On the morning of January 31, 2006, Oleg Vladimirovich Khintsagov, a slightly built, 49-year-old auto mechanic, got out of bed in the ramshackle house he shared with relatives in Nogir, a working-class-village-turned-suburb just a few miles inside Russia’s border with ex-Soviet Georgia. It was still early, the first light shimmering off the fresh snow atop the peaks of the nearby Caucasus Mountains.
Interviews: "Uranium on the Loose"
Lawrence Scott Sheets discusses the lawlessness of the former Soviet republics and the nuclear threat no one talks about.
For 15 years, Khintsagov had eked out a living, like so many Russians after the Soviet collapse, mostly as a small-time trader. Cheap Turkish chandeliers, dried fish, sausages—Khintsagov would peddle just about anything he could get his hands on, and the returns were usually meager. But now his luck looked about to change. In fact, if everything went according to plan, he would end the day very much richer. No truck would be needed to ferry today’s goods. The 100 grams of highly enriched uranium in his tattered leather coat was tucked into a plastic bag—the type a day laborer might use to wrap a sandwich.
Khintsagov headed out of Nogir toward the Russian-Georgian border in an old, white Niva four-wheel drive with three men from Georgia who had driven over to pick him up. One was Revaz Kurkumuli, a drug dealer. The other two had engaged in petty smuggling with Khintsagov in the past—Henry Sudjashvili, who painted and peddled cheap reproductions of European masters, and Vazha Chikhashvili, a corrupt, low-ranking Georgian interior ministry official. Khintsagov had bragged to his companions for months that what he had in his pocket was just a sample, and that he could get at least two kilograms of the grayish-green powder—not quite enough for a nuclear bomb, but, for a buyer with the right equipment and experience, a good start.
The men were traveling 100 miles to the Georgian capital, Tbilisi, to meet a Turk who had earlier told Khintsagov’s three Georgian associates that he represented a Muslim from a “serious organization” that was interested in getting HEU. There was, of course, the problem of the Russian-Georgian customs post, just a few miles from Nogir. But one of Khintsagov’s relatives worked there on the Russian side, and he saw to it that things went smoothly. When Khintsagov and his group approached Tbilisi, they veered off to the hardscrabble Mukhiani district on the outskirts and then arrived at a run-down, nine-story Soviet-style apartment block. There, in a squalid two-and-a-half-room apartment on the seventh floor, Khintsagov and Sudjashvili waited for their Turkish buyer.
Unfortunately for Khintsagov, however, the “buyer” was a Turkish-speaking operative of Georgia’s security service, which had gotten wind of his plans and set up a sting.
At first, the Georgian government didn’t believe that Khintsagov’s uranium was weapons grade. “There are a lot of scammers saying they have nuclear materials,” Archil Pavlenishvili, Georgia’s chief nuclear investigator, told me in Tbilisi in January 2007. “In Khintsagov’s case, we thought that, at most, he had some low-grade radioactive stuff, not highly enriched.” In fact, according to tests done by the U.S. government shortly after Khintsagov’s arrest, his HEU was more than 89 percent pure, a level that the U.S. testing report described as “suitable for … military purposes including nuclear weapons.” Even more alarming was the apparent ease with which Khintsagov, a minor-league hustler, had acquired the material (most likely in the Siberian city of Novosibirsk, as he initially claimed to the Georgian authorities). Only by happenstance had the Georgians been able to apprehend Khintsagov, who had made several attempts to sell his HEU in Georgia’s lawless, breakaway territory of South Ossetia—one of several geopolitical black holes created in the region by the dissolution of the U.S.S.R.
In 1989, the Soviet economy was imploding. Khintsagov, who had worked at a state-run auto-repair facility and as a tractor driver after he finished school in 1973, was lucky enough to land a job in Iraq, as one of several thousand Soviet citizens brought in by Saddam Hussein to help develop the country’s oil fields. But that stint ended in 1991, and Khintsagov headed home, where he had no prospect of a decent job. Much of the Soviet workforce was either unemployed or, more often, underemployed. Professors had become paupers. White-collar professionals were being turned into penniless paper pushers.
So Khintsagov became a spekulant—a speculator—still a pejorative in those early days after the fall of the U.S.S.R., where such activity had once been a crime. First he traded in fish, anything from the dried vobbly that working-class Russian men washed down with vodka, to the trout that thrive in the streams of the Caucasus and the much more expensive, and illicit, Caspian Sea beluga that pass through Khintsagov’s home region on the way to markets in Moscow. He dabbled in another Russian staple—kolbasa, or sausage. And at some point he began dealing in furs, a trade that took him from Nogir to Novosibirsk, the Siberian city famous for its academic research facilities, and infamous for the secret cities nearby that formed the heart of the Russian nuclear-weapons complex.
It’s unclear how or when Khintsagov began trading in nuclear materials. Pavlenishvili says that Khintsagov was apparently so afraid of his nuclear suppliers that after he was arrested, he refused to give even their first names. “He could have just invented some generic Russian names—Oleg, Dmitry. But he didn’t even do that,” said Pavlenishvili. “He was evidently terrified, possibly for his relatives, and possibly because when his jail sentence in Georgia is up, he knows he will be deported back to Russia.” Somehow, Khintsagov acquired the uranium, and once he did, he needed to find a buyer.
One natural hunting ground was South Ossetia, a tiny region of Georgia that borders Russia and is one of several unrecognized, Moscow-supported statelets left over from the Soviet collapse. A strip of land about the size of Long Island and home to no more than 50,000 people, the region is partly controlled by Russian-backed separatists, and partly by the Georgian authorities. It effectively split off from Georgia in 1992, after a year of ethnic bloodletting between Georgians and Ossetians that left about 1,000 people dead and at least another 10,000 homeless.
Today, any pretense South Ossetia had to independence has been abandoned. The Russian flag flies alongside the South Ossetian yellow, white, and red tricolor over the separatist government headquarters, a drab, early- Khrushchev-looking affair in the run-down capital of Tskhinvali. The tree-lined main avenue is still called “Stalin Street” (an ethnic Georgian, Stalin was said to have also had Ossetian roots). Most of the government’s top leaders are Russians with no ties to the region. Russia keeps 1,000 peacekeepers there (500 ethnic Russians and 500 North Ossetians) as part of a 16-year-old agreement; it has handed out passports to the local population and says it will defend the territory if Georgia acts to reassert control.
Faced at independence with economic collapse, Georgia’s corrupt central government had essentially ignored South Ossetia, which became what its inhabitants joked was “the world’s biggest duty-free shop.” Near the administrative border with Georgia, traders even set up an enormous open-air market where people from all over the region came to buy everything from Russian gasoline to pasta, all free of the import duties that they would pay in other parts of Georgia. (In 2004, shortly after President Mikheil Saakashvili came to power in Georgia, his government shut down the market by placing a police and customs post nearby.) South Ossetia also became especially popular with car thieves—Ossetian, Georgian, and Russian alike—who ripped off automobiles in Georgia, drove them the short distance to South Ossetia, and sold them to middlemen who then ferried them to Russia. And the U.S. government says counterfeit $100 bills traceable to South Ossetia have surfaced in at least four American cities.
According to Georgian authorities, Khintsagov first tried to find a buyer for his uranium in South Ossetia, which he visited at least five times during 2005. Meanwhile, he was also working with his old smuggling buddies back in Georgia, who had “business partners” in South Ossetia, according to Pavlenishvili. At least one of Khintsagov’s associates had been under Georgian government surveillance for drug dealing. That’s how the Georgian authorities first heard about the nuclear material. They decided to set their trap using a Turkish-speaking Georgian agent, who approached Khintsagov’s Georgian associates with an offer of $1 million for a “test shipment” of 100 grams of bomb-grade uranium—more money than Khintsagov could ever have hoped to get in South Ossetia. By having Khintsagov bring the HEU into Georgia, Interior Minister Ivane Merabishvili told me, the Tbilisi government could also ensure that the materials did not disappear into the “black hole” of South Ossetia.