Military history

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In the dawn of a new Russia, people stood up without fear to confront the lies and disinformation of the past. In acts of conscience, curiosity and determination, they began to expose secrets of the arms race. It was a haphazard process of discovery, and often did not attract the public attention of the earlier years, when Gorbachev began to fill in the “blank spots” of history, admitting the truth about Stalin’s mass repressions. But the stories that surfaced in the early 1990s were no less startling to those who heard them: nuclear reactors dumped at sea, exotic nerve gas cocktails and a mysterious machine for retaliation in the event of nuclear attack.

These were exhilarating moments that no one ever expected to see in a lifetime. Siegfried S. Hecker, the director of Los Alamos National Laboratory, flew to Arzamas-16 in late February 1992 for his first trip ever to the Soviet Union.1 When he landed on the tarmac, a short, elderly man approached him. It was Yuli Khariton, who had designed the first Soviet atomic bomb under Igor Kurchatov, and who later became the first scientific director of Arzamas-16. Khariton extended his hand and said, “I’ve been waiting forty years for this.”

That night, at a dinner, Khariton delivered a remarkable lecture on the early days of the Soviet atom bomb. These were the deepest secrets of the Cold War, long protected by fear and hidden in vaults, now spilling out over the banquet table. Speaking in his British-accented English, which he had learned while studying at the Cavendish Laboratory at Cambridge University before World War II, Khariton recounted in detail the story of how physicists had designed and built the weapon. He recalled how they worked on their own design but kept a stolen American blueprint in their safe, which they had been given by the spy Klaus Fuchs. Khariton claimed the Soviet scientists designed a device that was half the weight and twice the yield of the American bomb. Hecker asked Khariton—sitting directly across from him—why did they use the American design instead of their own? Khariton reminded Hecker that the Soviet program was run by Stalin’s ruthless security chief, Lavrenti Beria. “The reason we tested yours,” he said, “is that we knew yours worked—and we wanted to live.”2

The next morning, Hecker went for a jog through the gray apartment blocks of the once-secret city. He marveled at how American and Russian weapons scientists had swapped stories and experiences, and he wondered how many billions of dollars were spent for intelligence during the Cold War to get the kind of details that were casually being exchanged now. “We were received with open arms,” Hecker said. “It was just mind-boggling to sit there and have the Russians explain their nuclear weapons program, how they actually put the pieces together, between the physics and the computational capabilities.”

The Russian scientists told Hecker they saw themselves as exact equals of the Americans and only wanted to take part in scientific cooperation on that basis. Hecker could not solve their financial plight, but he established a vital line of communications to the Soviet weaponeers, a lab-to-lab program of joint projects and an early bridge over the Cold War mistrust.

From 1959 until 1992, the Soviet Union dumped nuclear waste and reactors into the Arctic Ocean. Twelve submarine reactors, six of them containing fuel, were discarded, even though the Soviet Union had signed an international treaty that prohibited dumping waste in the oceans.3 The nuclear dumping might have remained forever concealed were it not for Alexander Zolotkov, a radiation engineer in Murmansk, the largest city on the Kola Peninsula in the Russian Far North. The rocky ice-free coastline of the peninsula harbored the Northern Fleet, with two-thirds of the Soviet navy’s nuclear-powered vessels, including 120 submarines. Zolotkov also represented Murmansk in the Congress of People’s Deputies, the parliament in Moscow.

In 1987, the environmental group Greenpeace had launched the Nuclear Free Seas campaign to challenge the arms race at sea. When the Greenpeace activists came to Murmansk and met Zolotkov, they invited him to join one of their voyages. On board the boat, he read a report from the International Atomic Energy Agency in which the Soviet Union declared it had never dumped, was not dumping and had no intention to dump nuclear wastes into the ocean. “This came as a big surprise to me,” Zolotkov said, “because I knew for sure that this had been going on for a prolonged period of time.”

He participated in one dumping shortly after he got a job in 1974 at the Murmansk Shipping Company, which operated nuclear-powered icebreakers in the Arctic. On the Lepse, an auxiliary maintenance vessel, he heaved liquid nuclear wastes into the Barents Sea. Later, he worked on two atom-powered icebreakers, the Lenin and Artika, and was working on the Imandra, a vessel that serves icebreakers, when he met the Greenpeace team.

As a member of parliament, he could ask probing questions. Zolotkov learned there were secret orders and instructions to carry out dumping of radioactive wastes in the Barents and Kara Seas, and that no one in the shipping company was bothering to monitor or control the wastes. He also talked to company workers. Then Zolotkov discovered the records of radioactive waste dumping kept aboard the Lepse. He made a map and a small graph, showing the coordinates in the sea where the dumping occurred, the number of containers and the volume of wastes.

Zolotkov was asked to speak at a seminar being set up by Greenpeace in Moscow. John Sprange, one of the Greenpeace activists, recalled being uncertain whether Zolotkov would dare to take such a step, which could wreck his career, get him arrested or worse. All the documents Zolotkov had examined were labeled secret—he was taking a big risk. The night before the seminar, Zolotkov and the Greenpeace people gathered in the kitchen of a Moscow apartment and drank a lot of vodka. Zolotkov hesitated. He was deeply worried about going public. But the next day, September 23, 1991, he did not disappoint. The seminar, held in a long and narrow conference room that Greenpeace had rented, was packed with journalists, environmentalists and more than a few military and defense people. Zolotkov showed them a map of harbors and marine regions where dumping took place between 1964 and 1986. He revealed that when the waste barrels sometimes floated to the surface, workers shot holes in them. They sank, unprotected. Zolotkov spoke out against the secrecy that hid the reckless dumping for so many years. “The Chernobyl experience shows that all attempts to hide the truth are doomed to failure,” he said.4

Yeltsin appointed a commission to investigate, chaired by Alexei Yablokov, a prominent environmentalist who had become one of Yeltsin’s advisers. The commission, digging into the official records, confirmed there had been decades of dumping, and found the greatest hazards were the reactor cores, tossed overboard into the shallow inlets of Novaya Zemlya in the Kara Sea. No monitoring had been done in the disposal areas for twenty-five years.5 When the report was finished, the commission members assumed it would be labeled “top secret,” locked up and forgotten, as was the practice in earlier times. Yablokov appealed to Yeltsin. “I said, let’s disclose all the data. It is not Russia’s fault. This is a dirty practice typical of the Soviet Union, this is a convenient time to say, our hands are clean, we are not going to do it any longer.” Yeltsin agreed. The report was published in 1993. The military was furious, Yablokov recalled.

One day not long afterward, Josh Handler, research director for the Greenpeace campaign, came by Yablokov’s office to see if he could obtain the report. Yablokov said yes—but he had no photocopier.

Could Handler make him five more copies?6

On Friday, March 1, 1992, William Burns, the retired major general who had inspected the bicycle factory in Perm a few months earlier, took a phone call at home in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, where he was teaching at the Army War College. The caller, from the State Department, asked Burns to drop everything and take charge of the faltering American efforts to help Russia with the dismantlement of nuclear weapons. He was told he would have to leave for Moscow in just a few days.

Burns agreed, but his task was formidable. The Russians were swamped with nuclear warheads and wanted financial help, but suspicion and hostility ran strong through the military, bureaucracy and nuclear weapons establishment, where officials had been conditioned by decades of service to the secretive Soviet state. Whenever the discussion turned to the most basic details about nuclear weapons—such as how many and how quickly they would be dismantled—the Russians went silent.7 After eight days of meetings in January 1992, one U.S. official cabled back to the State Department and the White House: “The Russians refused to tell us the locations of their dismantlement facilities or their rates of dismantlement. They said everything was fine with these plants and no help was needed.” The official quoted a Russian proverb, “We have been talking about how to share the skin of a bear that is still loose in the forest.”8

At the State Department, Burns was handed seven short memos describing areas where the Russians needed assistance. One said the Russians wanted one hundred secure rail cars for transporting nuclear warheads. The Soviet Union had always used rail to move their nuclear bombs, but now the pace was quickening as the warheads were returned to Russia from the periphery. The United States had twenty-five surplus secure cars in storage, but no one knew whether they could operate on Russian rails, or how quickly. Russia had pledged to complete the pullout of tactical nuclear warheads from other republics by July 1. There wasn’t much time left.9

As soon as Burns arrived in Moscow, he ran headlong into the wall of mistrust. Across the table sat Lieutenant General Sergei A. Zelentsov, who commanded the 12th Main Directorate of the Ministry of Defense, custodian of the nuclear weapons. Zelentsov told Burns he believed the Americans had come to spy and learn secrets about Russian weapons. “All you want to do is get out and see our stuff. I’m not sure you really want to help us at all,” Burns recalled the general told him. In fact, what Zelentsov suspected was partially true. The American delegation of sixty-four people included a fair number from the intelligence agencies. The Russian side had their share of security people, too. “We met for a period of about two and a half weeks, and got nowhere,” Burns recalled.

In an attempt to break through the mistrust, Burns arranged for a Russian delegation to visit Sandia National Laboratory in Albuquerque, New Mexico, from April 28 to May 1, 1992. The visitors were given two briefings that described how the United States had reacted to nuclear weapons emergencies, including a 1966 accident over Spain in which a B-52 lost four nuclear bombs. “They were really taken aback that we were so frank and open in explaining how we screwed up, and here are the lessons learned,” Burns said.10 Zelentsov softened. The Russians were impressed at how motivated the Americans were, and how dispirited their own people were.11

A few weeks later, Burns brought U.S. railroad experts to Moscow to examine one of the Russian nuclear weapons rail cars, under control of the Ministry of Defense. When the American experts arrived at a remote siding outside of Moscow, the nuclear transport car, model VG-124, was surrounded by a platoon of infantry, raising fixed bayonets. The Americans were told: not one step closer! Burns placed a phone call, and when the Americans returned the next day, the bayonets were down. Inside, the experts saw the rail cars were vulnerable. There was flammable insulation that might burn and threaten the weapons; the bombs were mounted on a movable platform that might come loose; the rail car had no structural reinforcement and would provide little protection. The warheads were being moved in what was essentially a modified but basic cargo boxcar, with only primitive communications. Burns realized it would take too long to adapt the American rail cars. With approval from Moscow, the United States quietly grabbed a single Russian nuclear weapon transport car, without the wheel sets, and shipped it by sea from St. Petersburg to Houston, and then overland to Sandia National Laboratories in New Mexico. There, specialists built an upgrade to improve the security of the rail car and shipped it back to Russia.

Given the mistrust that Burns had faced, and the deep secrecy about nuclear weapons, it was another extraordinary moment of cooperation.12

Vil Mirzayanov had witnessed the suffering of his colleague, Andrei Zheleznyakov, who was poisoned by nerve gas in an accident in 1987 at the chemical weapons research institute in Moscow. Mirzayanov had worked at the institute for many years. Behind the high walls, the Soviet Union and later Russia secretly developed and tested a new binary nerve gas known as novichok, or the “new guy.” Binary weapons are those in which two nonlethal chemicals are mixed together at the last minute to become a deadly agent.

Mirzayanov had heard the lofty disarmament speeches about chemical weapons. Gorbachev pledged in April 1987 that the Soviet Union would no longer produce them. Yeltsin, in one of his first announcements as the new Russian president in January 1992, promised to support the global treaty then under negotiation in Geneva that would outlaw chemical weapons.13

Yet Mirzayanov knew that the Soviet Union—and Russia after it—had never given up work on the new binary weapon. He discovered the truth one day when he noticed a new poster in the hallway of the institute in Moscow. The poster proclaimed that scientists had invented a “pesticide” for use in agriculture, and it presented the chemical formula. Mirzayanov recognized immediately that it was actually the formula for something else—a novichok agent. The pesticide was a cover story. Despite all the promises of disarmament, Mirzayanov realized there was a plan to conceal the new generation of chemical weapons in ordinary industrial and agricultural compounds. This way, the Kremlin could sign the global ban on chemical weapons while keeping a hidden arsenal at the ready. Mirzayanov decided he had to tell the world.14

A lean, compact man who gestured often with his hands when he talked, Mirzayanov landed a job in 1965 at the State Scientific Research Institute of Organic Chemistry and Technology, located on the Highway of the Enthusiasts in Moscow. He was a specialist in chromatography, a laboratory technique for the separation of mixtures, and he became an expert in detecting tiny traces of chemicals in nature.

During his many years there, Mirzayanov came to have profound doubts about the military usefulness of chemical weapons. Nevertheless, in 1985, at fifty years old, he was given a sensitive job as chief of the department of foreign technical counterintelligence, responsible for checking the air and water at all the facilities for telltale leaks and, more broadly, protecting them from foreign spies. Mirzayanov had a rebellious streak, so the job was an odd fit, but he hoped to stick to the technical side. It could mean he would get scarce hard-currency resources to purchase new equipment. In his position, Mirzayanov was told the secrets of the novichok agents. He saw field tests at first hand. He was put on the scientific councils and allowed to read the piles of reports.

As the Gorbachev revolution took hold, Mirzayanov found himself drawn into the democracy protests, especially Yeltsin’s call for radical change. “From the very first days, I went to the streets,” he recalled. He quit the Communist Party on May 4, 1990, and became still more active in the pro-democracy movement. As a result, he was kicked out of his counterintelligence post.

His indignation about the novichok deception erupted in April 1991. He learned of a banquet to celebrate the award of the Lenin Prize to the institute director, Viktor Petrunin, and to Anatoly Kuntsevich, a general who had been in charge of a chemical weapons test installation at Shikhany. The prize was for creating a binary chemical weapon—long after the Soviet Union had promised to halt the chemical weapons production.15

Mirzayanov hoped Yeltsin’s growing prominence and power in 1991 would bring a new direction. He read newspapers every day, but saw nothing about chemical weapons. He knew the institute was still functioning. “I was suffering from the agonizing burden I carried,” he recalled, “feeling personal responsibility for participating in the criminal race of chemical weapons.

“I decided, I was ready to speak openly.”

He sat down at home one night and typed out an essay, pouring out criticism of the whole chemical weapons enterprise. The next day he hand-carried his essay to the editor of a popular Moscow weekly newspaper, Kuranty, which published the article on October 10, 1991. Mirzayanov titled the essay “Inversion,” referring to the process by which a chemical unnoticeably changes from one form into another without changing its chemical formula. He meant it as a commentary on the duplicity of the generals and their determination to continue building chemical weapons.

In the article, Mirzayanov disclosed that the chemical weapons chiefs were “busy developing a more modern type of chemical weapon, and its testing was carried out at an open test site in one of the most ecologically unsafe regions.” He did not call it novichokbut had spilled the beans. And he hinted that the generals were trying to hide their misdeeds. “The question is: why are we misleading the West again?” he wrote.

Mirzayanov called the essay a “cry from the heart,” but there was little public reaction. Mirzayanov knew people were preoccupied with survival through a difficult winter. Inside the institute, his bosses were furious. They fired Mirzayanov on January 5, 1992. He was soon struggling to make a living selling Snickers and jeans in a Moscow open-air market. “It wasn’t very good for a professor with a Ph.D.,” he recalled.

Yet he could not forget about the novichok agents. He decided to speak out again, and wrote another essay. On September 16, 1992, it was published in Moscow News, a progressive weekly tabloid.16 The article, headlined “A Poisoned Policy,” was accompanied by photographs of the administration building of the institute on the Highway of Enthusiasts that had never before been identified in public. Mirzayanov revealed more about the dark secrets of the novichok generation of weapons. He said “a new toxic agent” had been developed at the institute, more lethal than the American VX gas. Injury from the new agent is “practically incurable,” he said. He disclosed that the toxic agent was the basis for a brand-new binary chemical weapon, and that field tests of the new binary agent were being carried out in Uzbekistan as recently as the first three months of 1992—after Yeltsin’s pledges in January.

Instead of destroying chemical weapons, Mirzayanov said the generals were developing new ones. The people of Russia “have no reason whatsoever to entrust the destruction of chemical weapons to those who developed them,” he insisted. The promises of Gorbachev and Yeltsin to the West were completely betrayed by work going on inside the country. Who was in charge?

Mirzayanov was arrested October 22, 1992, for revealing three state secrets: the new toxic agent that was more deadly than VX gas; the development of the binary weapon; and the recent field tests. On October 30, he was indicted. Mirzayanov pleaded not guilty, was imprisoned and then released as his case dragged on.17

On January 13, 1993, the global treaty banning the development, production, stockpiling and use of chemical weapons was signed in Paris—with Russia among the signatories.18

In the legal proceedings, Mirzayanov and his lawyer were entitled to see the record of the investigation, including top-secret documents. Mirzayanov painstakingly copied documents in his own hand, took the notes home and typed them up. As a precaution, he faxed some of the documents to Gale Colby, an environmental activist in Princeton, New Jersey, who was organizing Western support for him.19 One day, prosecutors put in the record a document that described the development, manufacture and delivery of Novichok 5 for field tests. Mirzayanov copied it. According to the document, the field tests were scheduled for 1991–1992, well after Gorbachev and Yeltsin had pledged to stop making chemical weapons.

Only in 1994, after he had been twice imprisoned, did the case against Mirzayanov fall apart.20 At great personal risk, Mirzayanov had revealed the duplicity of the generals and the development of the novichok generation of chemical weapons.

Bruce Blair, the Brookings Institution scholar, finished his second book, The Logic of Accidental Nuclear War, and it was published early in 1993. Blair’s research in Moscow had paid off—he was able to write a detailed account of the Soviet nuclear command and control system. But one small detail eluded him. In Moscow, he had been told by his sources that the Soviet Union created a special system of command rockets that would fly across the country in the event of a nuclear attack, and issue launch orders to the intercontinental ballistic missiles. But when he checked the U.S. data on flight tests for these command rockets, in some thirty examples, nothing seemed to happen when they flew. No large ballistic missiles rose out of their silos as a result of the presumed commands. Blair wrote in his book, that what the Soviets told him could not be corroborated by evidence.

Still, he wondered: what were the rockets for, if the commands were not followed?21

Blair sent a copy of his new book to Valery Yarynich, the nuclear command and control specialist whom he had met in Moscow nearly two years before. Back then, Yarynich had impressed Blair with his knowledge, and Blair had been careful not to write down Yarynich’s name, out of an abundance of caution. Yarynich had given Blair a clue about the control rockets, but Blair didn’t quite grasp it.

When Blair’s book was published, he invited Yarynich to Washington.22 Yarynich believed strongly in openness. He brought with him to Washington a typewritten document, single-spaced, dated February 24, 1993. One page was titled, at the top, “Reserve commanding rockets system.” Under this, Blair saw a half-page, hand-drawn diagram, Figure 1. The drawing was labeled “Emergency Rocket Command System.” It depicted satellites in the air, missiles in silos, submarines, command centers and strategic bombers. Blair tried to figure out, what did it all mean?

Under the diagram was a half-page of text. As Blair read on, it dawned on him. Yarynich had told him earlier that there was no automatic Dead Hand in the Russian system, but there was a semiautomatic system of some kind.

And here it was, on the typewritten page: the Doomsday Machine.

Yarynich, who had personally worked on the system in 1984, had been very careful not to write down any technical data, nor numbers or locations of the system, and did not use the real name, Perimeter, in the document. Rather, he sketched its broad principles. Blair examined the paper closely. It outlined how the “higher authority” would flip the switch if they feared they were under nuclear attack. This was to give the “permission sanction.” Duty officers would rush to their deep underground bunkers, the hardened concrete globes, the shariki. If the permission sanction were given ahead of time, if there were seismic evidence of nuclear strikes hitting the ground, and if all communications were lost, then the duty officers in the bunker could launch the command rockets. If so ordered, the command rockets would zoom across the country, broadcasting the signal “launch” to the intercontinental ballistic missiles. The big missiles would then fly and carry out their retaliatory mission.

In May 1993, Blair visited Yarynich again in Moscow. This time, Yarynich gave him an eleven-page, single-spaced review of Blair’s book. It was a thoughtful document, and near the end of it, Yarynich mentioned a few errors he had found in the book, and thus helped Blair resolve the riddle. Yarynich told Blair the reason the command rocket test flights were not followed by launches of the huge intercontinental ballistic missiles was this: the Soviets knew that the Americans were watching. So they waited, delaying launches by forty minutes or up to twenty-four hours to fool the Americans, and hide Perimeter.

Blair took notes. When he got home, he called his sources and checked the U.S. flight test data again. He was especially interested in the test of November 13, 1984, right after Reagan’s election.

Sure enough, Yarynich was right. The heavy missiles did fly, just forty minutes after the command rockets.

Yarynich believed Perimeter had a positive role. If it were turned on, the leaders in the Kremlin would feel less pressure to make a dangerous, hair-trigger decision to launch on receipt of the first warning. They could wait. It might help them avoid a terrible, impulsive mistake. But Blair had a different view. He knew from his own experience that in the American system of command and control, people were the essential firewall. People ruled machines. The Soviet Union seemed to have built a Doomsday Machine by removing all but a few people. Blair was uneasy that it put launch orders in the hands of so few, and with so much automation.

Blair revealed the amazing system in an op-ed published in the New York Times on October 8, 1993, headlined “Russia’s Doomsday Machine,” describing “a fantastic scheme in which spasms of the dead hand of the Soviet leadership would unleash a massive counter-strike after it had been wiped out by a nuclear attack.”

“Yes,” Blair wrote, “this doomsday machine still exists.”

Blair was inundated with phone calls from around the world. The very next day he was visited by Larry Gershwin, the national intelligence officer for Soviet strategic weapons, who was the man most responsible in the intelligence community for tracking Soviet missiles, bombers and submarines. Gershwin was intensely interested in what Blair had discovered. American intelligence had known some pieces of the puzzle, but they had not understood the command and control aspects of the Doomsday Machine.

Blair had connected the dots.23

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