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What happens to Russia’s nukes if Putin falls?

A Soviet nuclear test in 1951

The Wagner Group’s aborted march on Moscow last weekend raised some uneasy questions about Vladimir Putin, says Juliet Samuel in The Times. “What will happen when he falls? Will Russia fall apart? And if it does, what happens to the nukes?” Because currently, despite the fragility of Putin’s regime and the “moribund” state of his military, there is one part of the Russian state that still appears to be “highly effective and institutionally sound”. It’s called the 12th Chief Directorate (or “Gumo”), an elite body of some 30-40,000 men “whose job it is to look after nuclear warheads”.

The 12th Gumo is the “elite of the elite”, living in total seclusion with their families on special bases. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, they deftly transferred the nukes from 100 sites in various Soviet republics to 30 sites in Russia. In the 1990s, after Boris Yeltsin signed an agreement with the US, the 12th Gumo received billions of dollars’ worth of kit and training on how to look after warheads. Today, no one in the regular military can area nuclear weapon without their help. They know how to fend off “marauding mercenaries or Chechen militias”, and how to safely blow up their bunkers without setting off a warhead if “the wrong people” get in. The downside is that they are rigorously trained to “follow orders without any knowledge of the bigger picture”. The nukes may be “safely locked away” for now, but the system keeping them there is thoroughly ill-suited to the chaos and confusion of a protracted power struggle. A nuclear-armed Putin, in short, may very well be “the worst option – except for many of the others”.