How threat of loose Soviet nukes was avoided
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Last Updated: Sunday, January 08, 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 08, 2012, 20:57

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