The Washington Times (May 25) published a sensational news item entitled “Dirty Bomb Easy to Buy in Ukraine”. The report was itself based on a Sky News report that investigated how relatively easy it would be for terrorists to purchase, transport and detonate a “dirty bomb” in a Western European or North American city. Dirty bombs are manufactured from normal explosives, such as dynamite, but packed with radioactive materials. The conventional explosion spreads radioactivity over a wide area. The only known case of the manufacture of a dirty bomb was by Chechen insurgents who allegedly planted a bomb with cesium-137 in a refuse container in central Moscow in 1995. The device was not detonated (Ukrayinska Pravda, May 27).
Sky News had video film footage of a group that had traded in nuclear waste in the Crimean city of Armyansk. The group had been arrested with two large containers of the dangerous radioactive isotope cesium-137. If detonated in a city a dirty bomb made with cesium-137 would make the area uninhabitable for many years. The two containers contained sufficient cesium-137 to produce many dirty bombs. The arrested group revealed under interrogation that it had planned to sell both containers of cesium-137 to a buyer in Kyiv. The buyers were likely to be working on behalf of either Russian/Ukrainian organized crime or a group with links to terrorists. In a statement dated May 28, the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) admitted that it had arrested a group in the Crimea the month before with two containers of cesium-137. The SBU admitted to having been approached by Sky News to whom they had given the video film footage. The SBU complained that the resultant Sky News report, on which the Washington Times (May 25) based its information, “had twisted the information given to them, and had drawn their own conclusions which had no factual basis” (UNIAN, May 28). The SBU also denied that the cesium-137 should be defined as “nuclear waste.”
This is not the first time Ukraine has been accused of nuclear or military proliferation to rogue states or in conflict zones. Ukraine’s proliferation problem is a product of three factors: large volume of inherited military equipment from the former USSR; lax safeguards; and high levels of corruption. Between 1997-2001, when Leonid Derkach headed the SBU, there were numerous Western media and intelligence reports of Ukraine’s involvement in arms smuggling. In 2002, two Russian organized crime members were arrested by the SBU on a train in Western Ukraine. They had in their possession strontium-90 concealed inside salami skins. Last month the SBU arrested a group in Odesa who included Ukrainians and Middle Eastern citizens. The group was organizing the illegal export of radioactive materials from Ukraine. The material in question was “red mercury” that was hidden in specially constructed containers that could be concealed for border crossings. The Odesa SBU reported that the “foreigners (Middle Eastern citizens) were looking for further opportunities to obtain radioactive materials …and smuggle them to the countries of the Middle East” (Interfax-Ukraine, May 17).
Since the disintegration of the USSR, CIS organized crime groups have been offering red mercury, which they claimed was a highly radioactive compound developed in Soviet nuclear facilities. However, samples of red mercury found in Western Europe have “proved to be bogus” (The Washington Post, May 17). Some scientists therefore believe “red mercury” either does not exist or is less of a threat than has been claimed. It is not coincidental that the majority of known proliferation cases occur in Southern Ukraine. Until 2003 Ukraine continued to recognize Moldovan customs stamps issued to Transdniestr in the 1990s. The Communist government had canceled these stamps when it came to power in 2001. The Transdniestr had been only given a small number of customs stamps by Moldova but had then illegally prepared hundreds more of the stamps.
The Ukrainian port of Odesa was the conduit for illegal exports from the Transdniestr, an avenue that has only therefore recently been closed. In the second half of the 1990s Odesa was racked by violence between organized crime groups with ties to different political clans. Direct presidential rule was temporarily imposed from Kyiv. The Transdniestr-Odesa smuggling route was used for military (and possibly nuclear) proliferation. The Transdniestr is kept afloat by Russian subsidies and illicit earnings from illegal trade in arms and other commodities. Transdniestr authorities only admitted recently that they produced military equipment. But, they claimed that this was purely for domestic purposes and not for export. In November 2003 the U.S. Embassy in Moldova confirmed that it was investigating the whereabouts of lead-shielded canisters. These contained the radioactive cesium-137 that could be used in dirty bombs. Oazu Nantoi, head of the opposition Moldovan Social Democratic Party, claimed in December 2003 that he possessed information concerning “dozens” of missiles with warheads that were missing from the Transdniestr that would be able to scatter radioactivity after impact (Washington Post, December 7, 2003).
Nantoi made these claims based on his access to Russian military documents on the modification of the bombs into dirty bombs. These had been stored in the Russian military depot in Kolbasna, near Tiraspol in the Transdniestr. The dirty bombs were modified Alazan rockets. Ukraine inherited a huge stockpile of military equipment from the USSR. This, coupled with further illicit supplies from the Transdniestr, led to a large proliferation problem in the 1990s. Storage of Ukraine’s military equipment, “was totally inadequate, chaotic and badly administered”, Defense Minister Yevhen Marchuk admitted (Den, March 25). Despite a decade of military reforms and Western-backed assistance in dismantling this arsenal, Ukraine still possesses a greater number of attack aircraft than any other country in the world, more tanks than Germany, France and Britain combined, and the highest proportion of generals per thousands of soldiers (Ukrayinska Pravda, May 26).