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Russia: Unlike Iraq, Moscow's Aging, Poorly Secured Weapons Easily Found (Part 1)

  • Jeremy Bransten

UN inspectors continue to scour sites in Iraq, looking for evidence of weapons of mass destruction. So far, in the words of chief weapons inspector Hans Blix, no "smoking gun" has been found, furthering debate among America and its allies about how the standoff with Baghdad should be resolved. Away from the media glare, however, there is another country where weapons of mass destruction -- many aging and some poorly secured -- abound by the ton. That country is Russia. And should those chemical and nuclear stockpiles fall into the wrong hands, many experts believe they would pose a far greater threat to world security than anything Iraq may possess. In the first of a two-part series, RFE/RL examines international efforts undertaken so far to help Russia clean up its Cold War weapons graveyard and the daunting challenges that still lie ahead.

Prague, 5 February 2003 (RFE/RL) -- The fact that United Nations weapons inspectors have not found a "smoking gun" in their search for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq means one of two things: either Baghdad no longer possesses such weapons, as it claims, or they are so well hidden that inspectors have yet to discover them, as the U.S. administration believes.

Either way, many experts believe the situation in Iraq is less immediately threatening than the dangers that exist in Russia and some of the former Soviet republics.

More than a decade after the end of the Cold War, Russia -- by its own admission -- possesses some 40,000 tons of chemical weapons -- the world's largest quantity -- and some 1,000 tons of weapons-grade nuclear material in scores of storage sites around the country. Basic information about the location of these sites is available to anyone with access to the Internet. Many are far from adequately secure.

That fact was demonstrated last year when Sergei Mitrokhin, a State Duma deputy, accompanied by two Greenpeace activists and three television cameramen, broke into a reprocessing plant in Siberia where spent nuclear fuel was being stored.

And it is one of the central points of a four-volume study recently published by the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS). The study, entitled "Protecting Against the Spread of Nuclear, Biological and Chemical Weapons," assesses international efforts to help Russia secure and reduce its chemical- and nuclear-weapons stockpiles over the past 10 years. The study warns that much more must be done if the world is to avoid the risk of some of these weapons falling into the wrong hands.

Lists of "hot" sites located on Russian territory fill page after page of the CSIS report. While UN inspectors comb Iraq for evidence of a single chemical-laced warhead, for example, 5,400 tons of nerve agent already packaged in thousands of portable artillery shells and hundreds of missile warheads are stored at Shchue, just north of Kazakhstan -- a potential "one-stop shop" for terrorists in the market for such material.

Robert Einhorn, a former U.S. assistant secretary of state for nonproliferation and co-editor of the CSIS study, said much of Russia's chemical stockpiles are kept in such "ready-to-use" fashion. "A lot of these chemical agents were loaded into munitions of various sorts, including artillery shells, that would be used to deliver those agents to their targets. So you still have a lot of the agents in munitions and those have to be demilitarized and destroyed," Einhorn said.

Under the Chemical Weapons Convention, which former Russian President Boris Yeltsin signed in 1997, Russia pledged to abolish its entire chemical-weapons stocks by the year 2007. So far, it has destroyed about 1 percent. For comparison, the United States -- also a party to the convention, with an initial declared capacity of 31,500 tons of chemical weapons -- has so far decommissioned 25 percent of its arsenal.

Since 1992, the United States has spent $7 billion, under the so-called Cooperative Threat Reduction Program, to help Russia and the former Soviet states dismantle and secure their weapons sites. There have been notable successes, including the de-nuclearization of Belarus, Ukraine, and Kazakhstan, the destruction of 815 ballistic missile silos, and the scrapping of 97 heavy bombers -- to cite a few statistics.

But much remains to be done, and progress on the non-nuclear front has moved at a glacial pace. The 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks against the United States may have finally galvanized Western countries to pay greater attention to the issue. Meeting in Canada last year, the G-8 industrialized states pledged to raise $20 billion over the next 10 years to support nonproliferation initiatives, especially in Russia. But the task ahead is enormous.

Einhorn said: "This is a huge amount of material, and progress in getting rid of it has been very, very slow. Much of that difficulty has come from the inability of the Russians to allocate sufficient resources, and now that is changing. Russia has contributed its own resources to the problem, and the U.S. and a number of European countries are also prepared to fund the destruction process. So they've made a slow start, but they've begun. But this is going to take quite a while -- well over a decade -- to finish this task."

And the Russian authorities, he adds, will have to remove some internal roadblocks to cooperation if the program is to be successful. "Both President Yeltsin and President [Vladimir] Putin have been supporters of these Cooperative Threat Reduction programs, but problems have developed in Russian implementation of these projects in Russia. These problems existed under Yeltsin, and they currently exist under Putin. These are bureaucratic difficulties that arise. It involves the failure of Russia to exempt these assistance programs from local taxation. It's a failure so far to provide protections to contractors working in Russia from liability and so forth. These have hindered these projects from going forward, and it's important that these implementations be removed if Russia wants contributing countries to increase their commitments," he said.

The exact degree of risk posed by Russia's decaying stocks of chemical and nuclear weapons remains open to debate.

John Eldridge is editor of "Jane's Nuclear, Biological and Chemical Defense Guidebook," an annual survey of global weapons of mass destruction. Eldridge cites the example of the 1995 Tokyo subway attack, in which the Japanese Aum Shinrikyo cult attempted the mass murder of commuters using the deadly gas sarin.

Twelve people died in the attack, but as Eldridge notes, given the quantities of sarin the group had at its disposal and its preparation work, its "effectiveness" cannot be compared to terror strikes using more basic methods. "[Aum Shinrikyo] had a major operation in Tokyo, and when the police moved in, there was a vat of something like 50 tons of precursor chemical boiling away, waiting to be created into sarin. So theirs was a huge operation, but even then, it wasn't as successful in terms of a weapon of mass destruction, comparing the result, as 9/11 was, where much more simple methods were used," he said.

Nevertheless, Eldridge believes Russia's massive stocks of weapons of mass destruction do represent a significant threat, which he compared to the former Soviet Union's aging civilian nuclear reactors. "It's as much a threat as the aging nuclear-power-generation reactors in Russia and the [former] satellites -- the old RBMK reactors. That poses an equal threat. We've seen a Chornobyl already, and there are several of those waiting in the wings, I feel sure. But the straying of chemical weapons and indeed expertise and radiological materials over the borders, particularly in the south of Russia and the southwest of Russia, is a huge problem. And certainly it's not a case of if, but when, they fall into the hands of terrorists. We need to be able to deal with this," Eldridge said.

The human element -- the thousands of underpaid scientists across Russia and the former Soviet Union who could potentially supply their weapon-making knowledge to terror groups or regimes across the globe -- is an equally important factor in this equation, which we will examine in Part 2 of this series.

(The four-volume CSIS study entitled "Protecting Against The Spread of Nuclear, Biological and Chemical Weapons is available online at