Putin Orders a New Nuclear-Proof Command Center

Russian President has ordered the creation of a new nuclear-strike-proof command-and-control (C2) center for the country’s nuclear forces. On November 13, he signed a decree (ukaz) on the implementation of the national defense plan for 2021–2025 (Pravo.gov.ru, November 13). Reportedly, a key element in this planning process is the construction of a nuclear command center. As one commentary in Izvestia noted, its importance cannot be underestimated, as the ability of the Armed Forces to respond to strategic-level threats depends on such systems (Izvestia, November 13). Putin’s initiative, however, seems tied to the ongoing uncertainties around the nuclear arms control regime. Notably, the last major nuclear weapons limitation treaty between Russia and the United States, the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START), is scheduled to phase out in February 2021, unless both sides agree to extend it. The planned nuclear forces C2 center is thus meant to position Moscow for future talks with the incoming US administration in addition to the natural role it will play in Russia’s ongoing military modernization efforts.

The presidential signing of a defense planning ukaz normally receives scant media attention. However, with almost all of this particular decree’s details hidden from public view, the conspicuous emphasis on a nuclear command center was evidently meant to send a signal to Washington to accept a nuclear arms control deal now because Moscow would be negotiating from a significantly stronger security position in any future agreements.

The planned nuclear C2 system looks aimed at offering additional survivability for not only the senior Russian civil leadership but also the Strategic Rocket Forces (Raketnyye Voyska Strategicheskogo Naznacheniya—RVSN). Lieutenant General Aitech Bizhev, the former deputy chief of the Russian Air Force for the Commonwealth of Independent States’ (CIS) Common Air-Defense System, explained the decision to create a new command center for the RVSN. He noted that the need to manage all C2 is premised on “modern requirements” linked to automation and speed. According to the high-level officer, “the one who receives information that is more automated and faster wins.” Though he did not intend to imply anyone can “win” in nuclear conflict, Bizhez referred to ensuring a second-strike capability. According to the lieutenant general, the key issue in managing the RVSN is speed of reaction: the side responding faster gains an advantage. Thus, Russia’s existing C2 system required improvement, including a switch to new data transmission formats, since the nuclear triad needs “quick, reliable and flexible control” (Izvestia, November 11).

Bizhev justified the initiative to modernize the RVSN’s C2 in terms of ensuring survivability. If any enemy nuclear power attacks Russia with a nuclear strike, the new C2 system can guarantee the leadership survives, alongside the command of the RVSN. Of course, those assurances about a system still in the planning stages inadvertently raised questions about the current level of protection enjoyed by the Russian military-political leadership. Nonetheless, Bizhev added that in the planned nuclear C2 system, optical, radar and orbital reconnaissance is all integrated into the control system. Therefore, “[e]ven if the potential enemy thinks [about launching an attack], the [Russian] political leadership will already know. No country can start a nuclear war without it becoming evident instantly” (Izvestia, November 11).

Aleksandr Mikhailov, the director of the Bureau of Political-Military Analysis, told Izvestia on November 11 that the new Russian nuclear command post will also have other political dimensions. Mikhailov referred to the new RVSN command as a “super-protected control center,” meeting the potential challenges it faces as never before. He asserted, “The US withdrawal from practically all international military agreements, including the looming global threat of the Americans withdrawing from New START, requires the Russian military to calculate all possible scenarios—including a massive nuclear strike by the enemy on the main military and infrastructural strategic facilities on the territory of Russia.” Mikhailov explained that in the event of a nuclear strike on Russia, this new command center will ensure continued control over the nuclear triad to ensure an overwhelming response. “In addition, the protected site must be of considerable size. [It will have to] accommodate equipment, life-support systems and several thousand people in the event of a nuclear apocalypse,” the Russian expert added (Izvestia, November 11).

Prior to signing the ukaz on November 13, Putin was actively promoting the Kremlin line that Washington alone is disrupting the international nuclear arms control system. On November 10, during a meeting with defense ministry officials and defense industry executives, Putin stated that the US insists on bringing China into such future arms control agreements. “We also see that the arms control system is openly shaking and degrading,” he declared, before stressing that the nuclear triad remains the cornerstone of Russia’s security. “The fate of, in fact, the last fundamental treaty in the field of limiting strategic offensive arms, the [New] START treaty, which expires, as you know, in February 2021, that is, very soon, remains unclear.” Putin then praised the same treaty for providing the required levels of “transparency of strategic nuclear arsenals and restrain[ing] their uncontrolled race.” The Kremlin leader also used the opportunity to castigate the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) for not responding to Moscow’s offer to reduce “military activity” during the coronavirus pandemic. Moreover, the intensity of aviation flights and operations of the fleets of the Alliance countries has only increased, Putin said, while offering no comment on the level of Russian military aviation flights or naval activity close to NATO’s borders (Izvestia, November 10).

Seeking to exploit internal differences within the North Atlantic Alliance, TASS highlighted a November 17 statement by the foreign ministers of France and Germany, which encouraged Washington and Moscow to extend New START. The joint statement by Jean-Yves Le Drian and Heiko Maas was originally published by Le Monde: “We hope that the United States and Russia will be able to extend the New START treaty for the period after February 2021,” adding that they are ready to exchange views with Moscow “on all issues affecting European security. We expect Russia to give constructive answers,” the ministers stressed (TASS, November 17).

While hoping that European leaders and the impending presidential transition in Washington might provide a final opportunity to revive the New START arrangements, Putin is signaling his willingness to play hardball. But simultaneously, he is preparing for how to avoid a new nuclear arms race with no real arms-control framework left. The decision to publicize the future C2 arrangements for the RVSN appears to be calculated in this context.

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