These three men have the power over Russia’s nuclear bombs

Sven Christian Schulz is the author of this article. Their assessments, opinions and comments on the topic do not reflect the position of


BERLIN, ($1=0.91 Euros) — Putin’s war against Ukraine continues to escalate. On Sunday, Russia’s president put his country’s nuclear forces on alert. The Strategic Missile Forces, the Northern and Pacific Fleets, and the long-range aviation forces are now on increased combat readiness. Again and again, in his speeches, Putin had blatantly threatened the West that Russia was a nuclear power and had an extensive arsenal of nuclear weapons.

Increased combat readiness is the second stage before full combat readiness, Major General Boris Solovyov told the Russian newspaper Komsomolskaya Pravda. In the next stage, the weapons would be armed and, for example, missiles would be equipped with nuclear warheads. This means that the “red button” can be pressed at any moment.

However, this is only meant symbolically, because there is no red nuclear button in Russia. Instead, three people officially have the atomic suitcases with the codes they contain. This allows them to issue the order for strategic missiles, long-distance bombers, or even nuclear submarines. The three men met with their suitcases last weekend: President Putin, Chief of Staff Valery Gerasimov, and Defense Minister General Sergei Shoigu. All three are on the US sanctions list.

Putin cannot detonate nuclear weapons alone

Russia’s president alone cannot order the use of nuclear weapons. This requires the codes from two nuclear suitcases, so Putin is dependent on one of the two generals. “This system serves as a safeguard against a serious error in the use of nuclear weapons,” Solovyov told Russian media. But this is only reassuring at first glance because all three men are close confidants and how exactly the nuclear weapons are authorized is not known.

Who are the three men with the power over the atomic bombs?

Russian President Vladimir Putin:

If Armenia activates Article 4 of the CSTO, Russia goes to war against Turkey
Photo credit: Wikipedia

He was “insane” and a “war criminal,” said Defense Committee chairwoman Marie-Agnes Strack-Zimmermann about Putin on Twitter. Experts believe it is possible that Putin could use an atomic bomb as a last resort to achieve his goals. In an interview with the editorial network Germany, Marina Henke, Professor of International Relations at the Hertie School of Governance, explained that nuclear weapons are not Putin’s first, second, or third choice. But he could use a small tactical nuclear weapon as a clear signal to the West that he is ready to go to extremes. This is conceivable if the war goes badly for Russia, there are many victims and Putin blames support from the West – for example through arms deliveries.

Defense Minister General Sergei Shoigu:

These three men have the power over Russia's nuclear bombs
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Shoigu has been a minister in Russia since 1991, was first responsible for civil protection, and was celebrated as a hero. Then Putin made him defense minister in 2012. The Putin confidant, who has been working in the Kremlin for more than 30 years, is well connected and plays a central role in the war against Ukraine. The general led the annexation of Crimea in 2014, always defended Putin’s orders, and is said to have sent Russian special forces covertly to eastern Ukraine in the summer to support the Kremlin-affiliated separatists in the fighting. Privately, Shoigu has close ties to Putin and is considered the president’s best friend. In the past, he has repeatedly traveled with Putin. Holiday pictures show both of them fishing and hiking, Schoigu’s hometown of Chadan has already paid Putin a visit. Putin’s right-hand man has repeatedly been discussed as a possible successor to the presidency.

Chief of Staff Valery Gerasimov:

These three men have the power over Russia's nuclear bombs
Photo credit: TASS

The first deputy defense minister is deeply influenced by the Russian army. First, he served in the Soviet Army, later became chief of staff of a tank battalion, and became chief of staff of the Russian Armed Forces in 2012. In the absence of the Secretary of Defense, he leads the army. The EU put Gerasimov on the sanctions list in 2014 after the annexation of Crimea. In 2015, he organized the campaign in Syria, for which he received the Hero of the Russian Federation award. Today, Gerasimov is also a member of Russia’s Security Council. At the Moscow Conference on International Security in the summer, he declared that Russia would also use nuclear weapons if the existence of the Russian state was threatened.

The Russian constitution and military doctrine give Putin the power to make decisions. But in the event of a nuclear strike, the armed forces would also have to play along and obey the order. However, whether they do so is debatable.

Nuclear weapons in Europe

According to the Sipri peace research institute, there are around 13,000 nuclear weapons in Europe, around 12,000 of them in the hands of the USA and Russia. The Russians have 6,255 nuclear warheads. Compared to the Cold War, that’s only a fraction. But today, nuclear weapons are much more powerful and have an enormous range. Russian long-range bombers can reach any target in the world, ICBMs cover more than 10,000 kilometers and Sarmat ICBMs around 18,000 kilometers. All of these missiles can be equipped with nuclear warheads and have been repeatedly tested by Russia.

Nuclear war warning

The Russian Nobel Peace Prize winner Dmitry Muratov warned of a nuclear war on Thursday. “Of course, that would be a nightmare, but I don’t rule out that at some point there might actually be temptations to press the nuclear button,” he told the European Parliament.

Russia dismissed these and other warnings as scaremongering. “Everyone knows that a third world war can only be a nuclear one,” said Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov. But the question of a nuclear war is only in the minds of Western politicians and not in those of Russia.


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