Ever wondered what the button looked like which would signal armageddon?  Now you can find out. 

Before 1991, Ukraine contained, on one estimate, enough nuclear weapons to destroy the world three times over.  By the end of the 1990s, every single nuclear missile and every silo on Ukrainian territory had been destroyed.

Except for two silos.  Under a three-way agreement between Ukraine, Russia and the United States, it was agreed that as part of the deal to rid Ukraine of nuclear weapons, Ukraine could establish a "Museum of Strategic Rocket Forces" near the town of Pervomaisk, about 300 km south of Kyiv.  On its territory is one rocket silo, partly filled in as a condition of the Strategic Arms Reduction Talks (START) but still equipped with a 120-ton cover which could be blown open in six seconds in the event of an emergency launch.  The second silo, most impressively, houses the complete underground command post, descending twelve storeys into the earth, from which the launch of ten missiles, each carrying ten independently-targeted nuclear warheads, would have been controlled.  It's possible to visit the console (level 11 below ground) from which missiles could have been launched.  This is a chilling experience, and unique: no comparable museum exists either in the United States or Russia (where similar command posts continue to operate).

You can read an account of a visit to the museum, published recently in the Wall Street Journal, here, so I won't describe it at length (the WSJ article is a fine piece, although I'm not 100% sure it's correct that the missiles were targeted at the US: we were told no-one at the base knew the targets).  I'd recommend a visit to anyone who has time for the three-hours-each-way drive from Kyiv.  The museum is a reminder, if one were needed, of how close the world came to extermination in the second half of the 20th century - indeed, missiles from Pervomaisk were among those sent to Cuba in 1962.  It's also a reminder that, although change sometimes can feel frustratingly slow in Ukraine, a great deal has happened since 1991.

And what does the button look like?  Our guide describes it.  "In the movies, they always show the nuclear button as being big and red.  In actual fact, it's just a regular button: small and grey." 

You can see some photos of the museum below. 


Leigh Turner
British Ambassador to Ukraine

NOTE:  You can read all of Ambassador Turner's blogs by visiting: 

Ukrayinska Dumka


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