russian roulette

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comments on russia's atomic suitcase bombs

alexei yablokov

Do "backpack" nuclear weapons exist?

The Davy Crockett was the smallest and lightest nuclear weapon ever deployed by the US military.Yes, small atomic charges exist. They are very small. Several dozen kilos, thirty kilos, forty kilos. I spoke with people that made them, I saw them. The American specimens can be seen on the Internet, they can be seen on photographs, they can even be seen in the movies. I have never seen Russian analogies, I have only seen American ones, but Russian ones do exist, because I spoke with people who made them, and I believe these people, these people knew what they were talking about. And there was data published about it. ... Some was published in the newspaper of a town in the south of the Urals in a little paper, and it said there that the prominent achievement is that they have manufactured a miniature atomic charge. ... No one knows how many exist ... . Lebed mentioned that there's forty-eight, or a hundred and fifty, but no one knows for certain.

How powerful are they?

Their power is about one kiloton, possibly less, but a powerful charge. You cannot destroy Moscow or London, but the Kremlin, you can destroy ... Capitol Hill can be wiped out by such a bomb. ...

Why were you raising the issue?

I talk about tactical nuclear arms, and including mini-nukes, nuclear cases, because I believe that, after the end of the cold war, the situation with nuclear arms has become much more dangerous. During the cold war, everything was under strict control, now it's not the case anymore. Now, it's becoming clear to us that tactical nuclear arms pose a great threat in people's minds. People think that, "Well, the American President and the Russian President have nuclear cases and only after the President presses a button in it, then something happens." But that's not the case regarding tactical nuclear arms. If we've got tactical nuclear arms and small briefcase bombs, a terrorist version of it, it's not going to be up to the President to decide where and at what time to set the bomb off. So, tactical nuclear arms exist under less control than the strategic nuclear arms. The power is much smaller of tactical ones, but the control is also much weaker. Therefore, it now poses a greater threat to society, that's why I keep talking about it.

We know that Chechnyan leaders announced that they've got two nuclear bombs. But we checked it out, and it seems that it's not the case. Palestinian terrorists also made statements to that effect, they said they've got several atomic bombs which they've purchased in the Soviet Union, but hopefully, they are also bluffing. But, in reality, the danger comes from within the country, from within Russia. We've got about one hundred organizations of a fascist nature. These fascist organizations have got many military who know where these bombs are located, who know how to use them. And if, inside the country, there's a struggle for power, and these fascists and nationalists get hold of these bombs--there's a small chance, but there is that chance, much smaller than Chechnya or Palestine--but, if that happens, that will be terrible. That's why I'm talking about this, that's why tactical nuclear arms, these small nuclear bombs, ought to be destroyed as soon as possible. ...

When this scandal with the nuclear mini-bombs erupted, and when it became clear to me that tactical nuclear arms poses a greater threat than strategic ones, I sent a letter to President Yeltsin saying that I would hate to publish all the data but I'd like to draw your attention to this and take measures. I had a call from the Kremlin, from the Defense Council ... a decision was taken ... it was deemed necessary to make a ruling which would impose more strict control over tactical nuclear arms. I was told that such a decree would be worked out, and I offered my own draft of such a decree and I sent such a draft to the President [and the Defense Council]. I don't know what the state of affairs is now, it's been three months since I submitted my draft decree. ...

Did you ever talk to General Lebed about this?

I never spoke with General Lebed about this question. I don't know what General Lebed thinks. I've only heard his statement, and I saw it printed in newspapers. When General Lebed was the Secretary of the Security Council, someone mentioned this weapon to him, and he appointed a special commission to look into the matter, and this commission was headed by one of his aides, with whom I'm acquainted. And he gave an interview and he said that the commission's been investigating, ... and they have found [these weapons], they've established that they exist, there is no doubt about the fact that they exist, they know where they are, the only question is, have they been able to locate all? They said they'd found several dozen, but it's not clear whether they've managed to locate all existing.

Why did you testify before the US Congress?

... On the request of [Representative] Weldon, whom I know for a long time, I made a statement in the Committee on National Defense, in the [House]. And we spoke on the dangers of the tactical nuclear arms. Sometimes you have to go to America and make a statement there, or, like when Lebed spoke about these problems here, no one listened to him. But when he gave an interview to Reuters, the entire world heard about it, and our people back at home began to worry, too. So I agreed, at the request of Congressman Weldon, to appear before the ... committee... Because, the problem, as I said, is a very worrying one and concerns us all.

Read Yablokov's testimony

What was the reaction in Russia to your statements in America?

When I returned, an independent newspaper ... published a dirty article, accusing me of being an American spy. They insisted that Yablokov is an American spy and that he is using ecological organizations in order to collect classified data. It's all lies. I was so indignant that I filed a court case against [the paper]. And the press secretary of the Atomic Ministry, I sued him as well. And this court case will take place a few days from now.

Can you tell me about your work?

All my life I was a biologist, but, towards the end of Gorbachev's perestroika, I began to be interested in ecology. Towards the end of Gorbachev's perestroika, I believed that it's time to take part in political life. I was elected to the Soviet Parliament, I was Deputy Chairman of the Ecological Commission of Russia. But before the collapse of the Soviet Union, Boris Yeltsin offered me to become his aide in charge of ecological affairs, and for three years, I was his aide in charge of ecology. Recently, I was chairman on a commission on ecological security. Now I've finished my work in administration, and I've returned to the Science Academy. And also to the ecological politics in Russia. It's a small ecological organization, and our goal is to help the government to resolve urgent ecological problems ... .

Do you think Russian officials are misleading the public opinion?

The fact that they mislead the public is absolutely clear. When Lebed first talked about it ... he said that he tried to locate all the small atomic charges, but he was unable to do that because he was sacked. The first official reaction was that Lebed is mad, he is talking rubbish. And then I said, no, it's possible, because I spoke to people who manufactured the briefcase bomb. And then this flow was centered on me, all these lies. The federal intelligence ... , the former KGB, [announced] that this is impossible. The press secretary for the Defense Ministry said, "We know what atomic bombs are, we have never heard of briefcase bombs." The Ministry for Atomic Energy said the very same thing, that we've never heard of anything like that. But, if I'm looking at a photograph of these devices, I know they've been made, simply on the Internet. My American friends say, why don't you have a look on the Internet, there are photographs there of small, portable, American made bombs. And then, bit by bit, people began to say, of course, yes, they exist, but Yablokov is disclosing state secrets. What state secrets are we talking about? ... We insisted that we have full parity in terms of nuclear arms, that we have everything that the Americans have got; this was our official position. So, if I'm looking at a [picture] of an American weapon, I must be sure that we have an analogy. ...

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general vladimir dvorkin

President Yeltsin's former Science Advisor, Alexei Yablokov, testified to the American Congress regarding the so-called suitcase bombs; the small, atomic demolition devices. Can you confirm the existence of these weapons?

I don't really know anything about these devices. I know that some small devices of this type existed both in the United States and in Russia, but why they should be needed in a suitcase format, that's something really for terrorists; I don't think they can really fulfill any kind of deterrence function. ... But even if they did exist, this kind of mobile nuclear bombs or devices, this is something that would have to be reproduced on a regular basis. Made again. Any kind of nuclear device or bomb has a shelf life. And once the service life has run out, then the charges on these devices become more dangerous. They become more dangerous for the people that are actually in possession of them.

You're referring to the tritium; the half-life of some of the materials?

Not only, there are a lot of other factors that lead to the decreased efficiency of devices like that ... . But I don't know anything about the system and I don't really see why it would make sense. But the most important answer would be that I don't know this field. ...

General Lebed, when he came and testified before the Congress, evidently said that at one point he had known about them, evidently. And he had tried to account for all of them and couldn't find some of them. Then when a team tried to inquire about it later, he said that he was under investigation for revealing state secrets for even having talked about it. Do you know anything about that end of the story at all?

Well, I've heard about this incident. I can tell you that Lebed is probably the least informed person as far as this topic is concerned. I considered him a big specialist, really, an expert in the military folklore. That's really where it stops.

He says that he was charged with actually making an accounting of these things. Was he not a general, highly-placed enough to know?

Well, theoretically, he could have dealt with these issues only when he was the Secretary of the Security Council. That was a very short period of time, and he had quite a few other problems to deal with. But he could not be qualified to even deal with this issue, in principle, because that's outside of his expertise.

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matthew bunn

Were we ever able to confirm that suitcase bombs existed?

Not that I'm aware of. Both United States and Russia of course built tactical nuclear weapons that were quite small in size ... . We had, for example, what we called atomic demolition munitions, that were designed to be carried in a backpack. ... I doubt that there was ever anything that was specifically designed to be carried in something that looked like a suitcase, though I couldn't rule it out. My personal judgment is that there probably aren't 100 or 20 or however many suitcase bombs that are missing in the former Soviet Union, although I would guess that Lebed, when he made his initial statements, probably in good faith believed there were. The way the Russian accounting system works, everything is accounted for on paper. And there's reams of gigantic paper log books. You could easily imagine a situation where Lebed sent somebody to check at a particular facility, and there's a 19-year-old guard there, and he looks in the book and says, "Gee, there's supposed to be 100 here and it turns out there are only 30." And the reason is, there's another log book over here that the 19-year-old forgot about, that describes how many had been shipped off to such-and-such a place to be dismantled, or something like that. ...

Could [Lebed] have been talking about the backpack-size devices rather than suitcase bombs?

Sure. He could have been. I wouldn't want to speculate as to exactly what it was Lebed was trying to communicate. In some of the subsequent interviews he gave, he back-pedaled significantly and just said, "Well, it's a possibility that these things might be missing," rather than, "They are definitely missing, and here's how many are missing." So it's a bit hard for me to parse exactly what he really thinks is the situation.

Congressman Weldon said that we thought that the KGB might have commissioned a suitcase-size specimen of the small atomic demolition device, as a thing to sell to terrorists specifically. Does that wash with anything you know?

I don't think it was as something to sell to terrorists. It was something, I believe, for the KGB's use, was the claim. Alexei Yablokov made that claim in print, in the Russian press. I haven't looked at the intelligence in enough detail to follow that. But it was denied by essentially everyone in a position of authority in the Russian military and nuclear system....

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general eugene habiger

Yeltsin's former Science Advisor, Alexei Yablokov, came to the US last year and testified about suitcase bombs that KGB or somebody was making for terrorist use. Do we know whether these things existed? If so, do the Russians now know where they all are?

Yes, we knew they existed. Suitcase nuclear bomb is, I think, a little optimistic. It's certainly something that ... I would be hard pressed to carry. It's fairly big and it's fairly heavy. The Russians, again from what I saw, go to great lengths in the accountability of their nuclear devices. We are spending a lot of money under Nunn-Lugar to automate that system. Our system is very automated, and we test it on a regular basis. The Russian system is more manpower-intensive. It's pretty much a stubby pencil and a spreadsheet kind of thing. But I was shown how they account for their nuclear weapons. And I was told that these smaller devices are included in that same accountability system. I mean, General Yakoulev took me in his office--General Yakoulev is the commander-in-chief of the Rocket Forces--and showed me an IBM computer screen, and ... Yakoulev can track where every nuclear weapon is in his system by serial number. I couldn't do that from my headquarters. ... If the Russians were as deadly serious about the accountability of the nuclear weapons that I saw and have been involved with, I can only surmise that they have the same concerns with the smaller weapons. There have been a number of Russians that have come over here and thrown a grenade on the table of some of our Congressional committees, saying that there lot of loose suitcase bombs out there. I don't think so. ...

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congressman curt weldon

Could you tell me how you first found out about the existence of suitcase bombs?

Over the past several years in my work with Russia and its leaders, I have reached out to have conversations with all the senior leaders of the various factions in Russia, one of whom is General Alexander Lebed, a very prominent official credited with ending both the Chechnyan war and the war in Moldova.

On my second meeting with him in Moscow last May [1998] with a delegation of five or six other members, I was discussing with him the security of Russia's nuclear arsenal, and the status of conditions in the Russian military. This was not a meeting that any press attended, there was no press conference before the event or after the event, it was a quiet, off the record meeting to discuss in an intelligent way ... what were his perceptions relative to Russian control of their nuclear arsenal and their conventional forces. And he gave us ... examples of his concerns, examples of senior Soviet military leaders being forced out, being embarrassed and having to resort to illegal operations to make a living, and how we should be worried in the West because these very successful and capable soldiers and leaders were now having to resort to selling off technology that presents a real danger for the world. He went into the status of Russian nuclear submarines being decommissioned, with no place to store them, no means to take apart these nuclear submarines, and the terrible problem that Russia has today with ... nuclear submarines being stored in ports potentially subject to an earthquake or another incident that could cause terrible degradation of the environment.

And then he went into ... what he reported to Boris Yeltsin as Secretary of the National Security Council. He said one of his assignments was to account for 132 suitcase size nuclear weapons that the Soviet Union had manufactured during the sixties, the seventies and the eighties, much like we manufactured in our country, even though today we no longer have small atomic demolition munitions, we've destroyed them all. ... He said he could only find 48. We were startled. We said, "General, what do you mean, you can only find 48?" He said, "That's all we could locate. We don't know what the status of the other devices were, we just could not locate them." ...

The Russian media tried to portray Lebed as trying to gain notoriety for his campaign. There was nothing of that at all occurring. There were no media present. Two months later, after I returned to the US and I debriefed our intelligence community to give me their assessment of what Lebed had said, I filed my trip report, as is required by Members of Congress. In the trip report, I mentioned General Lebed's comments. A producer for 60 Minutes ... contacted me, and she said, "Congressman, did General Lebed really say this?" And I said, "Absolutely." She then asked to interview me and went over to Moscow and interviewed General Lebed. That was the first contact by a member of the media, and that was at the end of July, early August. That story then ran nationally in America on 60 Minutes, and following that there was a tremendous outcry. The Russian government denounced Lebed, the Russian media called him a traitor, they denied that he would know anything about these demolition devices. In some cases, senior Russian leaders denied they ever built these devices and said, "This is a fabrication, that Lebed is totally wrong." I then invited my good friend Dr. Alexei Yablokov to come to Washington in October, because he also knew something about these devices. And in a public hearing, Dr. Yablokov ... said that he knew scientists who had worked on these devices. And in fact he said that he thought part of the problem in accounting for them may have been because some of his colleagues who worked on these devices told him they were building them for the KGB, and therefore if they were being built for the KGB, they may not have been included under the counting of the Ministry of Defense, an entirely separate operation. So therefore, he encouraged us to work jointly with his country to work together to see if in fact we could locate and then destroy these devices. It was not an attempt by him to embarrass his country, it was an attempt by him to get to the facts and the heart of the issue. Again, Yablokov was treated terribly by the Russian media. They called him a traitor, they said he was coming over to America and giving false information.

Finally, I went to Russia on my 13th trip out of 14 or 15 that I've taken, last December, and I requested, besides my other meetings, a meeting with the Defense Minister, Minister Sergeyev, as you know, General of the Chief Command Staff for some 20 years. And I said to General Sergeyev, after a wide range of topics that we discussed in a session that lasted well over an hour, I asked him specifically, "One, did you build small atomic demolition munitions, as we suspect you did? Two, do you know where they are? And three, have you destroyed them all?" And to me he said, "Yes, we did build them, we are in the process of destroying them, and by the year 2000 we will have destroyed all of our small atomic demolition devices, the so-called nuclear suitcases." Now, I have no reason to doubt General Sergeyev. In fact, I have a lot of respect for him. He impressed me very much in the meeting that I had with him. But again, I don't know whether or not we in fact know that they have the whereabouts known of each of these devices. I have confidence that what he told me is true. They will destroy all the devices that they currently know the whereabouts of. That's not the question. The question is what about devices that Russia may not have an accounting of? Do they exist? Do we have an accurate way of counting them? ...

How big are these things?

Well, it depends upon what you describe as a suitcase. Our understanding is that Russia manufactured three different types of these devices, most of them able to be carried by two people. Some able to be carried by one strong person. The typical size would be maybe like a large trunk, or in perhaps like a large suitcase, probably weighing someplace in the neighborhood of 50 to 100 pounds. These devices would be self activated, which means you would not have to have some central command, as you do the long range missiles, but rather that [the] individual controlling that device could in fact set that device for activation and actually activate it ... independently from some central command. But these are devices that, yes, could be carried portably. There's no reason why they couldn't be put on a barge or a ship and floated into a harbor. And the devastation that they would present to that area would be beyond anyone's imagination.

What is the scale of damage that a terrorist could do with one of these things?

First of all, it would change the whole face of the earth in terms of our outlook on terrorism. Because you're not talking about a bomb that would blow up perhaps one part of one building, as we saw in Oklahoma, or you see repeatedly in London. You're talking about a bomb, a device with a capability of one kiloton of destruction, which is a massive capability that would cause severe destruction of a major inner city area, perhaps causing a multitude of buildings to collapse with the people inside of them. So you'd have a massive loss of life, you'd have massive radioactive contamination and you'd have massive havoc, unlike any that we've prepared for in the past. Just the threat of that kind of incident alone can change the face of the world in terms of the way we deal with terrorists. That's why a full accounting of these kinds of weapons has got to be the number one priority of both the US and Russia.

And following on this issue of small nuclear devices is the whole issue of tactical nuclear weapons. I mean, one of the things that is not included in arms control negotiations between the US and Russia are tactical nukes. Tactical nukes are smaller devices that can wreak havoc. They too, in the wrong hands, could cause massive destruction and loss of life. And that's why in our discussions with Russia we must include the beginning of a formal counting process and the beginning of a limitation process on tactical nuclear weapons, not just those long range ICBMs. Because I would argue that the potential for a small atomic demolition device or a tactical nuclear device is even greater than the possibility of an accidental launch of a long range ICBM. ...

Lebed has said that he's been prevented really from talking about the suitcase bombs. What's going on there? Why isn't he allowed to talk freely about what is potentially a problem for the world?

I think it's partly because the Russian government and the media have tried to portray him as creating sensational stories in the West, when that was not his original intent. The sensationalization of the story came about by the Russian government and the Russian media itself, in response to Lebed's interview on 60 Minutes. What Lebed asked for and what Yablokov asked for were deliberate, very detailed efforts by our country to assist Russia, not to create any embarrassment for Russia, but for us to assist ... them in helping them deal with the problem. ... I think Russia took a very defensive posture that these two individuals were out to embarrass the motherland. When I totally read the opposite. I read their attempts to interact with us [as] a pleading for us to come in and assist Russia in identifying these devices, locating them, using whatever detection means we have, and then destroying them. Something that we should be doing together. Again, as a country, America has not always handled nuclear materials in the most correct manner possible, and so this is not an attempt to try to embarrass Russia, but rather to focus on the potential problem that could come about from one of these devices, be they small atomic demolition nuclear suitcase or a tactical nuke, from getting into the wrong hands.

General Lebed is now in a position where the State Prosecutor is investigating him for disclosure of state secrets. Do you think that in retaliation for speaking to you?

I asked General Lebed about this when he appeared before my committee just earlier this year, and he said it's interesting that they could charge him if in fact he didn't know what he was talking about. If, as they said, he didn't know what he was talking about, how could they charge him with a crime? If they're in fact charging him with a crime, then that must indicate he did know what he was talking about, in which case it means the Russian government was lying all this period of time when they said he did not know what he was talking about. But either way, it's not a state secret. General Sergeyev has told me, a Member of Congress, that they made these devices, that they are in fact are in the process of destroying them. So that's in the public realm. And to somehow try to create some false accusation against General Lebed or Alexei Yablokov is just demeaning, I think, to a country that I have a great deal of respect for. I respect the Russian people, and I desperately want to assist them in this time of difficulty, but taking the steps to overreact and to pass tighter restrictive laws, as they've done, only hurts the democracy that's just beginning to take hold there. ...

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