Last week Georgian Interior Minister Vano Merabishvili disclosed that a sting operation had resulted in the February 1, 2006, arrest in Tbilisi of a Russian citizen, Oleg Khintsagov, who had attempted to sell 100 grams of weapons-grade uranium. The Georgian authorities carried out the sting operation to prove that the poorly controlled border between the Russian autonomous republic of North Ossetia and self-proclaimed independent South Ossetia is a channel of massive smuggling that includes nuclear bomb-making material.
A Georgian undercover agent, posing as a rich foreign buyer, made contact with Khintsagov, an ethnic Ossetian, described by Georgian authorities as “a small-time smuggler specializing mostly in foodstuffs.” Khintsagov came to Tbilisi to sell a 100-gram sample of uranium and boasted that he had several more kilos to offer. The FBI and U.S. Energy Department helped in the investigation. The material was indeed arms-grade, ready to make a nuclear weapon. Khintsagov was secretly tried in Tbilisi and is serving an eight-to-ten-year prison term. The Georgian authorities asked the Russian FSB counterintelligence service for help, but as Russo-Georgian relations deteriorated last year, cooperation did not work out well, and Merabishvili finally exposed the entire story (New York Times, January 25; AP, January 24, 28).
Russian authorities and experts rejected the Georgian disclosure as a propaganda ploy. Andrei Cherkasenko, board chairman of AtomPromResursy, a manufacturer of equipment for the nuclear power industry, stated, “Georgia and U.S. nuclear officials decided to make this information public at the start of Vladimir Putin’s visit to India,” to prevent Russia from getting a contract to build four additional nuclear reactors there (RIA-Novosti, January 26). The North Ossetian authorities have denied that any “Oleg Khintsagov” is a resident of their republic. (Gazeta, January 26.) Federal Customs Service spokeswoman Natalia Sinikina told Vremya novostei (January 26) that Yantar radiation detecting equipment has been installed at Georgian checkpoints and that carrying 100 grams of uranium across the border is impossible.
According to Russian nuclear experts, “It is virtually impossible to steal radioactive materials from a Russian company today” (RIA-Novosti, January 30). Ivan Safranchuk, director of the Moscow office of the Washington-based Center for Defense Information, also expressed doubt that Khintsagov really had access to the quantity of nuclear material he claimed. “I don’t think the international community should give much credit to this story and express serious concern about the situation” (Los Angeles Times, January 27).
Igor Skabura, deputy director of the Russian Scientific Research Institute of Non-Organic Materials told the press in Moscow: “About a year ago, our institute received a minute sample from Georgia. It was established that the material was regenerated highly enriched uranium.” He said the amount was insufficient for a comprehensive analysis and that Russia had asked for an additional sample, but received no answer from Georgia. “We were therefore unable to establish either its origin or the regeneration method used,” Skabura added (RIA-Novosti, January 26). The goal of the flurry of public rebuttals from Moscow is plain: “It’s not our uranium; we do not know from where the Georgians and/or the Americans got the stuff to embarrass Russia; our nuclear materials are safe; our nuclear industry is sound.”
Last week I received by fax from Tbilisi a copy of a confidential official letter sent last May by the FSB to the Georgians, summing up its investigation of the Khintsagov case. The New York Times and Reuters apparently also have obtained the same document. The FSB letter exposes as deliberately erroneous most of the Russian public rebuttals.
According to the letter, the FSB had “established” that Khintsagov was indeed born in and is officially a resident of North Ossetia. The FSB had “established” that Khintsagov’s cousin, Miron Gabarayev, worked until July 2004 in the local customs service and “apparently used his connections to allow himself and Khintsagov unchecked passage into Georgia.” Khintsagov and Gabarayev, according to the FSB report, crossed into Georgia a day before Khintsagov’s arrest.
The letter establishes that the Georgians had briefed the Russian authorities about the case and promptly (on February 15 and 17, 2006) provided samples of the seized material. Russian experts established that the sample was a mix of oxide powder with an 89.38% uranium-235 content and “could have been produced by the Russian nuclear industry” ten years ago. The exact origin of the uranium was not established, but the letter did not contain any requests for more material, or any complaints that the “amount was insufficient for a comprehensive analysis.”
The Khintsagov case was not the first of its kind in Georgia. In 2003 an Armenian named Garik Dadayan was arrested carrying 170 grams of highly enriched uranium (New York Times, January 25). According to the FSB letter, both Dadayan and Khintsagov claimed to have obtained their uranium from Novosibirsk, in Siberia. The FSB apparently did not manage to find the actual source, but the letter states that Dadayan’s and Khintsagov’s uranium were produced at separate dates and “seriously differ in composition.” This may mean there were at least two different cases of theft of major quantities of arms-grade uranium in Russia.
After the collapse of the USSR workers in Russia’s nuclear industry were mesmerized by the prospect, publicized in the press, of earning millions of dollars by selling stolen nuclear materials. Control and security were lax then and may not be fully adequate today. Khintsagov’s uranium was apparently stolen some ten years ago. According to a document given to me by a deputy prime minister, in November 1997 Russia’s nuclear minister Viktor Mikhailov sent the Russian government a document that stated, “Large amounts of arms-grade plutonium and uranium (over 500 tons) are stored in Russia in conditions that do not conform with international safety standards.”
It is possible that hundreds of kilos of arms-grade materials were stolen in Russia and are hidden, ready for sale, or are circulating within a black market that has many hawkers, but no genuine buyers. Terrorists and other rogues have not, apparently, arrived at this marketplace, but sting operations by intelligence services regularly find nuclear peddlers with genuine arms-grade material for sale.
To make a primitive but deadly 20-kiloton bomb requires 40-50 kilos of arms-grade uranium. A more sophisticated weapon may require only five kilos. While the Russian authorities and experts are in denial, a nuclear theft and smuggling problem exists in Russia and the critical amount of material may have been already stolen. But how long before a terrorist buyer arrives?