WHEN VLADIMIR PUTIN told the entire world, “To anyone who would consider interfering from the outside – if you do, you will face consequences greater than any you have faced in history.” His message sent shock waves across Europe. And to make his point, he put Russia’s nuclear forces on “special” alert to show that he was serious about unleashing Russia’s nuclear ballistic missiles on anyone who tried to stop what he’s doing to Ukraine.
What’s going on in Putin’s mind? In a 2018 documentary, Putin commented, “If someone decides to annihilate Russia, we have the legal right to respond. Yes, it will be a catastrophe for humanity and for the world. But I’m a citizen of Russia and its head of state. Why do we need a world without Russia in it?”
Hmm… A world without Russia? What made him think that Russia is an indispensable part of Planet Earth? Sure, it is the largest country on Earth. But a big portion of it – Siberia — is covered with tundra where the Gulag labor camps were located. The Gulag was recognized as a major instrument of political repression in the Soviet Union. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the evil empire disbanded and the 15 Soviet Republics were dispersed and became independent nations. One of them was Ukraine.
So who needs Russia whose declining population — 700,000 to 800,000 — are lost each year due to a high death rate, low birth rate, high rate of abortions, and a low level of immigration? You add alcoholism to the problem and what do you have?
Alcoholism is so ingrained in Russian society that most Russians don’t even realize they have a problem. According to statistics, it is the leading cause of death. And the life expectancy of men is down to 58 years old.
Russia is a dying society
And here comes Putin worrying about Planet Earth without Russia? Is he threatening that if Russia isn’t treated the way he wants, everything will be destroyed? And that means that he himself will perish it if he doesn’t get what he wants. And that’s where the nuclear button comes in.
Putin believes that having the nuclear button within his reach gives him power over the other eight billion human beings cohabiting with him on Earth. The nuclear button will trigger MAD – Mutually Assured Destruction – that would annihilate all humans on Earth, including Vladimir Putin.
The question is: If Putin chooses to press the nuclear button, would anyone in his circle try to dissuade or stop him?
Last week, Putin was seen with the Russian “nuclear football” as he attended the funeral of a politician. An aide carrying a briefcase, which contained the codes needed to authorize a nuclear attack, accompanied him. Mourners were cleared from the church as the Russian leader paid his respects to the deceased, amid fears of an assassination attempt. And who’d try to assassinate him? And that’s the problem. Putin isn’t scared of killing himself by pressing the nuclear button but is scared that somebody would assassinate him.
The nuclear football’s only use is to trigger the launching of nuclear missiles against the U.S. There are three briefcases filled with electronics set to alert their holders simultaneously. Inside each is a portable terminal, linked to the command and control network for Russia’s strategic nuclear forces. One of them accompanies President Putin wherever he goes. It’s called the Cheget, which allows Putin to monitor a missile crisis, make decisions, and transmit those decisions to the military.
But there is a flaw in the system. The Russian Constitution states that if the president is incapacitated in any way, the prime minister takes over. However, the prime minister doesn’t have a nuclear briefcase at his disposal. The other two Cheget briefcases are actually held by the Defense Minister and the Chief of the General Staff, as it was during the Soviet era. The resulting ambiguity could be dangerous in the event of a nuclear crisis. In Russia today, neither of the military leaders has the constitutional or legal responsibility to make a decision about how or whether to launch a nuclear attack.
Both the U.S. and Russia maintain nuclear-tipped missiles on alert for immediate launch. The land-based U.S. missiles can be ready to launch in four minutes. Warning of an imminent attack would require a president to make very rapid decisions with limited information. In such an emergency, whether in the White House or the Kremlin, you’d want very precise roles for each decision-maker, without ambiguity or uncertainty.
In Russia, they use the “triple key” system where there are three briefcases called cheget – one each for the President, the Defense Minister, and the Chief of the General Staff (a position similar to the American Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff). The “triple key” requires all three to input their respective launch codes; hence it keeps any one person from having ultimate authority.
The problem is that the Prime Minister, Mikhail Mishustin, who is the first in the line of succession, does not have a cheget. If Putin unexpectedly became incapacitated, who is going to have Putin’s launch code? Nobody.
The Russian Constitution clearly states, in Article 92, paragraph 3, that “In all cases when the president of the Russian Federation shall be unable to perform his duties such duties shall be temporarily performed by the Chairman of the Government of the Russian Federation,” also known as the Prime Minister. If the President can’t give a launch order, his successor is the Prime Minister, not the Defense Minister or the Chief of the General Staff. Yet they are the ones with the cheget briefcases.
Contrary to common assumptions, the cheget does not contain a nuclear button. Rather, it is a transmission system for permission to launch. The launch permission – which could only be made by the President or Prime Minister if the President is incapacitated — would then be sent to the Defense Minister and Chief of General Staff and distributed by them to the proper branch of service and the weapons crews for execution.
However, the question remains: who will make the decision to launch since only the President or the Prime Minister could make it? But if the President is incapacitated and the Prime Minister doesn’t have a cheget, how could the decision to launch be conveyed to the Defense Minister and Chief of General Staff?
World War III
With Putin’s threat to use nuclear weapons in Ukraine, the prospect of World War III is imminent. So, let’s assume that Putin had made the decision to launch a nuclear attack on Ukraine. He would tell his aide who carries the nuclear football to open the briefcase. Putin would then enter the launch code, which would transmit the order to launch to the Defense Minister and the Chief of the General Staff. Now the question is: Would they obey Putin’s order to launch a nuclear attack? If you were the Defense Minister or the Chief of General Staff, would you have the temerity to launch, knowing that you too would perish in the global nuclear conflagration should you go ahead and press the launch code? You’d probably consult with each other and ask, “Hey Comrade, should we do it?” If you were megalomaniacal like Putin, you’d probably say, “To hell with it, let’s do it!” But you’re not as crazy as Putin is. As a matter of fact, a lifelong military discipline has taught you to only obey lawful orders. And an order to launch a nuclear attack would be illegal since it aims for the total annihilation of mankind.
And if I were the Russian Defense Minister or Chief of General Staff, I’d probably think that it would be best to remove Putin from power and sue for peace in Ukraine and stop this fratricidal war. Pitting brother against brother – Russians against Ukrainians – gains nothing.
At the end of the day, President Joe Biden was right when he said, “Putin can’t remain in power.” The world needs Russia but it doesn’t need Putin.