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Russia: Analysis from Washington -- West Fears Russian Nuclear Safeguards Are Inadequate

  • Paul Goble

Washington, 5 December 1997 (RFE/RL) -- The American intelligence community has concluded that the Russian government currently has reasonably effective control over its stockpile of nuclear warheads and missiles.

But at the same time, the Director of the Central Intelligence Agency said, Washington is "very concerned" about the status of Russian safeguards against the illegal sale of the components needed to manufacture such weapons.

In a report released yesterday (Thursday) by the U.S. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, George Tenet said that he did not believe that Moscow had lost control over any warheads or nuclear missiles, although the reason he gave for that is not entirely encouraging.

"We do not believe that Russian ICBMs are as vulnerable to theft or sales as missile components," Tenet said. "A conspiracy of many government officials would be necessary to purloin an entire ICBM."

Instead, Tenet said his institution feared that Russia might be losing control over the components needed to make a bomb, including large and widely dispersed stores of plutonium and highly enriched uranium.

Tenet argued in the report that Russia's "continuing social and economic difficulties, corruption in the military and the potential activities of organized crime groups" put government control of these materials at risk.

And he pointed out that "Russia's ability to enforce export controls remains problematic because of resource shortages, weak customs enforcement and corruption."

Tenet's report is likely to trigger a new debate on how to prevent the proliferation of nuclear weapons after the Cold War. At the very least, it seems certain to introduce a new clarity into just what the problem is.

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union six years ago, Western analysts and governments have debated whether Moscow has been able to control the nuclear weapons and materials on its territory.

In general, that discussion has focused on the question of whether the Russian government has control of nuclear weapons rather than on whether it has control of the nuclear materials needed to make weapons.

That debate flared anew most recently when Aleksandr Lebed, a former Russian general and aide to Boris Yeltsin, made a dramatic suggestion that Moscow might have lost track of dozens of "suitcase-sized" nuclear weapons.

Tenet's report suggests that Lebed's claims are almost certainly untrue. But if that conclusion is reassuring, Tenet's discussion of Moscow's gradual loss of certain control over the components of nuclear weapons is frightening in the extreme.

The CIA report notes that there are some 1200 tons of highly enriched uranium and 200 tons of plutonium stored in a large number of sites spread across the Russian Federation.

Because producing such materials is the hardest part of building a bomb and because only a few pounds of either substance are needed to make one, any loss of control over even a small part of such stockpiles could quickly lead to disaster.

Obviously, both Russia and the entire world have a vested interest in making sure that the Russian authorities maintain effective control over such materials. But how that is to be done remains very much an open question.

In contrast to nuclear weapons and their delivery vehicles, the movement of such materials is far more difficult to monitor and thus extraordinarily difficult to prevent -- especially in a country as troubled as Russia now is.

Tenet's report may now prompt both Moscow and the West to explore some new means of making sure that the safeguards over nuclear materials are just as effective as those over nuclear weapons.

If that does not happen, his report strongly implies, the dangers of future proliferation of weapons of mass destruction will only increase.