MOSCOW — Russia's nuclear arsenal survived intact for three decades of Cold War showdown with the West, but its custodians were reeling Thursday 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 its $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 backup power.
A statement from the base said "the military preparedness of the Strategic 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 that 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 complete military owes it a total of 50 billion rubles, or about $21.5 million.
A government rule prohibits power cutoffs 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.
Sergeyev did not sound agreeable at all.
"There are no words in the Russian language, even unprintable ones, to comment on what happened," he declared.
Rocket forces officers said the blackout lasted four hours, and the utility knew exactly what it was doing. They said only the bunker, several hundred feet underground, lost power while officers' quarters on the base were unaffected.
According to Western and Russian specialists, communications equipment in the bunker can transmit launch codes via land lines, satellite and high-frequency radio to nuclear missiles. The equipment also lets Russian officers monitor missiles for tampering.
These systems are periodically checked to test backup emergency systems--battery power packs and diesel generators, the specialists said. Even if backups fail, they added, missiles can be monitored and launched from Defense Ministry headquarters on Arbat Street in Moscow.
"A blackout by itself wouldn't cause a dire degradation of the rocket forces' combat capability," said Bruce Blair, an arms control specialist at the Brookings Institution in Washington. "But it might be a symptom of the weakness of Russia's central authority."
Top Russian authorities took it as an affront. Even as he assigned his energy minister to investigate the incident, Chernomyrdin sided with the armed forces and said, "Whoever is responsible for this disgrace will be punished today."
Many in the armed forces are angry at Yeltsin and Chernomyrdin for threatening to withhold part of their $20.5-billion budget allocation for 1994 because of lagging tax revenue--a move that could cut defense spending to as little as half the 1993 level.
Budget-cutting across the board has tamed Russia's inflation and created a measure of stability that Yeltsin will tout at next week's White House summit.
But it has caused a payments crisis that grows as government agencies, state-subsidized companies and their clients limp along by building up huge debts to each other.
Wednesday's blackout was a nightmarish example of how much clout the debt crisis gives bureaucrats and bill collectors.
As the government struggles for an orderly way to save essential or healthy enterprises and nudge unsound ones into bankruptcy, creditors in government agencies are making their own decisions on whom to cut off.
"It is simply unthinkable," said Valery F. Davydov, a Russian specialist on nuclear weapons. "How could a rank-and-file clerk at Mosenergo make a decision affecting the security of 170 million Russian people? He has demonstrated to the world what our lives are worth--50 billion rubles."