Global Security Newswire
Daily News on Nuclear, Biological & Chemical Weapons, Terrorism and Related Issues
Success Touted in Securing Former Soviet Nukes
Former U.S. officials and experts are taking stock of a successful collaborative effort with Russia to prevent rogue actors from acquiring nuclear weapons in the wake of the breakup of the Soviet Union two decades ago, the Associated Press reported on Sunday (see GSN, Nov. 16, 2011).
When the former superpower collapsed, its long-range nuclear arsenal was spread between Russia, Belarus, Ukraine and Kazakhstan. The United States was able in short order to persuade the three smaller states to repatriate their nuclear warheads to Russia. The United States paid for the weapons' physical protection during a period when the former Soviet states lacked the necessary funds to do so themselves.
"Twenty years on it's pretty hard to believe that not a single nuclear weapon has shown up loose," said Clinton administration Assistant Defense Secretary Graham Allison.
A willingness by Washington to spend billions of dollars to finance the nuclear security effort through the Cooperative Threat Reduction program, common nonproliferation goals between Washington and Moscow, and the commitment of Russian military officers are generally credited with ensuring that no "loose nukes" were acquired by hostile regimes or extremist groups.
"The [Russian] military officers who did the job were the unknown heroes," Russian analyst Alexander Golts said. "It's hard to imagine what might have happened if the tactical nuclear weapons had remained on the territories of the states involved in military conflicts."
Despite sometimes not being paid, Russian military officers did not ease up in guarding the nation's nuclear stockpile.
"People realized their responsibility because they were fully aware of the dangers," retired Russian Maj. Gen. Vladimir Dvorkin said.
The first priority for Russia was to withdraw thousands of nonstrategic nuclear weapons from the former Soviet states. These artillery rounds and other weapons were generally small and deployed in regions close to trouble zones and thus posed the top proliferation concern. The secondary concern was to withdraw the long-range warheads from Belarus, Kazakhstan and Ukraine.
While Belarus and Kazakhstan agreed in short order to give up their nuclear weapons, Ukraine initially refused. In 1992, though, the Ukrainian government recognized it lacked both the resources and the technical know-how to maintain its status as a nuclear-armed nation. It agreed to send the long-range weapons back to Russia, but only following years of strained negotiations.
"There was a lot of pressure, they threatened us with all kinds of economic sanctions, they wanted to get this issue over with fast," former Ukrainian President Leonid Kravchuk said in an interview with AP.
"It seems to me that Nunn-Lugar was one of the smartest uses of defense dollar we ever made," Pifer said, in reference to the Cooperative Threat Reduction program sponsored by then-U.S. Senator Sam Nunn (D-Ga.) and Senator Richard Lugar (R-Ind.).
The program, which continues today, has supplied specially strengthened train cars to transport the nuclear weapons over land and security technology for stored warheads, along with financing to dismantle thousands of retired nuclear weapon-delivery systems (see GSN, Dec. 22, 2011).
"The program provided colossal support," Dvorkin said.
There have been worries over the years that several warheads might have been lost. However, insiders said the international community would have found out by now if some weapons had slipped out of Russian state control.
"If somebody or a terrorist group got hold of a nuclear weapon, they would probably use it as quickly as possible," former U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Steven Piper said. "So the fact that you haven't seen a nuclear detonation ... reflects the fact that the nuclear weapons have been maintained in a secure way."
In 1997, Russian Gen. Alexander Lebed created waves when he asserted the nation's military was unable to account for dozens of compact nuclear devices. The general gave differing figures regarding the count of lost weapons and Moscow dismissed his allegations.
Dvorkin said the Kremlin was right in denying Lebed's claims: "I personally know people who were counting weapons at centralized depots, and they have confirmed that nothing was stolen. They did check after Lebed's statements and made sure that everything was in place."
Though the Russian military and other former Soviet states maintained strict oversight of nuclear weapons, the many nonmilitary entities with stocks of nuclear material have been much less careful, according to Dvorkin. Insufficient security practices at civilian atomic facilities resulted in a number of incidents of sensitive substances being stolen some 20 years ago. Most of the pilfered material was later tracked down by authorities in European states such as Germany.
"There were such cases, but they didn't entail catastrophic consequences," Dvorkin told AP. Minimal amounts were discovered in other nations, he said.
Moscow and Washington also sought to prevent Soviet weapon scientists from selling their specialized expertise to nations such as Iran. One program supplied funding to scientists "so that they can do civilian research and do it in Russia," Pifer said.
"Thousands of scientists participated in this project in Russia and Ukraine, so we know of thousands who stayed behind. Whether we got everybody, I don't know," said the current director of the Brookings Institute's Arms Control Initiative.
A November report by the International Atomic Energy Agency stated that a foreign specialist assisted Tehran on certain aspects of its purported nuclear weapon-related work to develop an advanced trigger for a warhead. Envoys singled out former Soviet Union weapons developer Vyacheslav Danilenko as the specialist assisting Iran (Vladimir Isachenkov, Associated Press/Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Jan. 9).
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