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Russia: Analysis From Washington--A New 'Nuclear' Threat?

  • Paul Goble

Washington, 16 September 1997 (RFE/RL) - Russian claims that some former Soviet republics may still possess nuclear weapons appear intended to isolate these countries and to pressure them into accepting intrusive international inspections.

In recent weeks, Aleksandr Lebed, the former secretary of the Russian security council, has told a variety of Western audiences that Moscow could not account for all the nuclear weapons it had inherited from Soviet times.

And he implied that at least some of these -- including special suitcase-sized "terror" weapons -- might remain on the territory of the Baltic states or one of the other former Soviet republics.

Last month, Lebed called for "a very thorough investigation" of this possibility, arguing that "we should realize that a moron with such a device somewhere in New York would be anything but a great 'joy' for all human."

Because Lebed has often made outrageous claims in the past, most observers in Russia and outside have been inclined to reject his latest statements as overblown.

But on Saturday, his former deputy Vladimir Denisov amplified Lebed's remarks so as to give them more credibility and to make them appear part of an effort to generate international support for a tougher inspection regime in the former Soviet republics.

On the one hand, Denisov told the Russian news agency Interfax that all nuclear weapons on the territory of the Russian Federation were being kept in "appropriate" storage facilities.

On the other, he said that a three-month-long Russian government investigation in 1995 had been unable to determine whether any such weapons remained on the territory of Ukraine, Georgia, or the three Baltic states.

Denisov's simultaneous claim that Russia has maintained full control of nuclear weapons on its territory but that the same cannot be said about the situation in these other countries is highly problematic.

In the period since 1991, none of these countries ever had control of nuclear weapons. Even in Ukraine, Belarus and Kazakhstan from which strategic missiles were removed and sent to Russia, these weapons were always in the hands of the Russian military.

Consequently, either Russian control was or is not as thorough as Denisov now claims it to be or, far more likely, none of the governments in this region in fact has any nuclear bomb.

And that is almost certainly true even if some individual or group has succeeded in purchasing or stealing some nuclear materials for possible use or sale to others.

Why then raise this issue now and in this way? Three answers suggest themselves.

First, Lebed and his aide may simply want to keep themselves in the public eye by talking about an issue no one can afford to ignore.

Second, Lebed and Denisov may want to call attention to the steps they took to improve nuclear security.

And third, they may want to play to growing Russian concerns about expanded Western interest in and influence on the former Soviet republics.

As the experience with Russian nuclear missiles based earlier in Ukraine, Belarus, and Kazakhstan demonstrated, suggestions that former Soviet republics have nuclear weapons on their territories can help to unite the West with Moscow against these states.

In the current environment, with expanded Western and especially American interest in the Baltic countries, the Caucasus and Central Asia, some in Moscow may be tempted as Lebed clearly is to try to exploit this issue again. So far, only former Russian officials have picked up this theme. The real indication that this is Moscow's intention will come if and when current Russian officials begin to talk about this "nuclear" threat.

But even Lebed's words and the coverage they have received in the Western press are a reminder that the countries living around Russia's periphery can face a "nuclear" threat even if none of them actually has a nuclear weapon and even if no one in Moscow is talking about using one.