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.
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Two other recent Georgian interdictions, many of their details not public until now, suggest that the trade in Russian nuclear materials is more than a trickle.

About 1:30 a.m. on June 26, 2003, Georgian border guards near the town of Sadakhlo—a muddy village near where Georgia, Azerbaijan, and Armenia meet—apprehended an Armenian named Garik Dadayan as he tried to cross into Armenia with about 200 grams of U-235 bomb-grade uranium. Sadakhlo has a reputation as a smuggler’s paradise: Armenian and Azeri traders meet there and do business in everything from Armenian brandy, Azeri tea, Caspian Sea caviar, and Turkish CDs to cheap tool kits and jeans. It’s one of the few informal contact points between Azerbaijan and Armenia, two nations that have been warring over territory for most of the past 20 years.

Dadayan fits much the same profile as Khintsagov. Born in the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh, he has only a basic education, according to Armenian court records that I obtained, and no known full-time profession. He reportedly suffers from psychological and physical disabilities that he incurred fighting in Armenia’s war with Azerbaijan.

Like Khintsagov, Dadayan made only feeble efforts to conceal his stash of HEU, hiding it in a cellophane bag tucked inside a metal tea box. But several specialists I spoke to speculated that because his HEU, according to U.S. analyses, also contained the chemical compounds UO2 and U3O8 (which emit more radiation than U-235), it set off the radiation detectors the Georgians had at the border. The guards say that when the sensors sounded, Dadayan tossed the satchel containing the tea box filled with bomb-grade uranium onto the ground. He said he’d never seen the substance in the box before and that the cellophane bag had only been for food scraps. So sloppy were his smuggling efforts that, according to Armenian court records, his notebook contained scribblings mentioning “U308” and the amount of money—believed by Georgian officials to be $15,000—that he was to receive for acting as a nuclear mule. Dadayan was handed over to the Armenian government, tried, and sentenced in 2004 to two and a half years in prison.

The Armenians and Georgians say Dadayan got his bomb-grade uranium from contacts in Siberia. Even the Russian FSB, in 2003 more inclined than now to cooperate, confirmed to the Georgians that before his arrest Dadayan had traveled twice by rail from Moscow, where he had been living, to Novosibirsk. “In the early stages, yes, they were cooperative,” Pavlenishvili told me. “Then suddenly, cooperation stopped. We don’t know why. We thought they discovered from which lab or factory [the HEU] was from, and they maybe arrested the supporters of Dadayan, and after that, they lost any interest in this case.”

A Georgian government document summarizing the incident suggested a complex web of contacts. Da- dayan’s role appeared to be only that of a courier. The deal to smuggle the bomb-grade uranium, according to the Georgians, reportedly involved a corrupt Russian military officer, elements of the Georgian and Armenian criminal underworlds, and an Armenian contact of Kurdish descent working in Russia.

Finally—or, more likely, not finally—there is the case of Tamaz Dimitradze, another Willie Loman–esque figure, this one from Georgia, who was apprehended on August 4, 2006, with four glass vials containing a kilogram of un­enriched uranium “yellowcake.” According to Pavle­nishvili, who told me of this previously unreported case when we met in Tbilisi, the Georgians had put Dimitradze under surveillance. “We had information from our sources in the Georgian criminal underworld that Dimitradze was expecting a shipment of radioactive materials. We didn’t know anything about what type,” Pavlenishvili said. Dimitradze crossed a bridge from Georgia proper into Abkhazia, another breakaway Georgian territory under Russian protection, and met with two Russian associates who had traveled there from the nearby Russian Black Sea resort town of Sochi.

A spectacularly beautiful region whose palm-tree-lined beaches once served as a prime Soviet movie location, Abkhazia was also the site of one of the U.S.S.R.’s top-secret nuclear-research facilities. (According to Shevardnadze, even he, the leader of the Georgian Communist Party, needed special permission from Moscow to visit the complex.) Several reports note that up to two kilograms of HEU may have gone missing from the Abkhaz facility after the capital city, Sukhumi, fell to separatist forces in 1993.

Dimitradze was arrested after crossing back into Georgia and arriving in the Black Sea port city of Batumi. According to Pavlenishvili, Dimitradze said he took possession of the yellowcake from the two Russians. During the investigation, Dimitradze claimed he knew nothing more about the two men or the source of the unenriched uranium.

Citing Dimitradze’s repeated business failures and his careless, cavalier behavior, Pavlenishvili described him, like Oleg Khintsagov and Garik Dadayan, as a complete amateur. “He probably did not know exactly what kind of stuff he even had,” Pavlenishvili said. “He just dreamed of getting some nuclear materials and becoming rich man.” After a trial closed to the public for security reasons, Dimitradze was sentenced to seven years in prison. His sentence was reduced to five years on appeal, but the government—citing mandatory sentencing laws—has appealed to have the original seven-year term restored.

Dimitradze had vague ideas, according to the Georgians, of either selling the uranium to Turkish middlemen in Georgia or smuggling it into Turkey in search of a buyer. “It is a well-known rumor in the Georgian criminal world that you can sell anything in Turkey,” Pavle­nish­vili said. He said that there had long been reports in such circles about a Turkish man with the nickname Ekimi—“the Doctor” in Georgian—interested in obtaining nuclear material. The Georgians say they know nothing more about who “the Doctor” might be.

The Georgians, of course, have good reason to publicize these three cases. Two of them highlight the dangers posed by the loose frontiers and unaccountable “governments” of disputed territories effectively under Russian control. And all three are strong arguments for the United States to continue providing Georgia with millions of dollars in assistance to strengthen its customs and intelligence services. But even with those rationales in mind, Georgian authorities could have been far more aggressive in seeking to embarrass the Russians. They deliberately passed up an opportunity to apprehend Khintsagov at the “border” with South Ossetia, for example, which would have been a far more effective dramatization of the threat posed by that region’s rampant smuggling. They waited 11 months to publicize Khintsagov’s arrest. And this article marks the first media disclosure of the details of Tamaz Dimitradze’s case.

Set aside the motives of the Georgians, and you still have the facts of the cases themselves. All three happened within the past five years, well after more-stringent controls on nuclear materials should have been in place. Two involved significant amounts of highly enriched uranium that, according to the Russian analysis sent to the Georgians, seem to have come from two separate sources. And all three plots were carried out by poorly educated amateurs who knew little about the nuclear materials they were trafficking and wanted only to make a quick buck. All three men made foolhardy mistakes—in some cases transporting their atom-bomb materials through functioning border points, and in others widely advertising their efforts to obtain and sell nuclear materials.

What we know we don’t know about the state of Russian nuclear material is frightening enough. But what if these three would-be traffickers had been not bumblers but professionals—interested not in money but in ideology, focused on accumulating enough bomb-grade material to assemble a nuclear weapon that could kill millions of people? What if they had avoided border posts altogether and detoured through unmonitored mountain passes, or had chosen to cross the thousands of miles of porous, underpoliced borders Russia shares with countries like Kazakhstan?

Unfortunately, if the stories of Oleg Khintsagov, Garik Dadayan, and Tamaz Dimitradze suggest anything, it is that the answers to such questions may soon no longer be hypothetical.

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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