Uranium on the Loose

Lawrence Scott Sheets discusses the lawlessness of the former Soviet republics and the nuclear threat no one talks about.

When the Soviet Union finally collapsed in December 1991, the United States could claim victory in the Cold War, Francis Fukuyama could declare the end of history, and some 280 million people could look forward to a liberated future. But in fact the Soviet Union left its 15 successor states to navigate their own way to democracy and a market economy. And with some 22,000 tactical nuclear weapons—along with perhaps 1,200 tons of bomb-grade uranium—scattered under uncertain ownership and questionable supervision, the securing of the world’s largest arsenal of nuclear materials became a matter of pressing concern.

Over the past decade and half, Russia—with extensive help from the United States—has tried to lock down this atomic detritus, at great expense. But the task is a massive one, and, as of 2008, the two nations face nuclear problems that scarcely registered during the upheaval of the 1990s. Seven years after 9/11, Russia has become something of a terrorists’ nirvana, with 12,500 miles of borders, a military so corrupt that its members have sold weapons to their battlefield enemies, and vast networks of poorly safeguarded nuclear facilities.

Russia is likely the only place in the world where a man like Oleg Khintsagov, an ordinary, destitute, and dimwitted hustler, can pick up weapons-grade uranium and try to hawk it from his pockets. Khintsagov, and two other smugglers of similar means and aptitude—Garik Dadayan and Tamaz Dimitradze—are the subject of “A Smuggler’s Story,” Lawrence Scott Sheets’ piece in the April issue of The Atlantic. The couriers Sheets describes are, to a man, poorly prepared for their missions, yet they have their hands on potentially catastrophic ingredients for an atomic bomb. The story Sheets tells is of a society in collapse in the face of separatist anxieties, ethnic animosities, and ambiguous borders—and of impoverished people seeking to feed their families in a radioactive land.

Lawrence Scott Sheets was National Public Radio’s Moscow Bureau Chief from 2001 to 2005. He is now a visiting scholar at Michigan State University and a regular contributor to NPR.

—Timothy Lavin

If there’s one thing that the three smugglers in your story—Khintsagov, Dadayan, and Dimitradze—have in common, it’s that they don’t seem particularly dangerous, or particularly competent.

The consensus is that all three of these individuals probably had no specific initial interest in radioactive materials and that they probably didn’t even know what kind of material, exactly, they were dealing with. All three had been sort of wheeler-dealer types—guys who had emerged in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union when many, many millions of former Soviet citizens were engaging in any sort of petty trade to get by.

Khintsagov started with sausages and foodstuffs and furs—things like that, which he was selling to his friends who lived on the Georgian side of the border, in order to evade customs. Later on, he evidently became aware of the possibility of peddling radioactive materials, which he’d heard could be quite lucrative. So he fit the same M.O. as did Dadayan, who had a very minimal education and by all indications, again, wasn’t somebody who had specifically expressed an interest in radioactive material.

The same was true of Dimitradze, the Georgian who was apprehended with the "yellowcake," un-enriched uranium. He had been involved in a series of failed petty business ventures, and as for the radioactive items—I was told by the Georgians that he probably didn’t even know what he was dealing with at all. He just had some dream of finding radioactive material because he had heard that it could be a great business proposition and he’d heard of people in Turkey, for instance, or other Georgians connected to the Turkish underworld, who would be willing to buy from him.

So, yes, the common denominator is that none of the three smugglers seemed professional in any sense of the word.

So who were they most likely working for? I imagine that we’re probably not talking about terrorists of any great sophistication—and probably not al-Qaeda?

We don’t know who the interested parties might have been. It sounds like they were all acting as middlemen to other middlemen.

One frustration you mention in the piece is that no one seems to know where these guys are getting their uranium. Experts estimate that there are 200 or so sites around the world that have nuclear weapons or the material to make them. But only a handful of them are unprotected, and even fewer would be accessible to men like Khintsagov and Dadayan. Why is it so hard for the Russian security services to find the leak?

A lot of the materials could have leaked out in the early to mid-1990s, when security was still being stepped up. After that, the United States and Russia started setting up programs to secure Russian nuclear sites. More than one billion dollars of U.S. taxpayer money is now spent on that per year. But this is now 2008; it's been going on for 15 years. It’s anyone’s guess when these materials leaked out.

It’s probably much more difficult to identify where Dimitradze's yellowcake came from because this type of material doesn’t leave the same sort of fingerprint that highly enriched uranium does. What experts will tell you is that in the case of highly enriched uranium, which Mr. Khintsagov and Mr. Dadayan got their hands on, it should be much simpler to determine not only the country of origin but the exact location of origin, because this material does have individual fingerprints.

But having said that, the Russian government has never, as far as we know, made known where this material might have come from. There are two possible explanations for that. One explanation, which is a far more cloak-and-dagger, nefarious scenario, is that the Russians do know where these things are coming from but don’t want to tell anyone because it would be a highly embarrassing situation, involving national security issues.

The second is that perhaps the Russians don’t know. The reason for that would be that even after all these billions of dollars have been spent on bilateral programs, there are probably still stockpiles of highly enriched uranium and plutonium that have not been fully catalogued by the Russian government. Either scenario is very scary.

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.

In Graham Allison’s book Nuclear Terrorism, he concludes, “On the current course, nuclear terrorism is inevitable. Indeed, if the United States and other governments keep doing what they are doing today, a nuclear terrorist attack on American soil is more likely than not in the decade ahead.” Did you get the same sense of inevitability from the security experts you spoke with in Russia—that it’s not a matter of if, but when?

In terms of Russian nuclear analysts themselves, they’re unfortunately increasingly reticent to talk about these issues. But in terms of people who interact with them and have long-term relationships with Russian nuclear experts and are experts in the field, yes, that’s very much their sense—that it’s not a matter of if, but when.

I think Senator Sam Nunn is a good example. He spent a good deal of his political life and post-political life dealing with this very issue. I spoke to him at great length, and on many issues I asked him to estimate, on a scale from one to 10, the degree of safety of Russian nuclear materials. Sometimes he said it was two, sometimes it was three, sometimes it was four. But when I asked whether it was possible that some rogue state or organization could at some point build a suitcase bomb—which we’ve all heard of, the nuclear suitcase—his answer was five.

It’s a pretty grim scenario—and it goes back to the basic fact that the Russians don’t know exactly what they had. The three men in my article had no competence at all in these matters, and probably little inherent interest in nuclear materials. They just wanted to make a few dollars to put some food on the table.

But it leads one to wonder about what would be the case with somebody who had money, and the desire, and the ideology, and the means, and the creativity to procure these materials. Where have these materials gone? The answer is scary.

You’ve lived in Russia on and off for a long time. To what extent do you think the average Russian fears a nuclear attack? They know probably better than anyone how poorly guarded some of their facilities are, and they’ve experienced terrorism in its most nihilistic form firsthand, from Chechen separatists.

Russians have seen many more terrorist-type incidents over the past 15 years than we have. I think they’re a little more hardened to these types of things, and the Russian national character is slightly more fatalistic about them. For the last 10 or 15 years, many Russians have been more focused on trying to improve their standard of living, which in many cases they’ve been able to do. So I don’t think terrorism is one of their main preoccupations. That fact probably contributes to a lax attitude within Russia’s official circles about these issues.

You mention that members of the Russian military have actually sold weapons to the men they’re fighting in Chechnya. And you suggest that corrupt soldiers could be one channel through which nuclear material could get into the hands of small-time hustlers, or even terrorists. Selling any kind of weapon to one's enemy seems like a surpassingly stupid thing for a military person to do, but selling nuclear material to terrorists would seem to go beyond mere corruption. How likely is that scenario?

We do know that it was a widespread practice during the Chechen wars that Russian officers—or soldiers, or conscripts, and generals even—were selling weapons, tanks, all sorts of equipment to the Chechen separatists. It was simply a function of the fact that the country was in disarray. The sense of national purpose had been lost. And the Russian military lived extremely poorly. Even officers were paid a pittance, although that’s been improving recently. The rank and file didn’t believe in the war in Chechnya. They preferred to make a buck and sell their weapons. So it was a very widespread practice.

Does that mean that there are elements within the Russian security or military services that would actually engage in peddling weapons-grade nuclear material to terrorists? The answer is, we don’t know. But it’s certainly not beyond the realm of imagination.

I’d like read you a quote from Dick Cheney on Meet the Press, from all the way back in December 1991: “If the Soviets do an excellent job at retaining control over their stockpile of nuclear weapons—let’s assume they’ve got 25,000 to 30,000; that’s a ballpark figure—and they are 99 percent successful, that would mean you could still have as many as 250 that they were not able to control.” The U.S. clearly recognized the nuclear threat immediately when the Soviet Union broke apart. Why hasn’t securing nuclear material been priority number one in the war on terrorism?

You’d think that would be the case, but the world's leaders—and the U.S. more specifically—has become so distracted by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the problems with al-Qaeda, that they’ve simply forgotten what’s potentially the main source of nuclear material: the states of the former Soviet Union.

As a matter of fact, when you look back at all of the interdictions of highly enriched uranium over the past 10 or 15 years, the raw materials to make potential atomic weapons—fissionable weapons, not just a dirty bomb—almost all of the materials were traced back to Russia. More than 99 percent, I believe. I’m often amazed by the extent to which the Western imagination is captivated by Iran. We’re worried about the Iranians potentially having the ability to construct centrifuges that could perhaps create tiny, tiny amounts of these materials relative to what we know has probably gone missing in Russia and is available in Russia.

And I think it baffles many security analysts: Why this overriding concentration on, for instance, North Korea, which was able to, by all estimations, churn out at best a few extremely low-quality fissionable devices? The Iranians would probably be far better served by trying to actually obtain the raw material that people like Mr. Khintsagov have demonstrated is available. Whether they could round up enough highly enriched uranium to make a few fissionable devices, we don’t know. But we do know that the stuff has been out there for sale, and that there has been a baffling lack of attention to the source.

Now the West has spent billions of dollars safeguarding these installations, but the fact is, this is a huge, huge, overwhelming task. When people have an understanding of how many nuclear facilities there were, how secret they were, that they were so secret that in many cases there weren’t even telephone communications within the installations themselves because the Soviets were so paranoid about security—when you get a sense of just how massive it is, it boggles the mind. The material is there. And Mr. Khintsagov demonstrates that himself.