Publication: Prism Volume: 1 Issue: 22

Do the Russians Know Where Their Nuclear Weapons Are?

by Stanislav Lunev

On Christmas Day, 1991, the first and last Soviet president–acrestfallen Mikhail Gorbachev–turned over the reigns of powerto a high-spirited and slightly tipsy Boris Yeltsin, the firstand last president of the Russian Soviet Federated Socialist Republic(soon to be renamed the Russian Federation). The symbol of thetransfer of authority from one to the other was a black leatherbriefcase containing the secret codes for launching a strategicnuclear attack.

That briefcase made Yeltsin the sole owner of the vast formerSoviet strategic nuclear arsenal. Significantly, none of the leadersof the other newly- independent states received such a briefcase.It was an unusual situation: the leaders of the other states hadnuclear weapons on their soil, but had no control over them. Theweapons could be launched only by order of the Kremlin. The newpowerless nuclear states included not only Ukraine, Belarus, andKazakhstan, but one other Central Asian state, hitherto unknownto the outside world to be the site of nuclear weapons: Kyrgyzstan.

Kyrgyzstan was, in fact, the origin of the uranium used in thefirst atomic bomb ever produced by the Soviets. But the internationalcommunity had no suspicions that there were nuclear weapons there.

Russian deputy defense minister General Konstantin Kobets informedthen-Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff Colin Powell aboutthe existence of this other nuclear power in 1991, prior to thefall of the USSR. Realizing that his American counterpart wassurprised by this news, Kobets tried to reassure Powell that thestrategic nuclear weapons are stored very carefully in Kyrgyzstan,and in any case, they would be relocated to Russian territoryas soon as possible.

Even since the Russians revealed this information to the US governmentfour years ago, this major oversight by Western intelligence hasnot been widely known. But astute observers may have wonderedwhy the smallest of the former republics, and seemingly the mostinsignificant in geopolitical terms, was among the first of therepublics which the US officially recognized as an independentand sovereign state.

Under pressure from the international community, all of the strategicmissiles located in Central Asia were moved. Today, the only nuclearpowers in the region are Russia, Ukraine and Belarus. But thedifficulties which the Western intelligence community encounteredin Soviet days as it attempted to verify the location, safety,and security of the former Soviet nuclear arsenal have not disappeared.If anything, these problems have been made worse by the Russiangovernment’s inattentiveness to the problem.

Russia’s strategic nuclear missiles are protected by a specialtop-secret directorate of the Russian Defense Ministry, whichcoordinates its activities very closely with the Federal SecurityService’s (FSB) Military Counterintelligence. Fortunately thereare no major problems with the security of the missiles. But itis not hard to foresee circumstances under which Russia’s strategicforces could become less secure.

It is well-known that in October 1994, the Central Command Postof the Russian Strategic Missile Forces had its electricity cutoff because the Defense Ministry had not paid its electric billsover a long period of time. The same problem occurred some monthslater in the Far East Military District, in the Kaliningrad MilitaryRegion, and at other missiles sites. During these incidents, therewas a real danger that the missiles would be launched spontaneously,against any of the targets programmed into their computers.

This was not a failure of the Strategic Missile Forces’ ProtectionDirectorate, but it was a clear demonstration that the RussianSupreme Military Command did not know or understand what was goingon inside the country’s nuclear arsenal. Moreover, these incidentsdemonstrated that the president and his top military assistantsdo not have permanent, full and centralized control over theirstrategic nuclear missile forces.

In this connection, we must welcome the recent American-Russianagreement, which obligates the Russian military command to excludeAmerican targets from the Russian strategic missiles’ computerprograms. Now, if these missiles launch spontaneously, they willhit targets elsewhere on the planet, or possibly in space. Butit’s difficult to say exactly where they will strike. Even theRussian missile officers who program their weapons against dozensof targets don’t know which target would be hit.

Thus, the normal public reassurances which high- ranking militaryofficials make to the media from time to time about the safetyof the nuclear arsenals do not reflect the real situation. Ina visit widely reported by the Russian media, FSB chief SergeiStepashin traveled to various nuclear production sites. Thesevisits were made following the arrests of several people who hadsmuggled nuclear materials–possibly of Russian origin– and weredesigned to calm international tensions which had arisen overthis dangerous situation.

For several days, Russian television showed Stepashin visitingwell-built nuclear production and storage facilities, equippedwith heavy steel doors and both visible and invisible securitysystems. The security chief, a former firefighter, approved allthese security measures, and said in an official statement thatit was impossible to steal anything from Russian nuclear productionand storage facilities. After this, he left the building and wentout.

But in that very broadcast, TV cameras caught him standing infront of the building’s window, which was broken. Anyone at allcould have gotten into this facility–so tightly guarded fromthe inside–by climbing through this window. Russian media laterdisclosed that, a few months before the security chief’s visit,this facility had been used in a training exercise for the InteriorMinistry’s special operations forces, and a Spetsnaz team capturedit in several minutes.

Despite the fact that the Russian government is declaring thatit has control over all nuclear materials, there is some evidencethat organized crime groups are encroaching on the Russian government’smonopoly, as it has done in so many other spheres. Arrests ofnuclear smugglers in Western Europe and elsewhere demonstratethat these people are not alone or acting in small groups, unconnectedto larger mafia- type organizations with international connections.Only one conclusion is possible: that the Russian mafia eithersees little risk in nuclear smuggling or already has carefully-concealedaccess to the country’s nuclear materials. If this is true, itis only a matter of time before such materials wind up in thehands of international terrorist groups.

Although the world’s worst fears have not yet been realized –not a single strategic missile or warhead has been lost — itis clear that Russia’s strategic missile forces are not entirelysecure. The danger inherent in the situation was acknowledgedrecently by someone well-positioned to know the truth: Col. Gen.Yevgeny Maslin, the Defense Ministry official responsible fornuclear weapons security. In a statement to the newspaper Moskovskienovosti (#44, 1995) in June, Maslin said that "the threatof nuclear terrorism in Russia exists." While he confirmedthat no nuclear weapons from the strategic missile forces hadyet been lost, he noted that terrorists could seize weapons whenthey are moved from place to place. Gen. Maslin added that hisdirectorate had staged simulations to try to figure out what todo if a disgruntled officer should try to sell nuclear weaponsto outsiders. But such simulations will do little to calm thefears of the international community.

In addition, the nuclear materials extracted from missile warheads,which is intended to be used by the atomic energy industry forpeaceful purposes, present another set of risks. This problemis related to the production of new weapons-grade nuclear materialsfor weapons systems still in place in Russia. The dangerous situationwith this nuclear material has been criticized, and with goodreason, by the international community. But the Kremlin has ignoredthe criticism.

For example, at its last meeting in Paris in May 1995, the 23-nationInternational Energy Agency sharply criticized Moscow’s nuclearsafety arrangements. Although the body said, in a widely-reportedstudy, that many of the problems flowed from a lack of funds,the IEA said that Russia was not doing even what it could, andthus presented a threat to other states. Perhaps anticipatingthis finding, Russian energy minister Yuri Safrannik stayed awayfrom the meeting.

Security in this area is provided by the FSB, but this service,as a KGB successor agency, is pre-occupied with Russia’s politicallife, providing services for the government before the upcomingparliamentary and presidential elections. Therefore it can’t (orwon’t) take precautions to protect nuclear materials.

The FSB inherited only a few of the real professionals in theKGB: Most of the most experienced officers left in 1991-1994 forprivate business. And although the counterintelligence servicehas roughly doubled its size since Soviet days, it did so by recruitingpeople whose main asset is loyalty to the Kremlin regime, notprofessionalism.

The lax security in the area of Russian tactical nuclear deviceswas demonstrated recently by the Moscow magazine Ogonek (Ogonek,No. 30, 1995). The magazine’s correspondent "bought"information about the location of a top-secret nuclear weaponsdepot in the Northern Caucasus from the first sergeant he metfor half a pack of cigarettes. When the war began in Chechnya,the nuclear devices were moved to a new location, but the correspondenthad no problems finding the new–and likewise ”top-secret"–location.

Moreover, from talking to military pilots, he learned that, duringtraining flights, Russian aircraft lost nuclear devices severaltimes, and that some were never found. The magazine concludes,"in the present situation in Russia, nobody can guaranteeanything. Not even reliable security for atomic bombs."

It is interesting to note that the alarming situation with respectto nuclear security is being reported more and more in the Russianmedia, while the Russian government still refuses to admit thatany danger exists. But, as was announced at the beginning of Junein the Russian media, the Kremlin’s failure to pay workers inthe Strategic Missile Forces and at nuclear research sites couldstill undermine security there.

The Jamestown Foundation’s Monitor reported that Russian TV, onJune 9, 1995, quoted an officer in the Strategic Missile Forceswho said that if the government did not pay his people on time,there could be a security problem. officials at the Arzamas-16nuclear laboratories said the same thing the day before. Rossiiskayagazeta, on June 8, 1995, reported that there had been a strikeat that facility, because workers had not been paid. On June 9,1995, Pravda reported that the Smolensk atomic energy stationwas in trouble: its reservoirs for storing used fuel were almostfull. And Rossiiskaya gazeta on June 9, 1995, said that Yeltsinhad issued a decree closing a nuclear submarine base near Murmanskto improve security there. (Monitor, June 12, 1995)

The situation with respect to the security of former Soviet operationaland tactical nuclear missiles, aircraft bombs, artillery shells,and mines is much worse. Prior to 1991, this ammunition was subordinateto army, air force, and navy divisions, corps, field armies, militarydistricts, and fleets. Practically all army divisions locatedin the former Soviet republics and abroad had missile battalionsand other military units capable of using tactical nuclear weapons.But nobody knows where these weapons went after the disintegrationof the USSR. The Russian government doesn’t know either, but stillinsists that there is nothing to worry about.

According to the Russian media, the documentation on such nuclearmaterials was lost four years ago, as officials working in thisfield told the Moscow newspaper Rossiya. (Rossiya, No. 27, August1995) This acknowledgment came as Russian journalists attemptedto evaluate claims by Chechen leader Shamil Basayev, who led theraid on Budennovsk, that he had access to nuclear devices. OneUkrainian nuclear scientist told the Moscow paper that "Ihaven’t the slightest doubt that the possibility of nuclear terrorismis a reality."

And if the Russian government does not know how much nuclear materialit possesses, how can it entrust their security to non-commissionedofficers, who haven’t received paychecks in several months andhave hungry children at home, and whose role models are corruptsenior officers?

On the basis of Russian information, it is impossible to tellwhether or not anything has been stolen from tactical nucleardevices. But recent events in Chechnya lead one to suppose thatsuch a thing could take place. For example, it is well-known thatduring and after the withdrawal of Russian troops from Chechnyain 1991-1992, with permission from defense minister Pavel Grachevand Marshal Yevgeny Shaposhnikov–at that time, the so-calledCIS Commander-in-Chief–with Yeltsin’s blessing, Chechen presidentDzhokhar Dudayev received hundreds of artillery systems, someof them capable of firing nuclear shells, and a missile battalionwith "LUNA-M" missile launchers, capable of launchingnuclear missiles.

Together with these weapons systems, the Chechens received allthe necessary ammunition, and in addition, the Chechens themselvescaptured several ammunition depots from the former Soviet military.To this day, Russian leaders cannot confirm or exclude the possibilitythat there were nuclear devices in these facilities before thefacilities wound up in Chechen hands. And it is well-known thatduring the war in Chechnya, the Russian military found no "LUNA"missile launchers or heavy artillery systems.

To this day, Dudayev has not ruled out the possibility of usingthe nuclear threat. This threat already forced Gorbachev and Yeltsin,in the fall of 1991, to cancel the military occupation of Chechnya,which had already begun, and withdraw Russian troops from thearea.

Stanislav Lunev is a former colonel in Soviet military intelligence(GRU).