How threat of loose Soviet nukes was avoided

Last Updated: Sunday, January 8, 2012 - 21:34

Moscow: The doomsday scenario of Soviet nukes
falling into the hands of rogue states or terrorists has, as
far as is known, remained fiction, thanks to a massive
US-Russian effort to lock the weaponry up safely after the
Soviet Union fell apart.

The vast nuclear arsenal, scattered among several newly
independent nations, was secured because Russian military
officers acted with professionalism and honesty, Moscow and
Washington shared clear priorities, and the US taxpayer
coughed up billions of dollars, former top officials who dealt
with the Soviet nuclear legacy say.

Even so, as the world marks the 20th anniversary of the
Soviet demise at the end of 1991, occasional doubts surface
about whether the system was airtight. There`s the Russian
scientist who perhaps went to work for Iran`s nuclear
programme, an old claim that portable nuclear devices went
astray, the seizures of smuggled fissile material in the
1990s.

But difficult though it is to prove a nuclear negative,
US and Russian officials insist in interviews that the fears of the 1990s have not become a
reality, even though the challenges of safeguarding Soviet
nukes were daunting at the time.

"Twenty years on it`s pretty hard to believe that not a
single nuclear weapon has shown up loose," said Graham
Allison, who played a key role in the effort as an assistant
secretary of defence under President Bill Clinton and now
heads Harvard`s Belfer Centre for Science and International
Affairs.

A quick US-sponsored deal had Belarus, Ukraine and
Kazakhstan handing all their nukes over to Russia, and
American cash helped safeguard the weapons at a time when the
new governments couldn`t even afford to pay military wages on
time. Additional US incentives offered jobs to disgruntled
nuclear scientists from the former Soviet Union, many of whom
were courted by nations like Iran.

There have been gnawing fears that a few Soviet nukes
still might have gone missing, but experts with inside
knowledge say that if it were true the world would already
know.

"If somebody or a terrorist group got hold of a nuclear
weapon, they would probably use it as quickly as possible,"
said Steven Pifer, who served as US ambassador to Ukraine,
held other senior State Department posts and is now director
of the Brookings Institute`s Arms Control Initiative.

"So the fact that you haven`t seen a nuclear detonation
... reflects the fact that the nuclear weapons have been
maintained in a secure way."

That was no mean achievement given the enormous
proliferation risks posed by the Soviet breakup.

The economic meltdown of the early 1990s forced many
officers of the once-proud Soviet Army to moonlight as
security guards or even cab drivers and with the wars and
ethnic clashes triggered by the Soviet collapse came strong
incentives to steal weapons for the black market.

Bureau Report



First Published: Sunday, January 8, 2012 - 20:57

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