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.