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Russia: Lebed's Nuclear Suitcase Charges Bring Denials

  • Floriana Fossato

Moscow, 29 September 1997 (RFE/RL) - Recent claims by former Russian government officials that Russia possessed miniature nuclear bombs, but had lost track of some of them, have caused a wave of animated denials from the country's top Defense officials. Russian military observers say some of the comments, particularly by General Igor Volynkin, head of the Defense Ministry's 12th department, in charge of overseeing nuclear security, are "surprising for their openness."

Russia's former Security Council Secretary, Aleksandr Lebed recently alleged that the Russian military had produced 132 such bombs, but had lost track of 84 of them. He said the portable devices were designed for sabotage behind enemy lines. Lebed, a popular, retired general with presidential ambitions has become one of President Boris Yeltsin's main critics, since Lebed was dismissed by Yeltsin last year.

Lebed's allegations, discounted by both the White House and the Kremlin, appeared to obtain some credence last week, when Yeltsin's former environmental security adviser, Aleksei Yablokov said the defense ministry may not have a record of the portable nuclear bombs. He said he knew of people who had been involved in the making of the bombs in the 1970s, and said they were made for the Soviet-era KGB, for "terrorist purposes." However, Yablokov said he could not confirm that the bombs were indeed missing.

Official denials followed immediately. Defense Minister Igor Sergeyev said he has "no fears," and insisted Russia's nuclear arsenal is under firm control.

A respected Russian military commentator, journalist Aleksandr Golts, told our Moscow correspondent that the most authoritative and "surprisingly detailed" denial came when Volynkin told reporters last week that such portable devices "have never been produced in the past, and are not produced now."

Nothing surprising in this statement. What is relatively new, however, is that Volynkin said building nuclear suitcases was "possible in theory," but added that Russia's Defense Ministry had came to the conclusion their production would be "too costly and ineffective." He said the device could last only a few months, and then it "would have to be replaced" at exorbitant cost. According to Volynkin, "not even the United States would attempt to do that."

Such a statement, said Golts, is "surpising, because it somehow breaks the past Russian military habit of avoiding comment on this type of issue, and on allegiances such as Lebed's."

Volynkin ruled out and termed as "naive" the possibility that structures such as the Soviet-era KGB could produce such devices. He said his department at the defense ministry "since its establishment 50 years ago has had sole responsibility over nuclear stocks, in Soviet, as well as, Russian times." However, he added that the Defense Ministry works in close contact with the Ministry of Atomic Energy to keep detailed records of the whereabouts of all nuclear stocks. He said Atomic Energy Ministry specialists are regularly checking the weapons at nuclear sites.

Volynkin said that to produce the nuclear suitcases "one needs to create a whole network of new plants and military units to maintain" them. And he added that neither the Soviet-era KGB, nor the Russian Security Services and Interior Ministry have the means to produce their own nuclear arsenal.

He added that all weapons belonging to Russia's nuclear arsenal have been withdrawn from military units, and are now located in his department's storages under tight supervision. However, Volyinkin did not rule out that nuclear terrorist acts could take place in Russia and internationally.

According to the general, Yablokov may have confused nuclear suitcases with nuclear mines, whose existence he admitted. According to Golts, "nuclear mines were part of the nuclear arsenal that the former Soviet Union was keeping in former East Germany." Volynkin ruled out the possibility of nuclear mines disappearing. Golts said those devices "are extremely big, won't fit into any suitcase or backpack and are transported only by specially designed trucks."

Nuclear experts say theft if Russian weapons is extremely unlikely. However, they say that in the past there have been cases of theft of nuclear materials from power plants and cash-strapped scientific laboratories belonging to the Atomic Energy Ministry.

The head of Russia's National Center for the Reduction of Nuclear Danger, general Vyacheslav Romanov, told the daily "Komsomolskaya Pravda" that "to say that a single person could deliver a nuclear device -- whose minimum weight usually reaches 200 kilograms -- to the site of the explosion without being noticed and then set it off on his own is absurd." He added that "no device could be used by a single person -- such is the technology."

In the light of these statements, Lebed's words sound surprising because the general, a professional soldier, should be aware of many key details concerning the production of portable nuclear devices.

According to Golts and other Russian military observers, a possible explanation could be found in Lebed's political ambitions and by his "necessity to remain under the spotlight." Golts says that Lebed's popularity has been threatened recently by the growing popularity of another military man-turned politician: Lev Rokhlin.

Lebed came third against Yeltsin in last year's presidential election and following it served briefly as Security Council Secretary. Since being fired by Yeltsin last fall, he has been working to build his own political party and has made no secret of his plans to run for president in the year 2000. But recent developments suggest that Lebed's plans may be disrupted by Rokhlin.

The communist and nationalist-dominated State Duma refused last Friday to remove Rokhlin as Chairman of the Duma Defense Committee. Many consider Rokhlin a hero of the war in Chechnya.

Rokhlin was ousted from the pro-government party and parliamentary faction Our Home Is Russia (NDR) earlier this month, after he launched a strong attack on the Kremlin's program of military reform, and called for Yeltsin's removal from office.

Rokhlin then, following Lebed's example, set up his own political party. It already seems to be gaining popularity among military men and many opposition forces, including communist and nationalist groups.

According to Golts, "Rokhlin, not Lebed, has grown during the last months to become the main military leader" opposing Yeltsin and the government. He added that it is somehow "natural" that, as a consequence, Lebed is attempting all he can to maintain his popularity, "including sensational statements that undoubtedly attract attention in Russia and abroad."