War Scare: Russia and America on the Nuclear Brink

By Peter Vincent Pry | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 29
Dangerous Minutes

A hotline connected President Yeltsin to General Mikhail Kolesnikov, Chief of the General Staff, who was studying the missile threat on his own "nuclear briefcase." General Kolesnikov controlled the nuclear codes. He had the technical capability to execute a nuclear strike, with or without President Yeltsin's assent. Legally, however, the decision to go to war is the president's. Quickly obtaining Yeltsin's permission to launch a nuclear attack was the entire purpose of the briefcase, and the purpose of the hotline to the General Staff.

As President Yeltsin and General Kolesnikov conferred, only about four minutes had passed since the launch of Norway's Black Brant. The "nuclear briefcases" indicated it was a possible U.S. or NATO nuclear missile launched from the vicinity of the Norwegian Sea, still rapidly ascending. Black Brant was rocketing toward its apogee, hurtling nearly straight up, so its target azimuth, its intended impact area, was still unknown.

Although a nuclear alert had been initiated, General Sokolov later indicated to the press that there was still doubt about the missile's identity. This must have been the case. Doubt about whether a U.S. nuclear attack was in fact in progress must have been communicated to President Yeltsin and Kolesnikov via their briefcases; otherwise, a preemptive nuclear strike surely would have been launched.

As they watched the progress of the mysterious missile on their briefcase screens the pressure and burden of responsibility on Boris Yeltsin and Mikhail Kolesnikov was crushing. If the missile was an EMP precursor attack, its detonation would be followed by the massed launch of U.S. intercontinental and submarine missiles. Now was the time for a Russian preempv tive strike, before the electromagnetic pulse paralyzed the strategic forces, and while U.S. ICBMs and bombers were still sitting at their bases, vulnerable. Russian launch detection satellites would have confirmed that U.S. ICBMs had not yet fired, meaning that the opportunity for a Russian first strike had not yet passed--or meaning that whatever was happening, it was not a U.S. nuclear attack.

General Kolesnikov suspected a nuclear surprise attack was under way, and he almost certainly contemplated a preemptive strike. The next day, after the Norwegian embassy had explained to Moscow the Black Brant missile program and its peaceful, scientific mission, the Chief of the General Staff continued to believe that it had been, in reality, a new NATO military

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