The dispute concerns the more than 176 nuclear missiles that have been in Ukrainian silos since the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Contrary to the widely held belief that these missiles cannot be fired unless Boris Yeltsin transmits special nuclear authorisation codes, my understanding is that they can be brought into full operational use by Ukraine within months. More important, the Russian high command knows this is possible and believes that this is what Ukraine's prime minister, Leonid Kuchma - under pressure from the country's parliament - is secretly planning to do.
After the attempted coup in August 1991, the US administration panicked about the safety of the 27,000 nuclear warheads spread around the Soviet Union. Tactical weapons may be a problem, the Soviet military admitted, but no one need fear the intercontinental ballistic missiles. Gennadi Pavlov, a senior researcher at the Soviet Academy of Sciences, briefed the European Affairs Subcommittee of the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee on the Soviet Union's hitherto top-secret command and control system. He outlined an elaborate dual channel permissive action link (PAL), requiring the independent generation by the top political leadership and the military high command of 12-digit electronic codes for preliminary command, permission command, direct command, and launch command, without which no missile could be fired.
The message was clear: the West must put pressure on Ukraine, Belarus and Kazakhstan to send without delay the easily transportable tactical nuclear weapons to Russia, where they would be dismantled. And if these republics, which had just declared their independence from the Soviet Union, had any ideas about the ICBMs - which take much longer to dismantle and remove - forget it: they were unusable without Moscow's electronic codes.
This struck me as curious. The Soviet ICBM command and control system as outlined by Pavlov was far more sophisticated than the American one. Yet Soviet space technology was about 10 years behind American space technology, and its civilian nuclear technology had not advanced beyond Chernobyl level.
An attempt to ascertain the facts led to serving officers of the Russian Ministry of Security (formerly the KGB) and the GRU, the Russian military intelligence service, in Moscow. It emerged that much of what the West believed about Soviet nuclear security was disinformation. For example, the KGB never had custody of nuclear warheads or the unlock codes for strategic missiles. The military jealously guards its control of nuclear weapons, and possesses the capability to bypass the PALs and launch ICBMs direct from a Moscow command centre.
When I quizzed an indiscreet GRU colonel, he confided that Pavlov had gained his information from the military high command. How accurate was it? He smiled. 'All generals are liars.' But what about the black box that Gorbachev handed over to Yeltsin? He laughed. 'It makes him feel important. Do you think our military would trust Yeltsin - or any politician - with control over our nuclear weapons?'
But 176 of these were in Ukraine. Ninety of the two-stage, liquid fuelled RS-18s (known in the West as SS-19s), first deployed in 1974 and modernised in 1982, were spread in nine battalions of 10 silos across the Derezhnya missile field in a forest outside Khmelnitskiy. Another 40, together with 46 of the more modern three-stage, solid fuelled RS-22 (Western name SS-24) were similarly deployed across the Pervomaysk missile field outside Kirovograd.
A Ukrainian national serving as a major in command of the launch crew of one of the Derezhnya missile battalions later agreed to meet me secretly in Kiev. What he described of the equipment and operational procedures led me to conclude that Pavlov's evidence was also disinformation. There are permissive action links on most of the former Soviet ICBMs, but they do not employ modern technology - they are very probably electromagnetic rather than electronic - and are certainly not as foolproof as Pavlov implied. Yeltsin's black box contains codes that are not essential either to launch or to block the launch of nuclear missiles. Moreover, most Soviet missiles were developed and built in Ukraine at the world's largest missile production centre at Dnepropetrovsk, which employs more than 400,000 people. It seemed inconceivable to me in December 1991 that Ukraine did not have engineers capable of bypassing the blocking mechanisms, retargeting and launching the missiles.
By November 1992 sources in the Russian military were telling the New York Times that a top-secret government research institute in Kharkiv was working on precisely that. The propaganda war intensified. The Ukrainian parliament, alarmed that the West had not supplied either the security guarantees or the financial recompense Ukraine deserved after transferring to Russia 4,200 tactical nuclear warheads, repeatedly postponed its pledge to ratify the Start 1 and the Non-Proliferation Treaties without which the sweeping nuclear cuts of Start 2 cannot begin.
It reached a new peak last week when, in a closed session, parliament called on the government to proclaim Ukraine a temporary nuclear power. According to opposition MP Viacheslav Chornovil, prime minister Kuchma declared that Ukraine should keep the 46 newer RS-22s and had the technical means to maintain them.
A recent speech to parliament by Kuchma,
which contradicts the overt policy of Ukraine's President Kravchuk, is significant in two respects. He is fighting for his own political survival, and his previous job as director of the Dnepropetrovsk missile plant, where the RS-22s were made, gives him unparalleled knowledge of the operational status of the missiles. If proposals advanced by Washington fail to convince the Ukrainian parliament that it will be protected from Russian territorial claims or political and economic destabilisation of its cherished independence, then those 46 missiles, which have a combined destructive power of more than 3,500 Hiroshima bombs, could be brought into operational readiness by the autumn. And I do not believe the Russian high command will allow that.
The information contained in this article was obtained by the author during research for his novel, 'Darkness at Dawn', published by HarperCollins.