War Scare: Russia and America on the Nuclear Brink

By Peter Vincent Pry | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 24
Live, on Larry King

While Russia was frantically launching advanced reconnaissance satellites, reminding the world that only Yeltsin and Grachev possessed the "nuclear button," and alerting the 14th Army and strategic nuclear forces in the midst of a coup--in Washington there was no fear. The only concern in Washington was that Moscow might lose control of its nuclear weapons to General Rutskoy or his mutinous followers.

On Larry King Live, Foreign Minister Andrey Kozyrev reassured Americans that they had nothing to fear, because Moscow remained in control of its nuclear missiles:

KING: . . . Since your country has nuclear weaponry and it is in a position now of some instability, what would you say to the people of the United States? Should they be very worried?

KOZYREV: Well, I think the nuclear weapons are under some control, and this is another argument in my mind, at least, for Yeltsin to stay. . . . So if and when the presidential election takes place, there is no possibility of shaking military command, because he is commander-in-chief in the so-called vatem or whatever. The control of nuclear weapons is in his hands.

Foreign Minister Kozyrev's remarks betrayed ignorance of his own nation's nuclear command and control system. There is no institution or device called the "vatem." Kozyrev confused Yeltsin's legal role as commander in chief with actual operational control of the nuclear forces, which Yeltsin did not possess. The latter error may have been deliberate, of course. Kozyrev knew that Americans liked President Yeltsin and would find it comforting to think he controlled Russia's hundreds of missiles and thousands of warheads.

At his confirmation hearing on September 22 to become President Clinton's new chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General John Shalikashvili told the Senate Armed Services Committee that there was no nuclear danger as long as Russia's nuclear weapons remained "under solid central control": "I believe they [the nuclear weapons] are under control. . . . In the past we have been gratified to find out that those weapons had remained under solid central control, and I have no indication that is not the case at this moment." Shalikashvili may have been unaware that the Russian ver-

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