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The man between Putin and the nuclear button

Gerasimov: will he obey the order? Murat Kula/Anadolu Agency/Getty

If Vladimir Putin decides to fire a nuclear weapon at Ukraine, says Lewis Page in The Sunday Telegraph, he can’t just press the button himself. He would first have to seek agreement from the Russian General Staff, the high command of the country’s armed forces. And there’s no guarantee the top brass would play ball. If they don’t feel the threshold for taking nuclear action has been reached – that a conventional war being waged on Russia threatens “the very existence of the state”, for example – they can block the order. That decision will largely fall to one man: the Chief of the General Staff, Army-General Valery Gerasimov.

Unlike Putin, Gerasimov is a soldier by background – and by all accounts an honourable one. In 2000, during the Second Chechen War, he “personally arrested a rogue Russian colonel” who had murdered and probably raped a Chechen teenager. The brave journalist Anna Politkovskaya (who was later assassinated) said he had “preserved his honour as an officer” during that brutal conflict – “not something that could be said of many”. Of course, it’s impossible to know for sure how Gerasimov would react if ordered to launch a nuclear strike. But if he did refuse, he’d know full well that Putin would respond by having him killed. So his only way of staying alive would be to kill the Russian leader first. That fact, as much as any geopolitical calculation, must weigh on Putin’s mind. Giving the order to launch a nuke “puts his personal survival at severe risk”.