Russia Loses Its Suitcase Nukes
By Ivo Dawnay in Washington
The Electronic Telegraph
From Richard Finke
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 Moscow
Copyright Telegraph Group Limited 1997.

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