Proliferation of the Bigwigs
- By Pavel Felgenhauer
- Feb. 22 2005 00:00
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A facility to safely store some 10,000 plutonium "pits," the balls of arms-grade metal plutonium that are the nucleus of a modern warhead, sits half completed at the Mayak nuclear facility in the Urals. Hundreds of tons of arms-grade material -- enough to make tens of thousands of nukes -- are stored in conditions that are officially considered unsafe.
There are hundreds of rusting nuclear subs that need to be dismantled and plenty of other extremely dangerous materials in Russia that need to be stored. At the Bratislava summit, the presidents may announce some new initiatives and earmark more money to solve these problems.
It would indeed be an achievement if some of the projects that have been in the works for so long, such as Shchuchye and Mayak, were finally finished. Yet how can cooperation on nonproliferation truly succeed when the relationship between the United States and Russia is in trouble?
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the West feared that hungry Russian nuclear scientists would go to rogue states and pass on their knowledge, taking badly guarded "loose nukes" with them. Programs were initiated to keep scientists working, and secure fences were funded to keep the warheads safe. Nonetheless, certain Pakistanis established an intentional network to spread nuclear materials and technologies, while North Korea provided the know-how to make primitive midrange ballistic missiles. Centrifuge uranium enrichment equipment from Pakistan, contaminated with arms-grade uranium, was discovered in Iran. There have been no documented cases of genuine arms-grade material leaving Russia, but do we really know the entire story?
Ukrainian officials recently confirmed that some 20 Kh-55 strategic cruise missiles were smuggled to Iran and China in 2000, possibly with the help of corrupt Russian officials. China has the capability to mass-produce the Kh-55 and fit it with warheads, but it does not have the strategic bombers to make them an intercontinental weapon. It may not have to wait long to get them. Last December, General Vladimir Mikhailov announced that during the Chinese-Russian joint military exercises planned for this year, the Air Force will fly the strategic Tu-95 Bear bombers in hopes that "the Chinese will perhaps want to buy them." The slow-flying prop Tu-95 can only be used effectively as a Kh-55 carrier. Thus, it's not starving scientists but rich officials in Putin's regime who are selling the weapons that may eventually threaten Russia itself.
In all the serious documented cases of nuclear proliferation -- in Pakistan, in North Korea, in France, which gave Israel nuclear technology -- the rich and powerful were always to blame. It does not make any sense to build a higher fence if the bosses are doing the smuggling.
Pavel Felgenhauer is an independent defense analyst based in Moscow.