Pavel Podvig Profile picture
Mar 5, 2022 16 tweets 4 min read Read on X
Can Russia's president launch nuclear weapons alone? The honest answer is "we don't know." A short answer is "probably." A longer answer is "it's complicated." A longish thread that may (or may not) help clarify things 1/
Most of what we know about the Russian launch authorization procedures is based on what is known about the Soviet command and control (C2) system. There is not much there, but not too little either 2/
A fairly compact description of the procedures is in the Russian Forces book. Here is the excerpt:…. Igor Sutyagin, who wrote most of it, used the work of Bruce Blair and Valery Yarynich but also did his own research, combing through all kind of sources 3/ Image
I was told that this is a fair description of the system. Note that Yarynich was quite direct - "Russia's SNF C3 system ... completely excludes the possibility of a launch performed by one person" (p. 152 in…, citing this…). 4/
It appears that the procedure implies that the order must be authenticated by the minister of defense and the command center of the General Staff must accept the order as valid. A first strike seems possible, although it would bring more people in the loop 5/
One way to think about it is that the designers of the system, the first version of which was built in the 1970s, certainly did not want to give the General Secretary the sole authority to launch, especially when it comes to a first strike 6/
Of course, with the presidential power what it is in Russia today this may have changed, but I would guess that people other than the president have a way to influence the decision even if they don't have a veto power. 7/
There are also some checks that protect the system from issuing a launch order in response to a false alarm - waiting for signs of actual nuclear detonations is one of them. But in the end all these checks can be overriden, especially if there is time to do so. 8/
All that, of course, deals with a command to launch a _strategic_ strike. The procedure for non-strategic weapons might be a bit different as it is likely to include some additional steps. One is the actual deployment of weapons. 9/
In normal time, there are no non-strategic weapons that are kept in a constant high degree of readiness. No Iskanders are roaming around with nuclear warheads on top of their missiles, no aircraft are sitting on tarmac with bombs or ALCMs loaded in their bomb bays. 10/
These weapons are in storage, most of them reasonably far from their delivery systems (see…). They would have to be taken out of storage, mated to missiles, loaded on aircraft, or otherwise deployed. 11/ Image
Presumably, the president can issue an order to do so, but it would probably be done as part of a (pre-)planned military operation. This would give the military, who will be developing and executing the plan, an opportunity to take part in the decision. 12/
While I doubt they would have the veto power, this is a deliberative (and rather slow) process. In the end, the order (or pre-delegation of authority) would still come from the president. 13/
The authenticating process might be the same as in the case of strategic forces, with a call through dedicated terminals and all that. More likely, the president would be physically at one of the command centers and/or authentication would be done at some earlier stage. 14/
It's possible that whoever is in the authentication loop (eg the minister of defense) would balk at issuing the actual order, but it seems unlikely at that stage. And the president would have an opportunity to remove that person if necessary. 15/
So, the bottom line is probably that if we are talking about a retaliatory launch, the C2 system does provide some safeguards against a false alarm or a rash action of a single person. But when it comes to a deliberate first use, these safeguards could be circumvented. 16/16

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More from @russianforces

Dec 13, 2023
Colleagues reminded me that the Aegis Ashore system in Poland is about to become operational. The purpose of this entire project has always escaped me. Or, rather, I find it puzzling that a purely political enterprise with little or no utility has survived for so long. 1/
It was, of course, a political project from the very beginning. Obama had to do something about missile defense in Europe. The old GBI (in Poland and Czechia) was not particularly popular or capable. And it was a US mainland defense, so it had zero utility for Europe. 2/
Poland, of course, was happy to host, but Czechia - much less so. The old Europe was not happy about this at all, first because GBI was circumvented all NATO mechanisms and, second, because it was a serious irritant in US/NATO-Russia relations. 3/
Read 10 tweets
Nov 5, 2023
The word for these kinds of reports is "tendentious." It's not even cherry-picking the evidence. It's just lining up unrelated facts and making an argument out of it. Don't have time to go through it in detail, but here is one example. Really? Three Sarmat tests? 1/
True, there was one Sarmat test in April 2022. How a development test (it was the first one) is related to exercises? There was a report about a Sarmat failure in April 2023. What was in July 2022? Definitely not a flight test. 2/
Speaking of exercises, the report makes much out of alleged 'greater emphasis,' but contains absolutely no evidence of that emphasis being greater. It conflates Grom-type exercises with launches etc. with division-level staff training that involves mobile missiles on patrol 3/ Image
Read 5 tweets
Oct 15, 2023
I was surprised to see how many people believed (still believe) that the resumption of nuclear tests is a matter or days/weeks. It seems that we are safe for quite some time. By the way, the idea that Russian weapon designers are itching to test is quite wrong. 1/
They are known to have developed quite a few new weapons after 1990. For example, some air-delivered ones between 2000 and 2010 - a large-yield bomb (similar to B83) and smaller ones (see attached, from ) 2/…
Of course, the designer would not object, but it is all political. If the marching order is to test, they will test and vice versa. So, in my view there is nothing inevitable about the resumption of tests, whether it's Russia, China or the US. 3/3
Read 4 tweets
Oct 9, 2023
Here is my very preliminary take on Russia's revoking its CTBT ratification. (Disclaimer: I'm not a lawyer. Feel free to weigh in if you are). The Duma took 10 days to study the issue. Rightly so - it may get complicated. Here are the options as I see them: 1/
I should start, however, with another disclaimer: Russian government can be very creative with the law, so almost everything is possible. One thing is, the Duma has clear instructions from the president: "we can withdraw the ratification, and if we do, this would be enough." 2/
Finding that "enough" point might be tricky. To ratify an international law, the Duma and the Federal Council pass a Federal Law on ratification. One would think that de-ratification would be done by declaring that law null and void. 3/
Read 12 tweets
Jul 31, 2023
How do you verify the absence of nuclear weapons at a weapon storage site? We set up an experiment to check the on-site inspection procedures in practice. The report is now online - . We present it at NPT PrepCom on July 31. Key points are in the thread 1/
The idea is that nuclear weapons should not be "deployed," meaning that they should not be stored next to their delivery system. This applies primarily to non-strategic weapons. Moving them to some central storage will reduce all kinds of risks. See 2/…
Importantly, the removal can be verified. Since we are verifying the absence, the procedures can be fairly simple. No need to worry about sensitive information or about defining a weapon or counting them. We still need a procedure and that was what we tested in the experiment 3/
Read 11 tweets
Jun 24, 2023
Can an armed group like Wagner take control of some of Russia's nuclear weapons and somehow use or detonate them? The short answer is no, it's virtually impossible. I wanted to write a longer thread, but things are happening way too fast. 1/
Let me just note that the Voronezh-45 site (aka Object 387 or Borisoglebsk) may well be empty. Its only "daughter" unit is the air force training center at Yeisk (the map is at , the org chart is in the Lock Them Up report, linked there) 2/…
On the other hand, it may store some other weapons. Iskanders? Hard to tell. In any event, taking physical control over weapons might be possible as 12 GUMO does not have heavy armament to protect the site, but not much more. 3/
Read 7 tweets

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