass, and to stand before the Son of Man” (Luke 21:34-36).

Conditions are not really improving on the nuclear front, especially as other nations such as Iran, Iraq and Libya strive to join the nuclear club. Governments and military planners are rightly worry about terrorist groups gaining access to nuclear technology and material. This is not the time to be lulled into a false sense of security. GN

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