Avatar photo

Leigh Turner

Ambassador to Austria and UK Permanent Representative to the United Nations and other International Organisations in Vienna

Part of UK in Ukraine

18th August 2010

Ukraine: the Armageddon button

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.

About Leigh Turner

I hope you find this blog interesting and, where appropriate, entertaining. My role in Vienna covers the relationship between Austria and the UK as well as the diverse work of…

I hope you find this blog interesting and, where appropriate, entertaining. My role in Vienna covers the relationship between Austria and the UK as well as the diverse work of the UN and other organisations; stories here will reflect that.

About me: I arrived in Vienna in August 2016 for my second posting in this wonderful city, having first served here in the mid-1980s. My previous job was as HM Consul-General and Director-General for Trade and Investment for Turkey, Central Asia and South Caucasus based in Istanbul.

Further back: I grew up in Nigeria, Exeter, Lesotho, Swaziland and Manchester before attending Cambridge University 1976-79. I worked in several government departments before joining the Foreign Office in 1983.

Keen to go to Africa and South America, I’ve had postings in Vienna (twice), Moscow, Bonn, Berlin, Kyiv and Istanbul, plus jobs in London ranging from the EU Budget to the British Overseas Territories.

2002-6 I was lucky enough to spend four years in Berlin running the house, looking after the children (born 1992 and 1994) and doing some writing and journalism.

To return to Vienna as ambassador is a privilege and a pleasure. I hope this blog reflects that.