PM has charge of nuclear arsenal

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It was a moment for which the Kremlin has been planning for weeks. Just before surgeons operated on him, President Boris Yeltsin signed Decree 1,534, transferring his powers to his Prime Minister. At 7am yesterday Viktor Chernomyrdin became President of the Russian Federation, with command of the so-called nuclear button.

Although the post is temporary, he was well groomed. Nine days ago the NTV channel broadcast a profile aimed at proving he is not the dull bureaucrat he might appear but a thinking, feeling, red-blooded Russian male. A man, in other words, the public could trust.

He was shown playing billiards, riding a jet-ski, playing an accordion. He confided he liked attractive women and hunting (Russian politics are unclouded by political correctness) and even admitted enjoying the occasional vodka.

For many, it was the most charismatic performance they had seen by a prime minister known more for his reliability than his water-sport skills.

The former gas-industry executive has been one of Mr Yeltsin's most trusted allies during his four years as Prime Minister and his brief reign may be a warm-up for greater things. He has a powerful constituency in the energy lobby and is tipped to be the establishment's candidate in the next presidential poll. But if he is to win round Russia, he may have to do a lot more accordion playing.