A Smuggler’s Story

Meet Oleg Khintsagov, a small-time hustler in Russia who can get you dried fish, furs, Turkish chandeliers … and weapons-grade uranium. He’s not the only one.
RUSSIAN TAKEOUT: The U.S. anaylsis of Khintsagov's seized material called it "suitable for... nuclear weapons."

I first heard of Khintsagov’s arrest for smuggling HEU on March 15, 2006. I had just interviewed President Saakashvili, the brash, 40-year-old leader of Georgia’s “Rose Revolution,” in 2003, which had ousted the corrupt government of Eduard Shevardnadze, the former Soviet foreign minister and longtime Georgian chieftain. Saakashvili had been complaining to me (in flawless English polished at Columbia University) about commercial smuggling through South Ossetia, hinting about the region’s use as a conduit for more-nefarious purposes. After I stepped out of his office, one of his top advisers mentioned that a Russian national had recently been caught trying to smuggle into Georgia a significant amount of HEU, which he had earlier tried to sell in South Ossetia. When I asked for more information, I was told that it was too early to discuss details: the Georgians were trying to get the smuggler to cooperate and lead investigators to the supplier of his bomb-grade uranium. (Citing the same reasons, U.S. officials in Tbilisi had also asked that the case be kept quiet.) Over the next 10 months, I constantly prodded the Georgians to give me the details of the story.

What prompted their eventual acquiescence was probably a combination of factors: frustration over Russia’s lack of cooperation; the impending release of an incident report by the International Atomic Energy Agency; and weariness with U.S. pressure to keep a lid on an incident that Tbilisi saw as compelling evidence of the international threat posed by South Ossetia’s lawlessness.

At last, on January 13, 2007, I met with Interior Minister Merabishvili. We were supposed to talk about Georgia’s efforts to reform its once-hopelessly-corrupt police force. But the night before, I had prevailed on my government interlocutor to ask again for information about the HEU smuggling case. My contact had sighed and placed a call to Saakashvili’s cell phone. “Can we talk about the HEU smuggling case yet?” he asked him. “I’m taking Lawrence Sheets over to Vano [the interior minister] tomorrow to talk about police reforms.”

“Yes, go ahead,” I heard Saakashvili reply.

The next day, when I arrived to meet with Interior Minister Merabishvili, my contact walked up to him and in a low tone passed on the president’s message giving Merabishvili permission to discuss the HEU case.

Merabishvili, a friendly, compact man, nodded. I sat down in front of his huge desk, bare except for an impressive bank of phones, a big-screen plasma monitor, and two cartons of Kent cigarettes. After a few minutes of questions about police reforms (he spent some time using the plasma screen to show off the views from the 400 security cameras now installed across Tbilisi), we turned to the subject of nuclear smuggling via Georgia and its breakaway territories.

Merabishvili explained the basics of the case: how the authorities had caught Khintsagov, and how they believed his capture had been only the second interdiction of a serious international HEU smuggling attempt—both through Georgia—since the 9/11 terror attacks. Then he picked up one of the telephones and started making calls.

Within a few minutes, aides began walking in and placing photos, diagrams, and documents in front of Merabishvili. One was a photograph of Khintsagov. Another was a picture of the HEU wrapped in plastic. There were summary documents detailing the 2006 HEU case and a similar one in 2003; there was a Georgian translation of documents from U.S. nuclear laboratories with the test results on the confiscated nuclear materials. Merabishvili complained that the Russians had claimed they could not identify the source of the bomb-grade nuclear material. He then picked up the phone and called Pavlenishvili, his chief nuclear investigator, ordering him to brief me.

I met Pavlenishvili in the lobby of the luxurious Tbi­lisi Marriott hotel. A short, earnest man in a grey overcoat who spoke as plainly as he dressed, he corroborated what I had been told by the interior minister about Khintsagov—the details of his case, his Georgian cohorts, his attempts to sell his HEU in South Ossetia. Early on in the investigation, Pavlenishvili says, the Georgian government informed the Russian Embassy in Georgia of Khintsagov’s arrest, offering routine consular access. He said the Russians did not respond. The Georgian general prosecutor also sent a letter to his Russian counterpart, asking the Russians to check Khintsagov’s house in Nogir for HEU. The Georgian nuclear investigators knew of no response from the Russians. However, about a month after Khintsagov’s arrest, the Russian security service—the FSB, successor to the Soviet KGB—did send two operatives from Moscow to Tbilisi to collect samples of the material for analysis.

The FSB later sent their Georgian counterparts a brief report on the results. On page five of the letter, which I ultimately obtained from other sources in the Georgian government, the Russians confirmed that Khintsagov’s cache was indeed HEU. The FSB put the level of enrichment at 89.38 percent, just below the initial American assessment. Yet the letter went on to say that because the material had been produced more than 10 years ago, its origins were impossible to determine.

Every nuclear physicist I contacted—from Calgary to Monterey to Moscow—cast doubt on that claim. The first was Boris Zhukov, director of a facility with a typically Soviet name: the Laboratory of the Isotopic Complex of Experimental Nuclear Research of the Russian Academy of Sciences. Zhukov is known as a straight shooter, someone unafraid to speak to what remains of the independent Russian press on the poisoning, in London, of former Russian KGB agent Alexander Litvinenko. But over the phone, Zhukov sounded skittish, saying that he didn’t want to discuss anything military or anything secret. I told Zhukov that I wanted to ask him a simple question: Was it possible, as this FSB letter indicated, that the Russian government would be unable to identify the source of the HEU that Khintsagov had been caught with? “In general terms, of course, everything can be traced. Every batch of highly enriched uranium that is produced is given a ‘passport,’ and it’s very carefully entered into log books,” Zhukov replied. “Of course, if they want to, they can identify where it came from.” Zhukov then hung up.

I later spoke with David Morrissey, a chemistry professor at the National Superconducting Cyclotron Laboratory at Michigan State University, the world’s premier facility for producing radioactive isotopes for research. Morrissey called the Russian claim implausible. “Highly enriched uranium has unique characteristics,” he said. “It’s like when the police take a fingerprint. No two fingerprints are the same.” As for the Russian claim that the material’s age—judged by its radioactive decay—could have obscured its origins, Morrissey dismissed this as well, noting that correcting for radioactive decay was a relatively simple procedure. The U.S. analyses of Khintsagov’s HEU reportedly showed the presence of two telltale trace isotopes (U-234 and U-236) strongly suggesting that the material came from Russia.

On January 26, 2007, the day after William J. Broad and I broke the news of the smuggling attempt in The New York Times, an official in Russia’s federal atomic energy agency accused the Georgians of not providing enough HEU for analysis. Yet nowhere in the FSB’s letter, nor in another document I acquired in which the Russian agents acknowledge collecting a sample of the HEU, do the Russians say anything about having too little material.

I sent Pavel Felgenhauer, one of Russia’s foremost independent military and security analysts, a copy of the FSB’s letter to the Georgians. Felgenhauer referred to it as an otpiska—a meaningless, vacuous response. Felgen­hauer has always maintained that Russian nuclear stockpiles are far less secure than the world would like to think. He also speculates that rogue elements in the Russian military and security services could be involved in the trade of radioactive materials, citing the documented sales of mines, mortars, guns, and rocket launchers by Russian military officers to Chechen separatists—weapons the separatists then used to kill Russian troops.

But William Potter, the director of the Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Monterey Institute of International Studies, says the clumsy FSB document claiming that the HEU’s origins could not be identified more likely reflects something else: “The Russians are in a general state of denial about the loss of nuclear materials. It is absolutely perplexing.” Potter says Russian nuclear physicists still refuse even to contemplate that terrorists could get their hands on enough HEU to build an atom bomb. “They maintain that it is beyond the capability of a non-state actor … to make a fissionable device,” Potter says.

Whether Khintsagov had the two kilos he claimed to have, or had access to more, remains unknown; the Russian government has never said whether it even investigated Khintsagov’s claims. (My numerous phone calls and e-mails to the FSB and the Russian Interior Ministry have also gone unanswered.) Although a national nuclear program might need only 10 or 15 kilograms of HEU to make a nuclear bomb, terrorists working more crudely would likely require at least 40 kilos. Has enough material leaked out of Russia since the Soviet collapse to enable terrorists to make a bomb? “We simply don’t know the answer,” says Potter, “because nobody knows how much stuff existed in the first place. It’s like with drug trafficking: it’s just impossible to determine what the real interdiction rate is. It’s sometimes said that the interdiction rate for narcotics is less than 10 percent. One can imagine that for nuclear trafficking, it’s bound to be far less.”

Presented by

Lawrence Scott Sheets, a visiting scholar at Michigan State University and a regular contributor to National Public Radio, is working on a travelogue about the upheavals following the Soviet collapse, to be published by Crown.

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