How Putin's 'Nuclear Football' Really Works

Everywhere President Joe Biden goes, he is accompanied by a nondescript briefcase. Though it looks harmless, the black briefcase contains within it the power to destroy civilization as we know it. The leather container is better known as the "nuclear football," and Russian President Vladimir Putin has his own version of the briefcase.

Carried by one of six rotating aides, the American nuclear football—officially named the Presidential Emergency Satchel—functions as a mobile strategic defense hub should the president need to authorize a nuclear strike while away from command centers at the White House. The nickname "nuclear football" reportedly came from an early plan for launching a war called "Operation Dropkick," and every president since Dwight D. Eisenhower has traveled with the briefcase in tow.

Despite popular belief, there is no button inside the U.S. nuclear football to launch nukes. According to former White House Military Office Director Bill Gulley's 1980 book Breaking Cover, the briefcase contains authentication codes, a list of secure bunkers for the president and instructions for using the Emergency Broadcast System.

Since Putin ordered his military to attack Ukraine in late February, various experts have warned about the possibility he could turn to using nuclear weapons. Those concerns have grown as his military campaign continues to struggle, which has raised questions about Russia's nuclear procedures, including Putin's version of a nuclear football.

The Russian portable nuclear hub is also contained in a briefcase, although it's known as the "Cheget." Named after a mountain in Russia's Caucasus region, the Cheget is also always near Putin's side. Not as much is known about the Cheget as its American counterpart, but Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty wrote that the Kremlin briefcase first came into use in 1983.

Nuclear Football
In this combination image, Vladimir Putin (left) arrives in France with one of his aides carrying the nuclear briefcase, 2019. A White House military aide (right) carries the "nuclear football" as he leaves the White House. (Getty Images)

The team at Special Operations Forces Report (SOFREP) said the Cheget also doesn't contain a nuclear launch button, but it does transmit launch orders to the central military command of Russia's general staff. The general staff also have their own backup command system called the Perimeter, also known as the "Dead Hand," which allows them to bypass immediate command posts and initiate the launch of land-based missiles. The Perimeter is said to have been created in the event that the Russian president and his deputies are all taken out by a first strike.

Although there have been no known instances of a U.S. president using a nuclear football, the Cheget has been operated on at least one occasion. This occurred in 1995 when Norway launched a missile for a scientific study of the Northern Lights, which Russian radars detected.

An erroneous message that the missile was launched from a U.S. submarine was conveyed to Moscow, and then-President Boris Yeltsin opened the Cheget for what is said to be the only time in history thus far.

"I have indeed yesterday used for the first time my 'little black suitcase' with a button that is always with me," Yeltsin said afterwards, according to former CIA military analyst Peter Vincent Pry's 1999 book War Scare. "I immediately contacted the Defense Ministry and all the military commanders that I require, and we were following the path of this missile from beginning to end."

Yeltsin said he and his military leaders determined that the trajectory of Norway's missile showed it was headed away from Moscow. They then decided not to shoot it down. (Some Russian officials have disputed this account, saying Yeltsin's use of the Cheget in 1995 was overblown and no actual danger was presented.)

Below are photos reportedly taken of some Chegets over the years, shared on Twitter by Stephen Schwartz, a senior fellow at the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.

Soon after the 1995 incident, it was determined that Norway had provided Russia with proper notice in advance of the launch, but the information was not conveyed to the early detection radar stations. Perhaps due to the possibility of such errors in communication, the Kremlin is said not to trust any single person with the power to launch nuclear weapons. The SOFREP team pointed out that an executive order signed by Putin in 2020 lays out the rules for Russia on using nuclear weapons.

Among the conditions in the order allowing Russia to deploy nuclear weapons is if "reliable data" shows "a launch of ballistic missiles attacking the territory of the Russian Federation and/or its allies." Similarly, evidence that nuclear weapons or other weapons of mass destruction are being used on Russia or its allies can be used as justification, as well as if a country attacks "critical governmental or military sites," or if Russia's "very existence" is "in jeopardy."

As for what is at Putin's disposal that he can order activated from his Cheget, data released in early 2022 from the Federation of American Scientists (FAS) showed Russia has 5,977 nuclear warheads in its arsenal. However, SOFREP believes there could be serious issues with Russia's overall nuclear network.

For one, the Russian Early Warning Radar System is not in the same condition as it was under the Soviet Union, according to SOFREP's analysis. Perhaps only 50 percent of its stations are still operational, which means a first strike by another country would be hard for Russia to detect, let alone react to it in time.

Added to this is the fact that most of the weapons in the Russian arsenal are thought to be more than 30 years old. Nuclear weapons require constant care and maintenance to function. The Russian missiles in silos would need protection from extremes in temperature and humidity and even from rodents getting inside them and chewing on the wiring, according to SOFREP. Given the general state of the Russian military, SOFREP believes it is fair to wonder just how well these weapons have been maintained.

Nevertheless, Russia does still possess a vast amount of nuclear weapons. But since no one person in Russia can reportedly order a nuclear strike, it is unlikely that Putin's nuclear football would play much of a role in any potential war games.

Sean Spoonts is the editor-in-chief of SOFREP. He is a former Navy anti-submarine warfare operator and search-and-rescue aircrewman.