January 6, 1998
How is Russia adjusting to changes in its nuclear arsenal? A postscript on the issues facing people in charge of nuclear weapons in Russia. Lawrence McDonnell of Independent Television News reports.
LAWRENCE McDONNELL, ITN: Deep in a secret bunker outside Moscow a division of Russia's strategic defense force go through the drill in the event of a nuclear attack. The bunker is sealed and officers initiate the command sequence to respond to missiles launched against targets across the Russian federation. The unit is self-contained and can operate for two months as the country engages in a nuclear war. No one believes it will be needed for that long. In the freezing waters of the Berens Sea Russians northern fleet launched some of the most powerful missiles this country has ever produced. But the exercise was designed not to show the awesome fire power of Russia's strategic forces, rather to prove to the world it is working towards further disarmament. The missiles were launched and destroyed. Part of the weapons reduction program, Start II, agreed with the United States. And far from holding out on disarmament, Boris Yeltsin has been seizing the initiative. To the surprise of world leaders in Paris this summer he promised to unilaterally destroy hundreds of nuclear warheads. His spokesman quickly explained the president meant re-target weapons.
But this and other off-the-cuff declarations by the Russian leader are raising serious doubts about the control of this country's nuclear arsenal. Wherever Boris Yeltsin goes he's followed by an officer carrying a briefcase holding the launch codes for Russia's nuclear arsenal. The President is determined to keep the nuclear button within his grasp. On the recent anniversary of his heart operation he talked of his frustration at giving up the briefcase to his prime minister while he was under anesthetic. Too weak to talk, still he desperately wanted it back.
PRESIDENT BORIS YELTSIN, Russian Federation: (speaking through interpreter) I wanted to tell him, I terribly wanted to tell him, give me back my briefcase, but I couldn't.
LAWRENCE McDONNELL: Now, the president has fallen ill again, some are questioning his competence as Russia's military leader. The command to strike back will be relayed to this post at Kostroma, some 300 kilometers from the capital. They, in turn, will order the launch sequence inside a train on patrol in the Russian countryside. Boris Yeltsin's promise to re-target the country's nuclear weapons mean little here. The missiles can be programmed to fire at any target in less than a minute. The train is almost permanently on patrol. Brought into service at the end of the Cold War, it's almost indistinguishable from any ordinary train, making it extremely difficult to track. There are four trains in this division, each capable of launching three multiple warhead missiles. Each missile has a range of 11,000 kilometers. And if the order came--this officer told us he has no doubts that he wouldn't have time to think about it. While they're not riding the nuclear train, the unit is kept in shape, preparing for a terrorist attack. Morale is relatively high. These are, after all, Russia's military elite. But home life is difficult. The barracks are cramped, no room inside the flats for a push chair. Natasha and Alexander Urkalov are typical. Alexander has worked on the train for 10 years but complains that salaries are often delayed, and they still have to rely on their parents.
ALEXANDER URKALOV, Russian Nuclear Officer: (speaking through interpreter) They help us with food and money. They sold their jewelry. We couldn't survive without them.
NATASHA URKALOV, Russian Army Wife: (speaking through interpreter) I feel insulted by the army. The flat isn't nearly big enough. The kids are always sick.
LAWRENCE McDONNELL: The trains tour for a week, and every departure is treated with pomp and ceremony, every unit given a heroic send-off. But the send-off wears thin when you're not paid on time, and there are rumors about the competence of your commander-in-chief. And as long as these weapons remain outside any the arms reductions treaty and the President doesn't scrap them on a whim, the nuclear train will continue to roam the Russian countryside.