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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Lebed Backpedals on Nukes

While the Russian "loose nukes" scandal is gathering momentum in Washington, retired general Alexander Lebed is busy backpedaling in Moscow. Lebed apparently brought on more political fame than he bargained for and, to make matters even worse, in the wrong constituency. Being popular with conservative Republican congressmen in Washington is not the kind of reputation that a patriotic general-turned-politician needs to become president of Russia.

In an interview with NBC television last week, Lebed was surprisingly noncommittal. He could only restate with certainty that "compact nuclear devices had been made." But this is common knowledge in any case.

"I'll give you a simple example," Lebed said. "Nuclear artillery shells are 155 millimeters long for NATO, 152 for Soviet ones. A missile is this long. [He spreads his hands about a yard wide.] It can be carried away in a suitcase or any other bag. As for their number, I can't say. When I was asked about the number, I said I didn't know -- maybe 100, maybe 500. Then speculations started. And they began saying that 'Lebed said there used to be 100.'"

"If I am not mistaken," Lebed added, "a U.S. senator came to Russia in March and asked me these questions. [It happened to be Representative Curt Weldon, a Pennsylvania Republican.] I told him that I didn't have enough time to verify everything, but that I considered it a matter of principal importance."

Of course, Lebed is wrong on detail. Nuclear artillery shells cannot be "carried away in a suitcase or any other bag." About 15 centimeters in diameter and nearly a meter long, such shells weigh well over 100 kilograms. A conventional "bag or suitcase" would simply fall apart under the strain. Strolling downtown with such a weight in a backpack would be no easy mission.

Furthermore, according to the 1991 agreement between former presidents George Bush and Mikhail Gorbachev, all former Soviet and U.S. nuclear artillery shells were to have been decommissioned and dismantled.

Plans to build other "compact nuclear devices" have not been abandoned forever, however. A year ago, the Russian Atomic Energy Minister Viktor Mikhailov -- a seasoned nuclear scientist and bomb maker -- published an article suggesting the need to produce 10,000 small and miniature new-generation battlefield nuclear weapons. They would have "reduced side effects on the environment and population located outside the area of hostilities and a reduced yield [TNT equivalent] ranging from dozens to hundreds of tons."

"According to our estimates," Mikhailov wrote, "to implement this program, Russia would need 300 tons of weapon-grade uranium and 30 tons of weapon-grade plutonium. These materials could be obtained from resources released in the nuclear arms dismantling process under the START I and START II nuclear disarmament treaties." Such a nuclear rearmament program, Mikhailov believes, would be a perfect response to the eastward expansion of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

But for now, this is all still a fantasy. Nuclear facilities are mostly dismantling warheads. If Lebed does not know the exact number or whereabouts of "compact nuclear devices," it is not because they were stolen, but because he never got authorization to know about them.

This means the Russian nuclear security system is not as bad as many U.S. senators believe. A maverick paratroop general still cannot get immediate access to stockpiles even if he happened to be a security tsar.

However, Lebed's apparent reversal on "misplaced nukes" will hardly stop the anti-Russian smear campaign that is unfolding in Washington. Many influential Americans are today actively making money and gaining political capital on downgrading Russians and promoting hatred. The newly released action film "The Peacemaker" was put into production long before Lebed's revelations. The film portrays a renegade Russian general who organizes a nuclear explosion in Russia, killing thousands of civilians, to cover up the theft of nuclear warheads to be smuggled into Iran.

The next move is obvious: These inhumane beings should be stopped. Ninety-six U.S. senators and congressmen wrote to President Bill Clinton last week recommending that he impose sanctions against Russia and reassess cooperation programs because of alleged sale of nuclear and missile technology to Iran. At such a pace, Mikhailov and his U.S. counterparts may be fully back in business in no time.

Pavel Felgenhauer is Segodnya's defense and national security affairs editor.