Radioactive Rockets 'For Sale' in Breakaway Soviet Republic

Abstract:

On 8 May 2005, the London Times reported that an arms dealer in Bender, Transnistria, had offered to sell three Alazan rockets equipped with radioactive warheads to a Times reporter posing as the representative of an Algerian militant group.[1] [The Alazan was originally designed by Soviet scientists as a weather control rocket to prevent hail. After the weather control experiment failed, the rocket was later used for military purposes. It has a maximum length of 1.4 meters and range of 10 km.][2,3]

Transnistria, also known as Dniester or Transdniester, declared its independence from Moldova in 1991, but it has not been recognized as an independent country by its neighbors. [For an overview of the origins of the Transnistrian conflict, see the 1994 OSCE background paper available at <https://www.state.gov/documents/organization/13611.pdf>.] Lacking an established border, the region does not have effective border controls and has been a haven for smuggling and illegal arms sales. The largest source of revenue for Transnistria elites (based in the region's principal city, Tiraspol) is reportedly the production of armaments and illegal weapons trafficking.[4]  Some studies recount  that  criminal organizations and even secret services from various countries are involved in the arms traffic in Transnistria.  These armaments include not just pistols and guns but also automatic rifles, plastic explosive, and Stinger missiles.[5] 

The possibility that Alazan rockets may have been modified to carry radioactive materials was first suggested in 2001, when the Institute for Policy Studies in Chisinau, Moldova, obtained documents allegedly written by Colonel V. Kireyev, a civil defense commander in Transnistria, indicating his concern about radiation given off by weapons in storage in Transnistria. The Washington Post, which was given access to the Kireyev documents in 2003, cited them as describing 38 "isotopic radioactive warheads of missiles of the Alazan type," including 24 warheads that were attached to rockets.[6] Conventional Alazan rockets have been used in conflict zones in the former Soviet Union for years, from Nagorno-Karabakh to Chechnya. However, the Institute for Policy Studies documents appear to be the only documents suggesting that Alazan warheads have been converted to disperse radiological materials.

In a May 2005 interview, however, William Hill, the head of the Moldovan mission of the OSCE, questioned the London Times report, noting that earlier probes by the OSCE and various countries into similar reports had not resulted in the confirmation or denial of the existence of such rockets.[7]

In the most recent incident involving the London Times reporter, the would-be arms smuggler offered to allow an individual with a Geiger counter to check the weapon to verify that it contained radioactive material (which the smuggler identified as strontium-90 and cesium-137). However, the Times withdrew from the deal rather than make a substantial payment to the smuggler.[1] On 12 June, the Moldovan general prosecutor opened a criminal case to investigate the allegations made in the Times article. However, according to Russian military forces in Transnistria (who have remained in the region as peacekeepers and to guard a former Soviet arms depot), there are no Alazan rockets remaining in Russian depots in the territory. Transnistria's Deputy Minister of Security, Major General Oleg Gudymo, said that the Times article was a "canard, designed to blacken the name of Transnistria and the peaceful role of Russia and Ukraine."[8] Nevertheless, officials in Transnistria installed new radiation detection equipment on the region's borders, reportedly in order to help clear the region of the "unfounded accusations on the part of Chisinau."[9] [Given the small size and presumably rapid deployability of the Alazan, its range of 10km is more than enough to attack large urban targets from close in, without the prospect of detection. However, assuming that the rockets contain or had contained radioactive material, effectively dispersing such material could be very technically challenging.] 

In a related development, just two weeks before the Times article, the Russian journal Politicheskiy zhurnal published an interview with Mikhail Bergman, former commandant of Russian military forces in Tiraspol, who said that in the mid-1990s the 14th Army discovered that two tactical weapons with "nuclear explosion imitators" as well as "nuclear suitcase" weapons had disappeared from storage areas in the region. According to Bergman, the nuclear explosion imitators create powerful explosions and a mushroom cloud, but no radiation is released.[10] The Moldovan Foreign Ministry, in response, requested that the Russian Foreign Ministry investigate Bergman's claims.[11] 

[Recently, Moldova and Ukraine have jointly requested that the European Union (EU) create a monitoring system on Ukraine's border with Transnistria, including a computer network, surveillance video cameras, and night vision equipment. An EU delegation is expected to go to Ukraine in late June 2005 to begin work on a framework for such a program.[12] At the same time, Ukraine has initiated a new process to settle the status of Transnistria. Under the Ukrainian plan, Transnistria would eventually be granted a special status within Moldova, Russian peacekeepers would be replaced by an OSCE-led force, and military factories in Transnistria would be placed under international monitoring.[13] On 16-17 May 2005, officials from Transnistria, Moldova, Ukraine, Russia, and the OSCE met in Vinnytsya, Ukraine, to discuss the Ukrainian initiative. In a sign of progress, Tiraspol's representatives agreed to Moldovan requests that future settlement talks include officials from the EU and the United States.[14]

This item originally appeared in the NIS Export Control Observer<https://cns.miis.edu/pubs/nisexcon/index.htm>

Abstract Number:  20050240
Headline:  Radioactive Rockets 'For Sale' in Breakaway Soviet Republic
Date:  8 May 2005
Bibliography:  Times (London), <https://www.timesonline.co.uk>, 8 May 2005.
Author:  Brian Johnson Thomas and Mark Franchetti  

Sources:

[1] Brian Johnson Thomas and Mark Franchetti, "Radioactive Rockets 'For Sale' in Breakaway Soviet Republic," Times (London), <https://www.timesonline.co.uk>, May 8, 2005.
[2] "Alazan-5 Antihail Product," V. I. Chapayev Production Association website, <https://www.rti.chuvashia.com/alazan5.htm>.
[3] "Trnasdniestr: Missing Missiles Raising Fears of 'Dirty Bombs' For Sale", RFE-RL, https://www.globalsecurity.org/security/library/news/2003/12/sec-031210-rferl-171503.htm.
[4] Ceslav Ciobanu, "Moldova:  The Dniester Moldovan Republic," William R. Nelson Institute Research Report, July 2003. This research report describes the mechanisms used for money laundering via Tiraspol banks, corruption, and illegal trafficking of various goods is described in detail.  An earlier report done by the institute, in 2001, examined the creation of false documents and false identities in Moldova and Transnistria. To receive a copy of the report, please contact the William R. Nelson Institute for Public Affairs, Bowerssr@jmu.edu.
[5] Zaur Borov and Stephen Bowers, "Illegal Weapons Traffic in Eastern Europe," Nelson Institute Research Report, 2002. To receive a copy of the report, please contact the William R. Nelson Institute for Public Affairs, Bowerssr@jmu.edu.
[6] Joby Warrick, "Dirty Bomb Warheads Disappear," Washington Post, <https://www.washingtonpost.com>, December 7, 2003.
[7] "Vlasti Pridnestrovya usilili radiatsionnyy kontrol na granitse posle obvineniy so storony Kisheneva o prodazhe 'gryaznykh yadernykh bomb" [Transnistria authorities strengthen radiation controls on the border after Chisinauaccusations regarding the sale of 'dirty nuclear bombs'], ITAR-TASS, May 18, 2005.
[8] Veniamin Demidetskiy, "Genprokuratura Moldavii rassleduyet dostovernost obvineniya gazety 'The Sunday Times' o popytke vyvoza iz Tiraspolya 'radioaktivnykh raket" [Moldova's general prosecutor investigates allegations in 'The Sunday Times' on the attempted export of 'radioactive rockets' from Tiraspol], ITAR-TASS, May 12, 2005; in Integrum Techno, <https://www.integrum.com>.
[9] Veniamin Demidetsky, "Radioactivity Control Tightened in Dniester Region," ITAR-TASS, May 18, 2005; in Lexis-Nexis Academic Universe, <https://www.lexis-nexis.com>.
[10] Aleksey Nesterenko, "Mikhail Bergman: 'Nikto ne znayet, kuda delis takticheskiye rakety s imitatorami yadernogo vzryva" (Mikhail Bergman: No one knows what happened to the tactical weapons with imitation nuclear charges), Politicheskiy zhurnal, <https://www.politjournal.ru>, April 25, 2005.
[11] Yevgeniy Shestakov and Lyudmila Feliksova, "Rakety optom - sledim za situatsiyey" [Rockets wholesale - we are following the situation], Rossiyskaya gazeta, May 11, 2005; in Integrum Techno, <https://www.integrum.com>.
[12] Vitaly Makarchev, "Ukraine Insists on Special Monitoring System on Dniester Border," ITAR-TASS, June 15, 2005, in Lexis-Nexis Academic Universe, <https://www.lexis-nexis.com>.
[13] Veniamin Demidetsky, "Tiraspol Upholds Ukraine's Initiatives on the Dniester Settlement," ITAR-TASS, May 16, 2004; in Lexis-Nexis Academic Universe, <https://www.lexis-nexis.com>.
[14] Flux (Chisinau), May 24, 2005; in BBC Worldwide Monitoring; in Lexis-Nexis Academic Universe, <https://www.lexis-nexis.com>.

May 8, 2005
About

This article is part of a collection examining reported incidents of nuclear or radioactive materials trafficking in or originating from the Newly Independent States.

This material is produced independently for NTI by the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey and does not necessarily reflect the opinions of and has not been independently verified by NTI or its directors, officers, employees, or agents. Copyright 2018.