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:
- The decision to use nuclear weapons is taken by the President of the Russian Federation.
- 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;
- 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.