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Power Company Pulls Plug on Russian Missile Command

By Richard Boudreaux
Los Angeles Times
MOSCOW

Russia's nuclear arsenal survived intact for three decades of Cold War showdown with the West, but its custodians Thursday were reeling from a humiliating sneak attack on their headquarters.

It came not from a weapon of destruction, nor a terrorist, nor a thief in the night.

It happened in broad daylight and has been blamed on a fearless but faceless bureaucrat at the Moscow power company.

For at least 74 minutes Wednesday, the utility shut off electricity to the Strategic Rocket Forces command center for failure to pay $645,000 in overdue bills.

The command post - in an underground bunker, full of communications gear with launch codes and monitoring equipment for 744 intercontinental ballistic missiles across the former Soviet Union - switched to emergency back-up power.

A statement from the base said "the military preparedness of the Stategic Rocket Forces was not impaired."

But the country's security establishment erupted with fury Thursday over the bizarre blackout, which Prime Minister Viktor S. Chernomyrdin called "scandalous."

To many, the incident seemed to show how the economic disorder and breakdown of authority in post-Soviet Russia pose indiscriminate threats to vital national interests.

Some officials suggested it could undermine efforts by Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin at his summit next week with President Clinton to portray Russia as an increasingly stable country worthy of Western trust, aid and investment.

"The Americans will have doubts now whether Russia and the Yeltsin administration, in particular, are capable of being responsible for the conditions under which nuclear arms are stored," said Alexei G. Arbatov, a disarmament specialist and member of Parliament. "The people responsible should be put on trial and sent to prison."

What happened Wednesday is still a matter of conflicting accounts from the two antagonists: the Russian Defense Ministry, which hasn't paid for a kilowatt since January; and Mosenergo, the Moscow utility that claims the military owes it 50 billion rubles, about $21.5 million.

A government rule prohibits power cut-offs to strategic military installations. But Mosenergo officials claimed not to understand that they were violating this regulation.

They said they simply cut power at 2:30 p.m. to a Defense Ministry "object" known to them only by a code number. "We turned off a cable to remind the leadership of this object to undertake measures to pay its debt," said Igor Goryunov, the utility's deputy director.

Mosenergo officials said power was restored at 3:44 p.m. after a telephone call from Gen. Igor Sergeyev, commander of the rocket forces base 12 miles west of Moscow. They said the general agreed to meet next week to discuss a debt payment schedule.