“I know not with what weapons World War III will be fought, but World War IV will be fought with sticks and stones.” – Albert Einstein
We’re all shocked by Russia’s war with Ukraine, although war would imply two nations going at each other, not one attacking another’s sovereignty while the other – weaker in all respects – desperately fights for survival. Not since Iraq invaded Kuwait has one country tried to increase its land border and resources at the expense of another. Not since World War II. Ukraine is a country of proud people, landscape and culture. Despite Putin’s horrifying ambitions, it is not part of Russia. It is Ukraine. I’m reminded of my time there, exploring modern Kiev, learning of the horrors of Chernobyl, and how Ukraine turned over all its nukes after the Cold War to become a peaceful, independent country. Nuclear weapons are now being armed, risking millions of lives. It’s timely to share this report from deep within the former Soviet nuclear machine: a machine currently being fired up in Russia.
The button looks innocent enough. In a tiny room, crammed with gadgets, gauges and monitors, it is just one small button on a control panel of many. 24 hours a day, an officer sits harnessed in a chair, monitoring the equipment, and awaiting a phone call. On orders, he places a key into a slot, and turns clockwise. Punching in an access code, he takes a breath, and pushes the small white knob. In just over half an hour, a missile carrying a payload of ten thermonuclear warheads would hit multiple targets in the United States. In the ensuing carnage, each warhead would vaporize an area of 200 square kilometres, along with every living creature inside it. Millions of people would die, millions more from the release of deadly radiation. Life as we know it would cease to exist, as thousands of similar missiles would criss-cross the skies to seek out their targets. All it takes is one push of this seemingly innocent button, located in a control room 40-metres below the Ukrainian countryside. My finger draws near. My hand starts to shake.
Before its independence in 1991, Ukraine had more nuclear missiles than any other country outside the United States and Russia. Strategically and secretly distributed throughout the country, missile units were surrounded by armed guards and 3000-volt electric fences, and protected from attack in deep underground bunker silos built to survive a nuclear war. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, the autonomous nation of Ukraine chose to become a nuclear-weapon free zone, and with US support, dismantled its missiles and bases. Today, just three and half hours drive outside of Kiev near the town of Pervomaisk, the legacy of Armageddon is open to the public inside one of the world’s most bone-chilling tourist attractions.
The Museum of Strategic Missile Troops is a former Soviet nuclear missile base that has been opened to the public by the armed forces of Ukraine. Under the guidance of former officers who once operated the base, visitors are led on a tour explaining how large-scale nuclear missiles were managed, maintained, guarded, and later dismantled. Other than several missiles and engines on open display, the location appears innocuous – a few low-rise barracks, a tall radio tower. Massive green transport trucks customized to transport thermonuclear warheads hint at something more sinister. Deep beneath the surface lie the control and missile solos designed to destroy the world. As a thick iron door locks us in, I descend into a long tunnel towards the command silo. Immediately, the sealed in atmosphere becomes dense, cold and heavy. Slightly hunched, I am opening the mechanical and electrical toolbox designed to initiate Armageddon.
Former Colonel Mikael Kamenskov had his finger on the button for over a decade. If the orders had come down, as they very nearly did, he was responsible for pressing the button, launching the missiles, and annihilating entire cities of the enemy. Moustached and balding, he is serious man, explaining the detailed security measures and base design using scale models and a pool stick pointer. He describes how a two-man combat crew would take six-hour shifts, capable of surviving in their subterranean silo for up to 48 days without surfacing. The Colonel does not present the face of a cold-stone killer, and yet his actions would directly have resulted in the slaughter of millions. Did he get scared? The severity of the situation is terrifying for anybody, but he tells me he would push the button, he would follow orders, as that is what he was trained to do. My translator Sergey explains that officers were carefully screened and profiled. Any sign of moral anguish or doubt would result in an immediate transfer.
The air is cool as we walk along a narrow tunnel, once reserved for top-secret military personnel only. Guards were instructed to kill anyone caught within the security zone that surrounds the base. How does the Colonel feel now that he guides tourists from over 100 countries along the same restricted tunnel? “It is not a secret anymore,” he says, as we arrive at three more massive thick iron doors protecting the command silo. Heating, air, plumbing and radiation filters line the walls, and above us, a 120-ton cap protects the giant test-tube shaped silo. The 12-level underground command post silos were built on hydraulic suspensions, to function in the event of earthquake, or more likely, missile attacks. In the eyes of many Soviet soldiers, explains the Colonel, mutually assured nuclear annihilation was not so much an “if”, but a “when”.
We cram into a tiny elevator and descend slowly towards Level 12. A loud ringing accompanies the elevator, along with an old rotary dial telephone in case we get stuck. I open the flap doors to find a small circular room with low ceilings, the air musky and dank. Two bunks are fastened to the walls, a simple airplane-like toilet behind a door. Bleak as a tomb, this is the living quarters for the two officers on duty. An iron ladder takes us up to the next claustrophobic level, the command room. All signs of life are removed. Trees, animals, seas, clouds and cities can only exist here in the imagination. The boredom of such a post would be interminable, the doom pressing heavy on the shoulders of soldiers. There is purpose in its design, as if ending the world would be a relief, an escape from such a sterile and soulless environment. The Colonel makes a point of refusing to sit in one of the officer chairs. That life, he swallows hard, is behind him. I take my seat, and imagine myself on duty, the hotline ringing.
Have you ever played with an unloaded firearm? Even though you know there are no bullets, even though you know the chamber is empty, placing the gun to your temple and squeezing the trigger is more than most sane people can handle. I envision the sickening photos from Hiroshima and Nagasaki, displayed in the museum above, demonstrating the horror and devastation of nuclear warfare. My hand shakes. There are no nuclear missiles in Ukraine, the silos were long ago filled with cement. Yet I cannot bring myself to do it. Some buttons are just not meant to be pressed.
My bones are chilled when we exit the silo, and it takes some time in the hot summer sun to warm them. The Colonel walks me over to a former missile silo, pointing out the protected radar and satellite receiver that allowed the missiles to be launched remotely. Devices to measure radiation would alert the officers below when it would be safe to emerge as some of the few survivors of an apocalyptic nightmare. Various missiles are also on display, including the CC18, a massive black rocket considered to be the most advanced and deadly nuclear missile ever built. Capable of flying through a mushroom cloud, and being controlled from orbit, NATO dubs this modern Russian-made missile “Satan”. It is pure mechanical evil, carrying 10 warheads in its cap, each 50 times more powerful than the atomic bomb that exploded over Hiroshima. Walking alongside this mother of all bullets, the ink black missile radiates death. The nickname is apt, but the same could be applied to any nuclear, chemical or biological weapon.
In 1963, the Cuban Missile Crisis brought humanity to the edge of extinction. Soviet nuclear missiles in Cuba were armed and ready to attack US cities, while US counterparts were poised in Turkey, ready to wipe the world’s largest country off the map. Lesser known, there have been at least four incidents that had the superpowers on nuclear high alert, caused by technical glitches, and averted through the caution of just a few single men. All had officers like Colonel Kamenskov, around the world, poised to push the button.
Some scholars argue that mutually assured destruction has actually saved the world, that the terrifying consequences of nuclear annihilation is a deterrent strong enough to prevent any large scale conflict in the future. Either way, the most distressing part of visiting this unique Ukrainian museum is knowing that hundreds of similar bases still exist, its officers on duty, waiting for that phone call. Within minutes, everything humanity has accomplished over millennia will be burned to ash, the atomic fire indiscriminate of our faith, hopes and dreams. While Russia and the US reduce their nuclear stockpiles, other countries are actively seeking their own membership in the nuclear club.
Perhaps one day all nuclear missile bases will be dismantled, and similar museums in the United States, China, France, India, Israel, Pakistan, Great Britain and North Korea will demonstrate just how close we came to cleverly engineering our own destruction. Considering Ukraine voluntarily chose to dismantle its substantial nuclear arsenal, turning this site of a former death zone into a vital and chilling museum, there is always reason to hope.
Postscript: Several months ago, nuclear nations, North Korea excepted, came together with the agreed understanding that nobody could possibly win in a nuclear war. It was seen as a victory for nuclear non-proliferation, perhaps the first step in the further reduction of stockpiles. This week Putin vaguely threatened the entire planet and armed his warheads. What insanity. What selfishness. Perhaps one of his children will remind him that innocent lives are not his to take. That the world needs Russia, but doesn’t need another Hitler. Perhaps he’ll come to his senses. In the meantime, we stand with Ukraine, hold the nation in our thoughts, and continue to cling to hope.