During the Trump years, there was conversation about nuclear command and control in the U.S. and the military's response to a rogue presidential nuclear strike order. Specifically, the question revolved around checks and balances in the system i.e. political and/or military figures who could prevent the execution of an arbitrarily issued order by a leader acting irrationally.

The question now changes context to Russia, given the most recent developments coming out of there. If Putin issued a nuclear strike order to punish either Ukraine for its defiance or a western nation for assisting Ukrainian resistance, would it be unconditionally followed/executed, or does the Russian system involve other persons in such a way that an irrational order would not be passed along? Does Putin have uncontestable authority to initiate a nuclear escalation?

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    "the question revolved around checks and balances in the system i.e. political and/or military figures who could prevent the execution of an arbitrarily issued order by a leader acting irrationally" Btw. did anything come out of this discussion during the Trump years. If yes, maybe could a link to a summary be inserted in the question. Feb 28, 2022 at 9:19
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    @Trilarion It seems that in the case of an intentional first strike by the US, the president would have to convince his national security advisers, but if he choses to rush things, the advisers may simply not be able to join, and it would be between him and the commander-in-chief. Feb 28, 2022 at 10:37
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    It's also important to understand that whatever checks and balances may exist in Russian law are largely not working in practice. E.g. public calls for an aggressive war are a punishable offence and Putin should have been under impeachment by now if Russian judicial system was functional. Feb 28, 2022 at 11:01
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    @DmitryGrigoryev "it would be between him [the US President] and the commander-in-chief". The US President is the commander in chief, so that sentence makes no sense. Who are you trying to claim would prevent POTUS from firing nukes?
    – atk
    Feb 28, 2022 at 14:00
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    @atk Right, I meant to say "head of Strategic Command". According to what I have found, it would be at least him and the POTUS discussing the options, and the final decision is in the president's hands anyway, the StratCom could try to dissuade him, but not prevent. Feb 28, 2022 at 15:39

1 Answer 1


According to the Defense Intelligence Agency, while the President retains sole de jure authority to initiate the launch of nuclear weapons, his orders are then relayed to the launch crews via the General Staff. There is presumably the possibility, therefore, that de facto a suitably irrational order could be ignored.

Russian military doctrine underscores the central role of the Russian president in authorizing the use of nuclear weapons. He uses the nuclear briefcase, which is carried by officers who always remain near the president. The General Staff monitors the status of the weapons of the nuclear triad and will send the direct command to the launch crews following the president’s decision to use nuclear weapons. The Russians send this command over multiple C2 [(Command & Control)] systems, which creates a redundant dissemination process to guarantee that they can launch their nuclear weapons. Moscow also maintains the Perimetr system, which is designed to ensure that a retaliatory launch can be ordered when Russia is under nuclear attack.

This is backed up by Russia’s nuclear military doctrine, updated and published in 2020:

  1. The decision to use nuclear weapons is taken by the President of the Russian Federation.
  1. The Ministry of Defence of the Russian Federation, acting through the General Staff of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation, directly plans and carries out organizational and military measures in the area of nuclear deterrence.

The doctrine also sets out the conditions which would need to be met in order for the use of nuclear weapons to be on the table;

  1. The conditions specifying the possibility of nuclear weapons use by the Russian Federation are as follows:
  • a) arrival of reliable data on a launch of ballistic missiles attacking the territory of the Russian Federation and/or its allies;
  • b) use of nuclear weapons or other types of weapons of mass destruction by an adversary against the Russian Federation and/or its allies;
  • c) attack by adversary against critical governmental or military sites of the Russian Federation, disruption of which would undermine nuclear forces response actions;
  • d) aggression against the Russian Federation with the use of conventional weapons when the very existence of the state is in jeopardy.

Presumably an order could still be issued by the President even if these conditions were not met, but it does provide a suitably motivated General Staff with a yardstick as to whether such an order would be rational or irrational.

  • So the president's role with regard to nuclear forces is authorization of an action promulgated by the military, rather than command to the military for the action?
    – Anthony X
    Feb 27, 2022 at 19:53
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    More info on Perimetr en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dead_Hand Feb 27, 2022 at 19:55
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    @AnthonyX to be clear - there are no legal checks and balances; legally if the President decides to use nuclear weapons, the army receives an order to use nuclear weapons. Whether that order would be carried out is something we can only guess at.
    – CDJB
    Feb 27, 2022 at 20:07
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    On the other hand, Russia has a history of at least one occasion where a responsible military officer ignores an unreasonable internal procedure and ends up not launching the missiles. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1983_Soviet_nuclear_false_alarm_incident
    – fraxinus
    Feb 28, 2022 at 6:57
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    @fraxinus This is not in the same line but I want to add this: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/…
    – SirHawrk
    Feb 28, 2022 at 9:46

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