russian roulette

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interview: alexander pikayev

He is a member of the Russian Parliament and the head of its Defense Committee.  In 1997, he conducted a survey of Russia's Early Warning System. He is an expert in nuclear non-proliferation issues.

What happened in the Norway incident in 1995?

Actually the system demonstrated its efficiency because the launch was checked and the information was transmitted to national command authorities and Mr. Yeltsin was able to use his black case for the first time and I hope for the last one.

Was there any point during that scenario where things were serious, where it looked like it might be a nuclear missile?

The problem was ... the Norwegians informed the Russian side in advance about the launch. However, the information was lost somewhere between Foreign Minister and Defense Minster or somewhere inside Defense Ministry. So it shows increasing bureaucratic inefficiency in Russia, and that's a problem, but technically everything was made quite perfectly.

So the whole system is functioning as it should?

Well, technically yes, bureaucratically perhaps not.

Is that the first time the cases have ever been activated?

By President Yeltsin, yes. We unfortunately we still don't have reliable information about what took place in Soviet time so that we don't know whether Mr. Brezhnev or Mr. [Andropov] activated the black case, personally I believe that not.

So it was quite a serious event that the case was activated in the first place?

Yes, it was quite important development.

Once the case was activated, what would have happened?

The launch-on-warning [policy] unfortunately is an unavoidable scenario. Imagine if nuclear missiles hit our national territory. It might be very difficult to transmit orders for launch of missiles after that; many of them could be destroyed by this first attack. Well, actually we should distinguish between [different levels of] activating ... in that Norwegian incident the case was activated passively, so that President Yeltsin opened it and looked [at the] information he received but he definitely didn't make any orders which would enable launching Russian missiles in advance.

But the procedure is the following--if necessary, if the signal about adversarial missiles launch is received by the national command authorities, the President could decide to launch Russian missiles, and he sends his code down to military hierarchy, then Minister of Defense will have to add his codes. Reportedly, the Chief of General Staff will have to do the same, so that a decision on launching Russian missiles must be made by three men - the Russian President, Minister of Defense and Chief of the General Staff.

Now in this instance when the suitcases are activated, would they have discussed how they should respond? What is the nature of the conversation that would have taken place?

Well, actually, we don't know, because I believe it is top secret, but I think that they could talk through this suitcase, the suitcase is a communication terminal, nothing else, there is no red button there. It is a communication terminal which has President, Minister of Defense and Chief of General Staff and they could have conversation through it ... .

And then if they wanted to authorize a launch, how would they do that?

Well, President would execute orders and he would release certain codes which are kept in this suitcase, the same will be done by Minister of Defense and Chief of General Staff. It goes down to Strategic Rocket Forces command then to command of the Rocket Division and then to Cruise and Cruise could launch the missiles if necessary.

Was there any possibility in the Norwegian incident that a missile could have been launched, if only to attack what might have been an incoming missile?

Well, I think no. It was a single missile, its trajectory was not clearly directed at Russian territories ... it was checked timely that it was just not a military missile ... so that I doubt that it could lead to mistake. However, if there was a launch of more missiles, say five missiles, and they would have different trajectory going towards Russian territory, it could lead to mistake. The Russian strategic plans permit to launch Russian missiles before enemy missiles hit Russian territory, the same move has the United States.

Is that a potentially dangerous policy?

Yes, yes, very dangerous.

Do you think it's a policy that should continue to be held?

Well, it has to be considered because imagine if nuclear missiles hit national territory. It might be very difficult to transmit orders for launch of missiles after that, and many of them could be destroyed by first attack. ... So ... this launch-on-warning [policy] unfortunately is unavoidable scenario.

Going back a little bit to the Norwegian case I believe at one point the rocket separated into several sections, what would that have looked like on a radar screen?

Well, it could be interpreted as a separation of re-entry vehicles from a nuclear missile.

But the missiles didn't come anywhere near being launched?

No, no.

What is the state of the early warning radar system, and how does it compare to, say, 10 years ago?

The early warning system deteriorated, unfortunately, as a result of the Soviet collapse. Russia lost several early warning radar stations which now are located outside Russian territory. ...

And so are all of the radar stations that would have been operational ten years ago still operational?

Most likely yes, maybe except one radar station in the Ukraine which Ukrainians [are] trying to operating by themselves but they don't have reliable know-how ... .

What's the status of the Ukraine radar station, and what does its status mean for the way it operates and for military surveillance?

There is a radar station allocated in Ukrainian Peninsula, it is Ukrainian property and it is operated by Ukrainian armed forces. According to agreements reached within CIS--Commonwealth of Independent States--the Ukraine shares with Russia information which is received by that radar station, but unfortunately, given the collapse of the Ukrainian military--and Ukraine is a country which spends maybe like eight hundred million dollars for its defense budget--it definitely cannot properly operate that radar station.

So what does that mean in reality?

In reality it means that they could miss a missile launch. ... This radar station is responsible southwest direction which covers parts of the Middle East and Turkey particularly. ... The radar station still monitors the air space in that sector, but whether Ukrainian operators could do it very reliably is a bit question[able], so the risk is that they could miss something important which takes place there.

Is the risk also that they could see something and misinterpret it?

Yes. ...

But, overall, in the grander scheme of things, does that radar station not working at an optimal level increase the risk of a mistaken launch?

Yes, improper activity of those critical elements of early warning system could increase the risk of accidental launch.

Are there radar stations in other places that aren't working properly, or won't be working properly in the future?

Well, in 1999 one of the radar stations located in Latvia will be closed because Latvia doesn't want to continue its operation, and the existing bilateral Russian Latvian agreement will expire in 1999 [and] after that the radar station will be closed. Also there are uncertainties about another radar station operating in Azerbaijan ... which covers very important southern direction, which covers such countries like Iran, Iraq and other Persian Gulf states. Its future is uncertain, because there are no formal bilateral agreements about that radar station, so that in [theory] Azerbaijan could close it every minute.

So what would it mean if Azerbaijan closed? Which countries would you be blind to then?

It covers Iran, Iraq and a part of the Indian Ocean so that it is an area from where potential missile attack could place.

Is that worrying?

It is worrying. Everybody are worrying about Iraqi and Iranian missile programs. Definitely for Russia it would be a problem if [we] wouldn't be able properly check missile launches from those countries. ...

Let's move on now and talk about satellites. Could you explain to me how the military satellite system works in association with the early warning system, and what the current problems are with it?

It's not a secret that both the Soviet Union and the United States had dozens of satellites which executed not only civilian but mainly military missions, and amongst such military missions early warning was perhaps the most important. ...

Overall with this satellite system, how does the number of operating satellites now differ from the number of satellites ten years ago?

Well, I would say that number decreased significantly, and it affected early warning system as well.

In what way does it affect the early warning system?

Currently, some potential areas of missile launch are not adequately covered by early warning means, either radar stations or satellites, and it could lead to a situation when, say, mistaken information from [a] radar station about missile launch couldn't be confirmed by satellites, which means that Russian national command authorities would find itself in a very difficult situation.

And when you say difficult situation, what do you mean by that?

It means that they would receive information about missile launch against Russia but they wouldn't be able to confirm it by other means. ... It is very dangerous situation because it could lead to missile launch. ...

Can we talk now about the system of ships that used to exist? What did the ships do and what's happened to them?

Well, you know that satellites they circulate or revolve around the earth and if you want to receive information in a real time you would have to have space control centers all around the globe. Russia is not a country which occupies a whole globe, this is why in the past the Soviet Union had a chain of ships which collect information from satellites in open seas. Currently a part of those ships was privatized by Ukraine, and they're not operational and part of them are in Russian ports and there is no money to keep them operational after the Soviet collapse.

So to summarize about the early warning system, taking all of that information into account, what does this deterioration of the system mean to the overall reliability of the system and the level of mistakes?

Deterioration of the early warning system could lead to two problems, one of them is that adversarial missile launch wouldn't [be] properly checked. ... The other problem, which is maybe more serious for peace time, ... [is] that as a result of deterioration of early warning capabilities [a] decision could [be made] on launching missile which would be based on a wrong information. ... A risk of the missile launch based on a mistake is increasing.

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