Interviews April 2008

Uranium on the Loose

Lawrence Scott Sheets discusses the lawlessness of the former Soviet republics and the nuclear threat no one talks about.
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There's also the worrisome question of whether the smugglers had even more uranium in their possession than was found on them, as they claimed to. A report on Khintsagov’s case by the Center for Nonproliferation Studies says, “So far the greatest enigma is the fate of the approximately 2 kg of highly enriched uranium that the perpetrator allegedly kept hidden.” Why do you think Russia has been reluctant to investigate Khintsagov's claims—or, at the very least, to reveal what they’ve found?

I think it has more to do with the nature of the Russian political system at this point. It would be highly embarrassing for the Russian government to come out and say publicly, "Yes, this man Khintsagov, who by all measures did not have a very good education, and who had wheeled and dealed in furs and things like that for a living, actually had at his disposal two kilograms of bomb-grade uranium."

Russia’s departing president, Vladimir Putin, has earned the admiration of his people—and garnered 80 percent approval ratings—in part by spending a lot of time talking about restoring national greatness to Russia. You’d think that one way his government could demonstrate its competence to the world would be by securing their most dangerous weapons. Why do you think they're not doing more? Is it because they're they unwilling? Unable? Some combination?

I think it’s some combination. But according to the experts who have studied this issue over the past 10 or 15 years, the greater problem is that, because the accounting was so secretive, it’s very difficult for the Russians to know exactly what existed in the first place, in terms of material for making atomic weapons.

And if you don’t know what existed in the first place, it’s impossible to determine what slipped away or what was stolen or what disappeared. So even if we were able to get a handle on exactly what exists at this very moment in terms of Russian stockpiles—and I’m talking about raw materials to make atomic weapons—we still really can’t know what has gone missing, because there has never been a complete accounting. And there certainly had not been in the 1990s, when all these safeguards were being implemented.

You note that Putin’s Georgian counterpart, Mikhail Saakashvili, is grappling with two breakaway republics—Abkhazia and South Ossetia—that offer attractive havens for smugglers, nuclear and otherwise. Since taking office in 2003, Saakashvili has cleaned up the police force, doubled the size of the military, and grown the Georgian economy. But he faces increasing hostility from Russia and accusations of electoral fraud at home. Does he have the strength to hold the country together?

That’s a very good question. The country really isn’t held together to begin with. Georgia doesn't really control these two separatist entities at all. Although Mr. Saakashvili’s "Rose Revolution," in 2003 supposedly ushered in a very pro-Western, reform-minded government, he has since faced increasing opposition as a result of high-handed tactics used by the government to disperse demonstrators. And he faces allegations that the elections earlier this year—presidential elections—were rigged in his favor. So the holiday is definitely over for Mr. Saakashvili.

It's true that in South Ossetia he closed down a large smuggling bazaar and supposedly cracked down on other smuggling from there at various main border points. But this is still a very leaky territory. It has fixed borders on paper, but in reality parts of South Ossetia are controlled by Georgian forces, parts are controlled by separatists, and parts aren’t really controlled by anybody. There are roads that go through farmers’ fields through which someone could easily circumvent any sort of border post, especially if someone had a very small amount of material that could fit into his coat pocket, as Mr. Khintsagov did.

Notwithstanding all the attempts to control what’s going in and out of these unrecognized territories, if somebody really wants to bring illicit material through, they’re going to find a way. And that’s why this is so illuminating and scary: these individuals made very little effort to conceal what they were doing, and they were very foolhardy about the way they moved their nuclear materials about.

Russia has issued Russian passports to most of the citizens of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, and the Kremlin at one point threatened to recognize the territories as independent states if Kosovo were to declare its independence from Serbia, as it did on February 17. Are these regions any closer to full independence from Georgia, or is all this just bluster on Russia’s part?

I don’t think there’s any chance that Russia’s going to recognize South Ossetia or Abkhazia imminently. Some people in the Russian government have rattled sabers about this intermittently and threatened to do this in the wake of Kosovo, but Russia itself knows that if it were to recognize these regions outright, very few other countries would join in and do the same. It would be very controversial, especially in the case of Abkhazia, because before the war a very sizable percentage of the population—about 46 percent—was Georgian, and more than half of those people, more than 150,000, were driven out by what was basically ethnic cleansing.

Also, in both Abkhazia and South Ossetia, the separatist governments don’t control all of their territory. Patches of those two republics, especially in South Ossetia, are still controlled by the Georgians. And finally, and most importantly, the Russian government knows full well that even though they use these threats for propaganda purposes at times, the recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia could open a potential can of worms, long-term, inside Russia itself.

Russia has 88 recognized regions. It fought a war against Chechen separatists from 1994 until the early 2000s. Recognizing Abkhazia and South Ossetia—both parts of Georgia—as independent republics could lead the way to parts of Russia breaking away at some later date. I think that prescient Russians and Russian policymakers know that this is not in Russia’s best interest.

But why does Georgia continue to try to control South Ossetia? It’s a major security liability for Georgia, as your story points out, because it’s so easy to smuggle illicit goods—including uranium—in and out. Why not let the Russians deal with it?

Well, it would be a horrible precedent for Georgia to let any part of its territory wriggle away. The Georgian position is that these are puppet states of Russia that exist only to exert pressure on Georgia to prevent it from joining NATO and to bring Georgia back into the pro-Russian fold. Russia has given out Russian passports to almost all the population of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. No country wants to see part of its territory annexed or given away to somebody else, or allowed to get independence.

And there’s a sizable part of the population in these two territories that does not want independence, or is not controlled in full measure by the separatist governments. It’s untenable not only for the Georgian political establishment, but to just about any Georgian, that South Ossetia or Abkhazia should be given independence. That’s especially true in South Ossetia, where you have a country, or a potential country, of only about 50,000 people.

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Timothy Lavin is an Atlantic senior editor.

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