Some may recall that responsibility for the Soviet nuclear missile shield was one of the hottest issues discussed across the world by all high-ranking politicians and diplomats of the day. There were many rumors and much speculation surrounding the subject, with some even saying that control over nuclear warheads and nuclear bombs was utterly out of hand, and that everyone could now launch strategic missiles, especially Ukraine, Belarus and Kazakhstan as they became sovereign. All one needed to do, they said, was to connect two wires.
I was a military commentator for Russia's main "non-party" newspaper at the time and found myself practically at the center of the developments. I interviewed many leading military commanders: Air Force Marshal Yevgeny Shaposhnikov, the commander-in-chief of the Joint Armed Forces of the Commonwealth of Independent States, the organization that sprang up on the ruins of the Soviet Union; General of the Army Yury Maximov, commander-in-chief of Strategic Missile Forces; Colonel-General Yevgeny Maslin, head of the 12th Directorate of the Defense Ministry, which was in charge of all the country's nuclear weapons; and other top brass in the ministry and on the General Staff. I also visited Russian military units that had strategic nuclear missiles on permanent duty.
The generals publicly denied the idle speculation of foreign "experts," maintaining that Russia's nuclear-missile shield was firmly under control.
This was not entirely true. Despite the Belovezhskaya Pushcha agreement between three presidents that nuclear weapons, unlike all other weapons in the former U.S.S.R., were to remain under Russian control, nationalist elements in Ukraine were eager to keep the country's RS-22 and RS-18 strategic missiles stationed in Nikolayev and Khmelnitsky (known in the West as SS-24s and SS-19s), numbering 176 in total and carrying 1,240 nuclear warheads. They also wanted to keep the 372 remaining X-55 long-range cruise missiles for 43 Tu-160 and Tu-95MS strategic bombers, as well as nuclear warheads for tactical and theater missiles (the number of such warheads is still not known). They attempted to get the Supreme Rada (parliament) to pass the required laws and interfered in every way they could to prevent Russian specialists from performing maintenance work and removing these formidable weapons to Russia, as was demanded by international agreements.
All this continued even after the Ukrainian president, together with the presidents of Belarus, Kazakhstan and Russia, signed an agreement on strategic forces in Minsk on December 30, 1991 which said that "before nuclear weapons are fully dismantled [in the countries where they must not be present], any decision to use them shall be taken by the Russian president in agreement with the heads of Belarus, Kazakhstan and Ukraine and after consulting the heads of other Commonwealth member-countries."
Ukraine tried to retain its nuclear warheads even after the February 14, 1992 agreement on the status of strategic forces vested command and control over strategic forces with the commander-in-chief of the CIS Joint Armed Forces and the Heads of State Council, and after five countries - Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, Kazakhstan and the United States - signed a protocol to the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START-1) in Lisbon. The protocol likewise gave only Russia the right to possess nuclear weapons.
Nevertheless, in March 1993, the Ukrainian Supreme Rada again said that "although Ukraine might join the nuclear non-proliferation treaty, that would not mean Ukraine's immediate compliance with the Lisbon Protocol, and Ukraine might ratify START-1 and join the non-proliferation treaty as a nuclear state."
I saw how much effort and statecraft it cost Colonel-General Yevgeny Maslin and Colonel-General Igor Sergeyev, the new commander-in-chief of the Strategic Missile Forces (who became Russia's defense minister later and its first and only marshal), to prevent the fragmentation of the country's missile shield and the spread of nuclear weapons across the world. Or, for that matter, to prevent the appearance of new nuclear states. Russian newspapers went so far as to start carrying classified information on the critical condition of nuclear weapons in Ukraine because Moscow specialists were banned from looking after them.
The Russian papers reported that the Ukrainian military was breaking all the relevant rules and laws by trying to handle these warheads itself, putting at considerable risk not only the people of Ukraine, but also the whole of Europe. They also described how commanders of missile divisions and the missile army were forced under all sorts of pretexts to take a Ukrainian military oath, leave Russian service and enlist in the Ukrainian army. Even Ukrainian President Leonid Kravchuk took part in this. At a Defense Ministry board meeting to which commanders of Russian missile units were invited, he demanded that the commander of the Vinnitsa missile army stand up there and then and sign the text of the Ukrainian military oath, thereby becoming, to put it mildly, a "deserter." All this had one purpose: to acquire nuclear weapons by hook or by crook and gain for Ukraine the official status of a nuclear power alongside the U.S., Russia, France, the United Kingdom, and China.
The Russian press carried an article titled "A Second Chernobyl Brewing in Ukraine's Missile Silos," dictated by General Sergeyev, the commander-in-chief of the Strategic Missile Forces, and based on real facts checked and re-checked through telephone calls to the Ukrainian Defense Ministry in Kiev. It was a bombshell. All the world's leading newspapers reprinted it. Then came the articles "Missile Disputes Go On: Danger Remains," "Nuclear Warheads in Ukraine Pose a Threat" and others. Diplomatic scandals followed.
In the end, under pressure from Western governments, particularly the U.S., trains with nuclear warheads from strategic, tactical, theater and cruise missiles started traveling from Ukraine to Russia. But the SS-24s and SS-19s still contained hundreds of tons of highly toxic fuel and oxidizer, heptyl and amyl, to be disposed of. All that had to be transported to Russia for reprocessing or storage.
The effort put into the task by Russia, its generals and officers was tremendous, unmatched by anything else undertaken by any other country. Apart from Ukraine, Russia removed from Belarus and Kazakhstan a further 81 RS-12M (SS-25) Topol ground-mobile missile launchers, and 98 heavy strategic RS-20 (SS-18) Voyevoda, or Satan, missiles with ten nuclear warheads each. All in all, 980 nuclear warheads were recovered. 40 Tu-95MS strategic bombers and 240 X-55 long-range cruise missiles were also taken from Kazakhstan. No accident, leak of toxic agents or loss of nuclear material was reported.
Some of the strategic systems removed from CIS countries were scrapped in line with the START-1 Treaty and because they were old or out-of-date. Others are still on operational duty with the troops.
According to official figures, as of July 1, 2006, Russia had 760 strategic missile systems capable of carrying 3,360 nuclear warheads. Of them, 502 are with the Strategic Missile Force and are tipped with 1,852 nuclear warheads. The Navy has 12 strategic missile carriers with ballistic missiles that can carry 636 nuclear warheads. The Air Force has 78 strategic bombers and 872 long-range cruise missiles armed with nuclear warheads. As President Vladimir Putin said recently, the country's nuclear missile shield reliably protects the national interests of Russia and its allies.
This shield is indivisible. Unlike during the few years after December 1991, no other country can take control of any part of it.