Washington, 3 October 1997 (RFE/RL) - Some members of the U.S. Congress say the threat of Russian nuclear weapons falling into the hands of terrorists, criminals or hostile governments is real and must be taken seriously by the United States.
Senator Richard Lugar (R-Indiana), a senior member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and an expert on former Soviet nuclear weapons, says "the Russian inventory system is so antiquated and inefficient that the Russians do not have an accurate accounting of nuclear weapons or materials."
And, he told a hearing of a House of Representatives National Security subcommittee Thursday that the U.S. is "not equipped to manage the crisis posed by the threatened use of such weapons or to manage the consequences of their use against civilian populations."
Said Lugar: "This threat is real and we must be prepared."
The hearing was called by Military Research and Development subcommittee chairman Curt Weldon (R-Pennslyvania), who was one of the first Americans to be told the story of the reportedly missing portable nuclear weapons.
Weldon said that while on a visit to Moscow last summer, former Russian presidential candidate and presidential national security director Alexander Lebed told him that as many as 100 small nuclear devices were developed in the Soviet era, and that now, these weapons were at risk of finding their way to the black market.
Weldon described the weapons as being 60 by 40 by 20 centimeters in diameter with an explosive potential of one kiloton and that each could kill 100,000 people. The weapons have been dubbed "suitcase bombs" in the press.
Lebed has repeated his assertion several times. Russian officials this week denied General Lebed's allegations, saying no such weapons were ever developed, and that authorities had control over the entire nuclear weapons stockpile in Russia.
However, a Russian scientist who testified at Weldon's hearing on Thursday, Alexei Yablokov, contended that such weapons did exist. Yablokov, who was a science adviser to President Boris Yeltsin, said he was told about the weapons by the scientists who developed them. He repeated to the congressmen statements he has made in Moscow the past few days that these weapons were developed by the Soviet KGB, and that military authorities may not even have been aware of them. In Washington, he also charged that some Russian officials responsible for nuclear weapons security could not be trusted.
On Thursday, U.S. State Department spokesman James Foley said for the second time this week that the U.S. government accepts the word of the Russian government on the issue of nuclear security.
"The government of Russia continues to assure us that it retains adequate command and control of its nuclear arsenal and materials, meaning its entire nuclear arsenal and materials, and that appropriate security arrangements exist for these weapons and facilities," said Foley.
He said the U.S. believes, "that the assurances that the Russian government has given us on this score are credible." Foley said the U.S. has no independent information on Lebed's assertions, and he says Washington and Moscow have frequent consultations about safeguarding nuclear materials.
Some commentators have speculated that Lebed's statements are motivated by a desire to stay in the public spotlight because he still has presidential ambitions.
Sen. Lugar, however, said that, "whether the general's comments reflect smoke or fire, when so influential an individual as General Lebed focuses on the issue of loose nukes (nuclear weapons), it raises questions about the security and safety of the Russian nuclear custodial system."
Lugar said that because of the collapse of the Soviet totalitarian system, "a vast potential supermarket of weapons and materials of mass destruction has become increasingly accessible."
The subjects of the security of Russian nuclear weapons and the growth of organized crime in Russia to the point where some experts allege it is becoming a state within a state have gotten a lot of attention in Washington over the past few days.
The respected Washington research organization called the Center for Strategic and International Studies issued a report this week which concluded that Russia was in danger of evolving into a country run by an alliance of gangsters, corrupt bureaucrats and crooked businessmen unless action is taken now to control organized crime.
Congressman Weldon contends that "increases in crime, corruption and competence and institutional decay are so advanced in Russia that the theft of nuclear weapons, unthinkable in the Soviet war machine of the Cold War, seems entirely plausible in the Russia of today."
He says the mere possibility that terrorists or rogue states may have acquired some Russian nuclear weapons "should be a matter of gravest concern to the governments of the West."