- The nightmare scenario of terrorists
acquiring Russian suitcase-sized nuclear weapons took a dramatic turn last
week when the Kremlin implicitly admitted that the bombs exist - and some
may be missing. Until now, persistent rumours of the existence of the small,
portable bombs have been vehemently denied by Moscow, with even Premier
Viktor Chernomyrdin shrugging off the claims as an "absolute absurdity".
- But The Telegraph has learned that Professor
Alexei Yablokov, who first disclosed the existence of the sophisticated
device, was quietly co-opted by the Russian Defence Council last week to
devise new legislation to control the weapons.
- On Thursday, he was secretly summoned
to the Kremlin and ordered to help to draft a presidential decree to co-ordinate
the location of "compact nuclear weapons", bring them under secure
control, and arrange for their speedy destruction.
- The Yeltsin government's decision to
bring in the professor is a tacit admission that the suitcase bombs not
only exist, but could be outside secure control and represent a genuine
international security risk.
- It was Prof Yablokov, a distinguished
ecologist, academician and former special adviser to Boris Yeltsin, who
first alerted the world to the danger posed by the bombs - ideal portable
terrorist weapons. In October, he told a United States Congressional committee
that he was "absolutely certain" they had been built as he had
met someone involved in their construction.
- This week he told The Telegraph that
while there was "no certainty" that any of the bombs were unaccounted
for, there were indeed "some suspicions". He said: "I won't
say how many I think have gone missing - you will publish it and scare
the whole world," he said. "It is a question of units, not dozens."
- The Kremlin's decision to draft the professor
represents a momentous U-turn. Only a week earlier, Prof Yablokov had issued
an ultimatum to President Yeltsin, threatening to go public with technical
details of the bombs if action were not taken immediately.
- The Kremlin's decision also represents
a personal triumph for US Congressman Curt Weldon. As chairman of the House
of Representatives' National Security, in May, he disclosed that Gen Alexander
Lebed had told him of his own concerns about suitcase nuclear weapons.
Gen Lebed, who in his brief six months in government was charged by President
Yeltsin to review nuclear security, said that only 48 out of 132 known
bombs had been adequately accounted for.
- He suspected that some of the weapons
may have been built for the KGB by the Ministry of Atomic Energy without
the knowledge of the Defence Ministry. Yesterday Mr Weldon welcomed the
news of Prof Yablokov's appointment as vindicating his campaign. "We
finally have full confirmation of our suspicions that these devices have
existed and do exist," Mr Weldon said. "This is not a time to
embarrass Russia, but to come together to secure nuclear stability for
people in Russia, the US and the world."
- Small, tactical nuclear devices have
long been deployed on both sides of the Cold War trenches. The US military
is believed to have as many as 600 atomic demolition munitions (ADMs) -
some of which are known to troops as "satchel" bombs. The weapons
were intended for special forces to use behind enemy lines for blowing
up key infrastructure like airports and roads. Similar equipment is understood
to have been issued to Soviet Spetznaz units as part of some 25,000 tactical
nuclear weapons in the Red Army's armoury.
- In 1995, rumours swirled round Moscow
that two such bombs had been acquired in Vilnius, Lithuania by Chechen
rebels. According to the Russian nationalist paper Zavtra, the weapons
were bought for $600,000 and all those associated with the transaction
were later murdered to ensure secrecy. The correspondent who wrote the
article was subsequently abducted and threatened with death if he pursued
the story - which was later withdrawn by Zavtra.
- Despite the "official" American
acceptance of Russia's assurances that there was no threat, US Intelligence
agencies are believed to have been probing claims of loose tactical nuclear
weapons since 1995. According to One Point Safe, a book by Leslie and Andrew
Cockburn, two Washington-based journalists, the US was approached by the
Chechens during their war of secession and threatened with nuclear blackmail.
- "They told them that if Washington
did not formally recognise the Chechen state, they would sell the weapons
to Gaddafi (the Libyan dictator)," Andrew Cockburn claims. A subsequent
clandestine CIA mission to Chechenya - secretly agreed to by the Russians
- failed to turn up evidence of a bomb.
- This and other stories of hoaxes and
skulduggery, however, proved sufficiently compelling to inspire the Cockburns
to write the screenplay for The Peacemaker, a fictionalised thriller bought
by Steven Spielberg. Professional analysts are not so much interested
in whether the bombs exist, but in where exactly they are located and whether
they are under Russia's secure control.
- Now that Prof Yablokov has persuaded
the Kremlin to take the issue seriously, it may be easier to discover whether
any bombs are missing. But, given that the Russians have lied repeatedly
about the very existence of the weapons, it may be too much to expect them
to report honestly about when or whether they have this arsenal of terror
under firm control.
- Additional reporting by Alan Philps in
- Copyright Telegraph Group Limited 1997.