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.

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.

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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.

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.”

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.