russian roulette

navigation, see below for text
frontline online




Air date: February 23, 1999

Russian Roulette

Produced and Directed by Dan Chambers, June Cross, Sharon Tiller

Written by June Cross

NARRATOR: It was one of the most frightening moments since the end of the cold war, a moment that brought back old fears of the nuclear Armageddon.

It began in the early morning hours of January 25, 1995. A Russian radar crew at the beginning of its shift suddenly spotted a fast-moving object above the Barents Sea at Russia's northern border, a missile they could not identify.

BRUCE BLAIR, Brookings Institution: Any unidentified missile launch from the area of the Barents Sea always is treated seriously by the Russian military because that's an area in which U.S. Trident submarines are known to patrol.

NARRATOR: At the Russian radar station, the crew now saw the missile suddenly separate into several sections, just as the multiple warheads of a Trident missile would. And their trajectory seemed to be carrying them toward Moscow.

Col. ROBERT BYKOV (Ret.), Strategic Rocket Forces: [through interpreter] There was some alarm at the command post. These first five minutes caused quite an alarm.

NARRATOR: In Moscow a signal went out to the nuclear briefcase that always accompanies President Boris Yeltsin and top defense officials.

BRUCE BLAIR: Russia has established a 10-minute deadline. They're supposed to detect an attack, assess it and reach a decision on retaliation all within a span of 10 minutes.

NARRATOR: Now there were only a few minutes left in that countdown. Urgent radio contact was made with Russian nuclear submarine commanders.

Col. ROBERT BYKOV: [through interpreter] Orders were given to go into a state of combat-readiness.

BRUCE BLAIR: The military actually issued orders to the Strategic Forces to prepare to possibly receive the next command, which would have been the launch order.

NARRATOR: For four minutes the Russian commanders waited for the orders to launch.

ALEXANDER PIKAYEV, Russian Duma Defense Committee: The Russian strategic plans permit to launch Russian missiles before enemy missiles hit Russian territory.

NARRATOR: Eight minutes after the alarm was first sounded, the decision to launch was averted, the mysterious objects fell into the sea, and the Russian forces stood down.

Hours later the Russians learned that the unidentified object had actually been a scientific rocket launched from Norway to study the Northern lights. The Russian government had been notified weeks earlier that the launch was coming, but no one told the radar crew.

Adm. STANSFIELD TURNER (USN Ret.), Former Director, CIA: They lost track of that notification, and it's my understanding that they got all the way to Mr. Yeltsin when they saw that rocket heading up into space, all the way with the codes saying "What do we do?" Now, that's dangerous!

NARRATOR: In the U.S., nuclear experts are worried about much more than this one incident. They are troubled by what it says about the safety and security of the entire Russian nuclear arsenal.

BRUCE BLAIR: This system is an accident waiting to happen. And given the adverse trends in Russian early warning and control - physical, organizational and human - I'm afraid that something will happen, and sooner rather than later.

NARRATOR: When the cold war ended in 1991 with the collapse of the Soviet Union, there was euphoria in the streets. Russians and Americans were relieved that the dangerous nuclear era was over. But it wasn't that simple.

Gen. EUGENE HABIGER (USAF Ret.), Former Commander, U.S. Nuclear Forces: The cold war was a bizarre war in many, many respects. It certainly didn't end like World War II, where people were kissing in the streets in Times Square. You know, after the Great War, the World War I, we demilitarized Germany, cut them off at the knees, took all their military forces and their equipment. After World War II, we did the same thing with the Japanese and Germans.

But did we do the same thing when the cold war ended? No. When the cold war ended, we had the United States and the former Soviet Union and 12,000 nuclear weapons facing each other.

NARRATOR: The nuclear arsenal of the former Soviet Union included thousands of strategic and tactical nuclear missiles, as well as a vast stockpile of bomb-grade uranium and plutonium.

Sen. RICHARD LUGAR (R) Indiana: Any rational person who has any sense of geopolitics knew that a lot was at stake, including perhaps the future of our country, because all of these weapons were still there. The fact that the Soviet Union had broken up did not mean they could not be targeted, re-targeted, re-targeted again.

NARRATOR: The Soviet arsenal had been spread out over 11 time zones, some of it now in three new nuclear states created by the collapse of the Soviet empire: Kazakhstan, Belarus and Ukraine.

ASHTON CARTER, Former Asst. Secretary of Defense: Had Ukraine kept the nuclear weapons that were on its territory when the music stopped and everybody sat down and the Soviet Union was over, they sat down with 2,000 nuclear weapons. That would have made them the third most powerful nuclear nation on earth. We thought that an event, an explosive event in the history of proliferation like that, right in the middle of Eurasia, was a very, very dangerous thing.

NARRATOR: Senator Lugar and his colleague, Sam Nunn, led the American effort to convince leaders in the former Soviet republics to dismantle their new nuclear arsenals and send them back to Russia.

Sen. RICHARD LUGAR: There was no particular objection to moving those missiles back into Russia, except for the fact that the people who lived around those missiles had very good housing. And in order to retain the housing, they were prepared to retain the missiles. This is, you know, a sort of a strange tail-and-dog story, but it was very serious.

ASHTON CARTER: It's a jobs issue in Ukraine. Just like it's difficult to close bases in California, it's difficult to close bases in Ukraine. People are employed there. You have to take care of the people of the community.

NARRATOR: The U.S. government helped dismantle the missiles, and then transported over 3,000 warheads out of Ukraine, Belarus and Kazakhstan. Since the cold war ended, America has spent over $2.5 billion to help secure the nuclear arsenal in the former Soviet Union.

ASHTON CARTER: We were happy to do that in the Defense Department because that was- as far as we were concerned, was national defense- digging up missile silos, chopping up missiles, chopping up old bombers. In all of these ways, we were trying to contain the weapons of mass destruction legacy of the former Soviet Union.

NARRATOR: But returning the nuclear weapons to Russia was only the first act in the American strategy. There was still an enormous nuclear establishment left in Russia itself, including an estimated 12,000 strategic nuclear bombs and warheads.

MATTHEW BUNN, Former Science Adviser to President Clinton: The issue of the nuclear legacy of the Soviet Union covers an enormous range. You have an enormous number of warheads that are just in storage. And one has to worry about, are those warheads secure? Are they all accounted for?

You have a gigantic stockpile of the essential ingredients of nuclear warheads - plutonium and highly-enriched uranium - located at dozens of facilities, literally hundreds of buildings, hundreds of tons of this material, when even a few kilograms of it - about this much - would be enough for a nuclear bomb.

You have still on alert thousands of warheads on missiles that could be launched at any time. So one has to worry about the command and control for those missiles, making sure that it's impossible for anyone to launch those without authorization.

NARRATOR: One of the keys to reducing that risk was the former Soviet Union's early-warning defense system. It consisted of eight radar centers, providing full coverage of the airspace around Soviet territory. If anything approached the Soviet Union, it would be spotted immediately.

An extensive network of military satellites could then identify whether a launch had taken place anywhere in the world, confirming within seconds that an approaching object was a missile. This information was transmitted back to a network of radar ships that crisscrossed the earth's seas. They in turn relayed the information back to the General Staff Center in Moscow. But after the cold war, this sophisticated system fell into disrepair.

In 1997, Alexander Pikayev, a member of the Defense Committee of the Russian parliament, conducted a survey of Russia's early-warning network. He became concerned when he found large gaps in its coverage.

ALEXANDER PIKAYEV, Russian Duma Defense Committee: The problem is that after the Soviet collapse, some radar stations remained outside the Russian territory, and some of the newly independent states want to close them.

NARRATOR: A key early-warning position was in Latvia, covering an area northwest of Russia.

ALEXANDER PIKAYEV: This radar station covers a very important zone, which includes North Sea and some of Atlantic area, where British and, I believe, American submarines are on patrol.

NARRATOR: But it was destroyed following Latvia's independence from the Russian Federation. Now a less sophisticated backup system provides far less accurate data.

It's not just the ground-based early-warning systems that have deteriorated. Many of the military surveillance satellites have started to malfunction. Once there were nine, now there are only three. Most of the radar ships have been decommissioned.

ALEXANDER PIKAYEV: There is less reliability in checking missile launches, and simultaneously there is more probability that- of misinterpretation of received data.

NARRATOR: In the Norwegian rocket incident, the early-warning system had failed. Radar operators thought the rocket was heading south, towards them. It was actually heading in a northeast direction, away from Russia. The system is now so run down that it's hard to distinguish between airborne objects.

ALEXANDER PIKAYEV: For example, just several birds could be imagined like a missile launch, and it could provoke a launch by mistake. The worst outcome could be a launch of missiles that could lead to destruction of several major urban centers in other nuclear powers, like the United States, Britain, France and China.

NARRATOR: To lessen the chance of an accidental launch, the Clinton administration announced in September that it would be giving the Russians access to the U.S. early-warning radar system, a plan that would allow Russian officers to view the data inside U.S. command centers and feed that information directly to Moscow.

ASHTON CARTER, Former Asst. Secretary of Defense: Well, we have this marvelous system that can detect any missile launch anywhere in the world 24 hours a day. Nobody else has that. The Russians don't have it, and there's no way they're going to be able to afford to have it. Yet we believe that they should have confidence that they would know in advance if anybody was launching a missile against them.

NARRATOR: But the two sides are still negotiating over how to implement the plan.

BRUCE BLAIR, Brookings Institution: I'm deeply concerned about the adverse trends that are undermining the performance of the Russian nuclear control and early-warning network.

NARRATOR: Dr. Bruce Blair was a nuclear launch officer, and is a specialist in nuclear command and control. He is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.

BRUCE BLAIR: I believe that there's an inherent risk in the operation of these nuclear arsenals, with thousands of warheads poised on missiles, ready for firing at a moment's notice and governed by a doctrine or a strategy of quick launch, of launch-on-warning.

NARRATOR: In Russia, the decision to launch is made by the president via a modem briefcase never more than a few yards from his side. Although the president has the authority to launch, his decision can be vetoed by the Russian defense minister or the military's chief of staff.

The modem briefcase was introduced in 1983. It was a direct response to the arrival of American Trident missile submarines in Norwegian waters. Instead of the previous 30 minutes, a missile would now just take 10 minutes to hit Moscow. Russian leaders needed to be able to respond more quickly.

BRUCE BLAIR: The submarine threat grew in the eyes of the Russian planner, so that today they still require use of the nuclear briefcase so that the president or his successor can give permission to launch nuclear weapons immediately upon determining that Moscow is under attack.

NARRATOR: Today that 10-minute countdown is still in effect, as it was during the Norwegian rocket crisis. During this time, military and political leaders would have to decide how to respond.

At nine minutes to impact, operators in the early-warning centers try to confirm that a blip on their screens is a missile. At eight minutes, they contact the Central Command Center. A general there activates the three modem briefcases, which alert Russia's leaders. At seven minutes, the three leaders confer with the early-warning center, to confirm that Russia really is under attack.

Six minutes: Before any decision is made, a special communications circuit is switched on, connecting military headquarters with mobile missile launchers, missile-carrying trains and submarines. By five minutes, the leaders need to have reached a decision. They transmit their orders, along with unblocking codes. At four minutes, a team of communicators just outside Moscow receives the orders and the unblocking codes and transmits them to missile commanders.

At three minutes to impact, the missiles are brought out for launch. Under the safety procedures, officers in the field must confirm that their orders are genuine. At two minutes to impact, commanders use a safety key to activate the missile system. They also enter the unblocking codes.

With one minute to go, the commanders await final authorization. If this doesn't arrive, the missile will not be launched. A nuclear holocaust is averted. If authorization does come through, the button is pressed.

BRUCE BLAIR: These hair-trigger nuclear arsenals are inherently dangerous and, on the Russian side at least, becoming more dangerous because of the decline in early warning and control. So the obvious solution is to re-configure these arsenals so that it would take a long period of time to prepare them for launch.

NARRATOR: It's called "de-alerting" - any steps that will lengthen the time it takes to launch a nuclear missile, from disconnecting the battery to the more drastic step of removing the warhead from the missile.

Col. ROBERT BYKOV (Ret.), Strategic Rocket Forces: [through interpreter] This will make things considerably safer for humanity. It's a realistic and effective measure. But it must be done with mutual trust, as well as the presence of inspectors to oversee the removal of those parts.

NARRATOR: In the past year, some Russians have been advocated de-alerting both the Russian and U.S. nuclear arsenals. The effort has been led by General Vladimir Dvorkin, a top adviser to the Russian Defense Minister.

Gen. VLADIMIR DVORKIN (Ret.), Adviser to Russian Defense Minister: [through interpreter] The essence of the proposals is that there are a number of technical measures which prevent a fast launch of missiles. For example, one of them is that the gas generator can be separated from the cover of the silo. Then you can also remove on-board batteries and the fuel supply. Their removal is also a verifiable measure, and the missile would not fly anywhere unless the batteries and the fuel supply were returned.

NARRATOR: But the Pentagon is skeptical of Russian proposals for de-alerting. [ Read the debate on de-alerting]

Gen. EUGENE HABIGER (USAF Ret.), Former Commander, U.S. Nuclear Forces: Those concepts are very difficult to verify. And once you get into things that you can't verify without very, very intrusive inspection protocols, then the uncertainty grows.

INTERVIEWER: What do you mean?

Gen. EUGENE HABIGER: If you could put those batteries back in without the other side knowing about it, and then all of a sudden coming up on the net saying, "Okay, what are you going to do now?" I mean, "We've got the batteries back in our missiles, and now we've got 2,000 warheads on alert. You've got two hundred? Get on your knees."

NARRATOR: But other cold warriors, like former CIA director Admiral Stansfield Turner, author of a recent book on the problem, think de-alerting makes good sense.

Adm. STANSFIELD TURNER: It's a troublesome thing that Russia, because its early-warning radar and other systems are not all in good shape, feels nervous. And we don't want them to feel nervous. We don't want them to feel on hair-trigger alert. So that's a reason I recommend we go away from hair-trigger alert, we renounce it right now. That will not necessarily make the Russians renounce it. But I can guarantee you, the Russians will not renounce it if we don't.

NARRATOR: While de-alerting remains controversial, Russia and America did take a step they said would reduce the threat of nuclear war. In 1994, all missiles on both sides were de-targeted. The missiles' computers were given a new program, the "Zero Program." If any missile were launched by mistake or without authorization, it would now land in the middle of the sea.

Pres. BILL CLINTON: For the first time since the dawn of the nuclear age, there are no Russian missiles pointed at the people of the United States.

BRUCE BLAIR, Brookings Institution: The 1994 de-targeting agreement was entirely cosmetic and symbolic and had absolutely no effect on the combat readiness of U.S. and Russian nuclear forces or on the danger or risk of unauthorized or accidental or inadvertent use of those weapons.

NARRATOR: The reality is that the original program with the cold war targets still remains in the computers. If either country decides to launch a nuclear attack, the system can be switched from the Zero Program to the cold war targets within minutes.

ASHTON CARTER, Former Asst. Secretary of Defense: The analogy has frequently been made to changing the channel on a T.V., and it's not that different from that. So these missiles can be re-targeted. The importance of de-targeting was the gesture that two governments made to one another. But de-targeting by itself doesn't mean that bad things can never come from the fact that Russia still maintains a nuclear arsenal that was designed for us, and we maintain a nuclear arsenal that was designed for them. That danger remains, and de-targeting doesn't eliminate it.

NARRATOR: American officials knew there would be no purely technological fix for the security problems of a system so subject to human miscalculation. So from the beginning, U.S. military officers reached out to Russian nuclear commanders.

ASHTON CARTER: The other principal job we thought we had in dealing with the collapse of the Soviet Union was to establish a good cooperative relationship with the Russian military. And it was important to our security, which they could threaten, that the Russian military have some confidence in the U.S. military, and in the idea that we really had put the cold war behind us and didn't regard them as an enemy.

NARRATOR: In 1993, Americans initiated an exchange program with their Russian counterparts. Top Russian nuclear commanders like General Igor Sergeyev, now the Russian defense minister, were shown top-secret nuclear sites off-limits to most Americans. Sergeyev would return for a second visit.

Gen. EUGENE HABIGER (USAF Ret.), Former Commander, U.S. Nuclear Forces: So I showed him everything, to include the silos, took him into a nuclear weapons storage area. That's the first time that had ever been done, that a Russian had been taken into a nuclear weapons storage area.

Now, I also wanted to show him the security because at that time there was a lot of talk about lacks, perhaps, in the Russian security of their nuclear weapons. So I was able to show him how we've applied a great deal of technology in our security practices, with the hopes that when he reciprocated and went back home - and invited me over - that I'd be able to see some of their facilities and perhaps put to rest their concerns in this country about Russian security of nuclear weapons.

NARRATOR: In 1998 General Habiger, America's top nuclear commander, toured sites in Russia. These visits broke the code of cold war secrecy, and these officers found they were more alike than they had thought.

Gen. VLADIMIR DVORKIN (Ret.), Adviser to Russian Defense Minister: [through interpreter] We learned a great deal about each other. We uncovered such characteristics about each other that it was difficult for us to understand our previous animosity.

Gen. EUGENE HABIGER: The people who are involved in nuclear weapons are dedicated. They're professional. They understand the consequences if they don't do their jobs at the very best of their ability. When you get to know these people, you develop a level of confidence and trust. So when they look you in the eye and say "Okay, Habiger, what you're seeing is representative of our nuclear weapons storage sites," I believe them.

NARRATOR: But other experts on the Russian military, like General William Odom, the former director of the National Security Agency, are skeptical of this new found trust in Russian officers.

Gen. WILLIAM ODOM (USA, Ret.), Former Director, National Security Agency: Military officers from different countries, when they meet each other, tend to sort of fall in love, become mutual admiration societies at the expense of realities. If you want the honest truth about dealing with Russian generals, they're going to tell you what you want to hear, and what they think they can use to wheedle something out of you. To say that you now trust the Russian military command-and-control system because some Russian general told you from the bottom of his heart that's the case, strikes me as most unrealistic.

NARRATOR: But officers on both sides say that one of the reasons the Norwegian rocket launch did not develop into a serious crisis was because of the trust that had developed between Russian and Western military officers

Col. ROBERT BYKOV (Ret.), Strategic Rocket Forces: [through interpreter] Well, the incident was sorted out quite quickly because the communications between the commanding post with NATO and Washington is quite good. And so this incident only illustrated yet another time that there's a need for precise coordination of the actions of countries who are potential enemies so that they do not scare each other.

NARRATOR: Despite all of Washington's programs to secure the Russian nuclear arsenal, the failures of the Russian economy since the end of the cold war have inevitably led to deterioration of vital infrastructure in the command�_and-control systems.

Colonel Robert Bykov was an officer in the Russian Strategic Rocket Forces for over 30 years. He is concerned by the lack of safeguards in launching missiles. At the age of 19 he, like the brightest boys of his generation, was chosen to enter the elite Strategic Rocket Forces.

Col. ROBERT BYKOV: [through interpreter] You know, at first I really didn't want to leave the Moscow Aviation Institute. We were students. But the homeland needed special new men: missile operators. On the whole, we were proud of having been chosen.

NARRATOR: In the 1950s, he and his peers helped design new missiles and create launch systems. Later Bykov was part of the General Staff Center in Moscow.

He retired in 1990 and spends his time investigating problems in the Strategic Rocket Forces. His reports, published in the Russian press, have made him unpopular. He fears for his safety, and lives behind three metal doors. But he says his loyalty to the Strategic Rocket Forces means he can't watch the missile launch systems deteriorate without speaking out.

Col. ROBERT BYKOV: [through interpreter] They put a lot of money toward the development of the systems. They paid a lot of attention to this. And there were enough personnel. Sometime around when Gorbachev came to power, drastic cuts in the military began.

NARRATOR: The cuts meant there was little money for maintenance and none for modernization. The equipment began to suffer.

BRUCE BLAIR, Brookings Institution: The entire command communications and computer network that control nuclear forces have aged beyond their expected lifespans and need to be overhauled or replaced, and that's not happening. And so there is reportedly an increasing frequency of false signals transmitted for no apparent reason.

NARRATOR: These false signals can wreak havoc with the computer systems.

Col. ROBERT BYKOV: [through interpreter] In the lower levels of the army, the regiments and divisions, there were one or two incidents of switching into combat mode.

NARRATOR: There is a special communications link with Moscow that is inactive until a launch sequence begins. Computer malfunction has activated this link in several cases. But this just scratches the surface of much deeper problems in Russia's computer network.

What the Pentagon is really worried about is the impact of the Y2K bug and whether it will cause a massive failure in the Russian nuclear computer systems.

JOHN HAMRE, Deputy Secretary of Defense: [press conference] We have to understand that they are a very different situation. They have come to this much later. They haven't had- the country's going through some fairly profound changes, and so they haven't had the central focus. It's only been about a year that they've had an office that was really trying to work this problem.

NARRATOR: Last month the Russian government made an urgent request to Washington for help with its Y2K problem. They said it would take $3 billion to fix.

BRUCE BLAIR: How close has Russia slipped to the edge of a failure, a serious catastrophic failure of command and control? It's really not possible to calculate, but we

know the trends are adverse. And we know, I believe, that it's only reasonable that the command system cannot endure this stress and strain indefinitely.

Gen. WILLIAM ODOM (USA, Ret.), Former Director, National Security Agency: I don't know how one would verify these propositions that because deterioration takes place in a command-and-control system, that there is a greater chance.

It could be that deterioration means it's almost virtually impossible to launch because the systems don't work. Lack of maintenance of nuclear weapons for a few months means that a number of them, a larger, increasing number, will not explode if launched. So I think a strong argument can be made that neglect is reducing the threat.

NARRATOR: But in the past few months, the problems in Russia have deepened. Since the Russian government defaulted on its foreign loans and devalued the ruble in August, the Russian economy has been in freefall.

The Russian military and its elite nuclear rocket forces are now suffering unprecedented hardships. Officers often go without pay for many months. There is a severe housing shortage, and in the last five years the suicide rate in the army has quadrupled...

Col. ROBERT BYKOV: [through interpreter] A man is only a man. At times he may have disturbances in his mental state. He may be tired, he may be depressed at times, and often his behavior can be unpredictable. And he's thinking, how is he going to go home with no money to give his family to buy food for the table? And with these thoughts, he's sitting at an extremely important post, at the nuclear button.

NARRATOR: Money is scarce at missile bases. The bills often go unpaid, and it's common for the heating to be turned off.

MATTHEW BUNN, Former Science Adviser to President Clinton: Although Russia has been in difficult economic times before, the situation since August has just been dramatically worse. And we now have situations where thousands of nuclear workers with access to nuclear material are going on strike. Thousands of them haven't been paid in months. Guards at nuclear facilities are leaving their posts to forage for food. Guards at nuclear facilities are refusing to patrol perimeters because they haven't been issued warm winter uniforms.

This is a very serious situation. And you now have real signs of not just potential breaking points, but real breaking points. You have a situation where a sailor goes berserk, takes over a nuclear submarine and holds everybody at bay for 20 hours before finally committing suicide. You have a situation where five officers of the Twelfth Main Directorate, the people in charge of guarding nuclear weapons, essentially rebel and take hostages, kill a couple of people, before they're finally subdued. These are very, very serious incidents at the heart of the Russian nuclear command structure. [ Study other alarming incidents]

ASHTON CARTER, Former Asst. Secretary of Defense: You can worry about cold war throwback scenarios of missiles launched and so forth, and we should always worry about them. We should always be respectful of these weapons. But what's new in the current climate is not the threat that somebody is going to launch an ICBM at the United States. What's new is the danger that an impoverished guard somewhere in Russia is going to sell a nuclear weapon or fissile material.

NARRATOR: Midnight in Moscow. We had arranged to meet a Strategic Rocket Forces officer convinced that desperate soldiers have both motive and opportunity to steal nuclear warheads or materials. This active duty officer is directly responsible for weapons storage. He spoke to us on the condition that we conceal his identity.

OFFICER: [through interpreter] Right now they want to equip the sites with updated systems in order to prevent trespassers from getting access to the sites and the storage facilities. And the system is, of course, not fully developed because, again, everything is affected by the lack of funds.

NARRATOR: Thefts of uranium and plutonium have shot up since the end of the cold war, but Western intelligence agencies say there have been only 15 incidents of bomb-grade material smuggled out of Russia since 1992. Still, unverified reports of stolen nuclear devices persist.

OFFICER: [through interpreter] Could there be sabotage? If a person is determined to get into a site to seize a nuclear weapon, access to the nuclear weapons is not secure. The weapons security system is in a critical state.

NARRATOR: Two years ago the public became aware of security problems with a Russian nuclear device they had not known even existed, the so-called "suitcase bomb." The man who first exposed their existence served as the former science adviser to Boris Yeltsin, Alexei Yablokov.

ALEXEI YABLOKOV, Former Science Adviser to Pres. Yeltsin: [through interpreter] Small atomic charges exist. They are very small, several dozen kilos, 30 kilos, 40 kilos. They exist. I have spoken with people that made them.

NARRATOR: Yablokov says he has never seen one of the Russian devices, but from descriptions he believes they can fit in a large suitcase. The device contains a timer wired up to a miniature nuclear warhead, a core of plutonium surrounded by explosives. The system can be set to detonate from anything from under an hour to several days.

In the 1960s the Americans had built a similar device. Pictures of it were declassified in 1997 and can be seen on the Internet. The American device was a small warhead. It weighed 80 to 100 pounds and was designed for sabotage missions- airfields, bridges, dams. It was small enough to fit in a duffel bag or a large case. Like the Russian device, it had an explosive charge equivalent to 1,000 tons of TNT.

ALEXEI YABLOKOV: [through interpreter] One kiloton is a powerful charge. In Washington, Capitol Hill can be wiped out by such a bomb.

NARRATOR: A one-kiloton blast could destroy everything within a half- mile radius of the Capitol. Within hours, prevailing winds would carry the nuclear fallout throughout Washington.

Rep. CURT WELDON, (R) Pennsylvania: 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. And 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.

NARRATOR: In Russia, Alexei Yablokov and other government advisers were concerned about accounting for all the suitcase bombs. They began an unofficial search. It soon emerged that some of the bombs could not be found. Yablokov brought these findings to the President.

ALEXEI YABLOKOV: [through interpreter] I wrote to President Yeltsin that I didn't want to publish my data right away. I wanted him to pay attention to this and to take measures first.

NARRATOR: The chairman of the Russian Security Council, General Alexander Lebed, was put in charge of investigating how many suitcase bombs were manufactured and where they were stored. After three months, his team was unable to find them all.

ALEXEI YABLOKOV: [through interpreter] They know where some are. But the question is, have they located them all? They've found several dozen. But it's not clear. Have they found all of them or not?

NARRATOR: In early 1997, General Lebed visited America to discuss arms reduction with Congressman Weldon. After the meeting, Lebed mentioned that some of the suitcase bombs might be missing.

Rep. CURT WELDON: He said his job was to account for 132, as the chief adviser for defense to Boris Yeltsin. 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."

NARRATOR: But there is also skepticism about Lebed's claims, whether the scandal was just part of his political struggle with Boris Yeltsin.

MATTHEW BUNN, Former Science Adviser to President Clinton: My personal judgment is that there probably aren't 100 suitcase bombs that are missing in the former Soviet Union. The way the Russian accounting system works, everything is accounted for on paper, and there's reams of gigantic paper logbooks.

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 there are only- turns out there are only 30." And the reason is there's another logbook 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.

NARRATOR: But the man who first worried about the missing suitcase bombs refuses to leave the issue alone. In testimony before a congressional committee, he warned America of what could happen if the Russian weapons are not found and destroyed.

ALEXEI YABLOKOV: [committee hearing] Why it's so important? Because we have no answer for this threat, no answer. We discussed this problem with antiterroristic. Nobody have answer for this threat.

NARRATOR: Yablokov worries that the bombs could be smuggled out of Russia and end up in the hands of rebel leaders in former Soviet republics, like Chechnya. He's also concerned that they might become available to international terrorists. [ Explore more about suitcase bombs]

That's exactly what began to worry U.S. Customs officials in Miami, when their investigation of international arms smugglers revealed a scenario of how nuclear weapons might be smuggled into the United States.

In 1995 an undercover agent met an ethnic Russian from Lithuania who had links to the Russian mafia. The man was seeking a way to send stolen cars back to the former Soviet bloc. His name was Alexander Pogrebezskij.

KEITH PRAEGER, Special Agent in Charge, U.S. Customs: During the course of one of those meetings, Pogrebezskij stated to my undercover agent, "Hey, I can get weapons. Are you guys interested?" And the undercover agent responded, "Yes, absolutely. What kind can you get?"

NARRATOR: Pogrebezskij then introduced the undercover agents to his partner, Alexander Darichev, who is a Lithuanian army veteran. Darichev provided Customs agents with a list of arms for sale by various companies, including one called Armimex in Bulgaria.

KEITH PRAEGER: These weapons are under license by the former Soviet Union to Bulgaria to manufacture. Shoulder-to-air missiles have a nice ring to us, and they offered them for sale, and we chose a couple. And then we started on a two-year odyssey in trying to make this deal happen.

NARRATOR: Over an early dinner at a North Miami Beach restaurant, the two Lithuanians said their contacts in Bulgaria had connections to then-Russian defense minister Pavel Grachev and that they could deliver more than just shoulder-to-air missiles:

KEITH PRAEGER: They brought it up in a conversation, too, that they can get anything we want. And that led to a conversation on, "Well, what do you mean?" "Well, I mean anything you want." And the conversation turned to a smaller nuclear device that could fit in the back of a truck or a vehicle.

NARRATOR: In the Customs agents' secret recording of that conversation, Darichev can be heard explaining - in Russian - where they could obtain this nuclear device.

ALEXANDER DARICHEV: [through interpreter] [Customs tape] In Kiev there is a large military complex that manufacturers small nuclear- the missiles that- I do not refer to those big missiles, but the small ones.

KEITH PRAEGER: And we said, "Sure, we'd be interested in that." But we had- we had agreed we would do the missile case first before we even discussed it again. And we had nicknamed it "Project 2."

NARRATOR: The undercover agents, who were posing as arms procurers for Colombian drug lords, gave the two Lithuanians $50,000 as a down payment for the Russian shoulder-to-air-missiles. The negotiations went on for months.

At a meeting in London, Darichev told the undercover agents that the final payment should be placed in a super-secret account in an offshore company located on the Isle of Mann off the coast of Great Britain.

KEITH PRAEGER: Throughout the whole operation, they indicated that they had to make this deal look like it was legitimate- to use official banks, to use letterheads, to use licenses, to make it look official in case they got caught.

NARRATOR: Darichev got a so-called "end-user certificate," a document signed by the Lithuanian minister of defense. It certified that the missiles sold to the undercover agents would be shipped from Bulgaria to the military forces of Lithuania.

KEITH PRAEGER: It indicated to us that they had some support from a government, or several governments, in what they were doing.

NARRATOR: But the missiles would never go to Lithuania. The real plan was that they would be shipped from Bulgaria to Puerto Rico.

KEITH PRAEGER: He was going to bring the weapons from Bulgaria to Puerto Rico and off-load them there. You know, the whole scenario of this investigation indicated that we were brokering a deal of shoulder-fired missiles for the government of Lithuania yet, you know, in their mind, that was plausible deniability to send them to Puerto Rico. And if you look at a map, it's a little bit out of the way to go to Puerto Rico to send weapons to Lithuania.

NARRATOR: The undercover agents also suspected the Lithuanians had connections to official circles in Russia. They recorded numerous telephone calls between Darichev and a mysterious scientific institute in St. Petersburg called Yupiter Z, or Jupiter Z, part of the Academy of Natural Sciences, suspected of having ties to former KGB and military officers.

At one point, they intercepted a letter intended for Darichev warning him that the men he was dealing with might be government agents.

KEITH PRAEGER: -basically accusing us of being FBI or CIA agents, you know, which was peculiar to us. If this was supposed to be a scientific organization, you know, where did this letter come from? So we decided to just hang with it and see what would occur in the future.

NARRATOR: For the Customs officers, the letter confirmed their suspicion that the Lithuanians had connections to the highest levels of the Russian military establishment.

Back in Miami, nine months later - June 27, 1997 - the agents met one last time with Darichev and Pogrebezskij. A hidden camera captured a toast closing the deal on the 40 shoulder-to-air missiles. The Customs agents are on the left, the two Lithuanians on the right. Pogrebezskij, now clean-shaven, is nearest the camera.

Later on, one of the agents asked Darichev, whose back is now to the camera, about the small nuclear weapons: "How much would they cost"?

ALEXANDER DARICHEV: [subtitles] [Customs tape] I'm not going to tell you now how much it's going to cost you and when it's going to be ready to be shipped and delivered. But this is going to be like between the armies. There is no end-user certificate at all.

KEITH PRAEGER: There's no doubt in my mind that they could have delivered the shoulder-fired missiles. Let's say I'm about 90 percent sure they probably could have come up with the tactical nuclear weapons, but I'm not 100 percent sure because we were never able to pursue it.

NARRATOR: U.S. Customs had wanted to pursue the case to find out who in Moscow might be able to supply the nukes to Darichev and Pogrebezskij, but they were pressured by other agencies in Washington to wrap up the case. Three days later, the two Lithuanians were arrested.

President Clinton was asked whether the case raised questions in his mind about the security of the Russian nuclear stockpile.

Pres. BILL CLINTON: [July 9, 1997] The first thing I asked when I saw that story about the arrest was whether or not they could have delivered the goods they were promising, which we don't know. Keep in mind, we have- our European friends, in Germany especially, a few years ago made a lot of arrests of people who were coming out of Russia with what they thought were nuclear materials, but none of them, as far as I know, could have been converted into weapons.

NARRATOR: But in Washington, the head of the U.S. Customs Service unit that investigates the smuggling of nuclear weapons says this was a credible case.

MIKE TURNER, U.S. Customs Director of Strategic Investigations: We were confident, certainly, that they could bring the missiles here because that transaction was taken almost to fruition. That, in itself, demonstrated to us the credibility that they certainly had the potential to deliver nuclear weapons. Had we decided to continue the investigation, we would have started to get into more specifics of that transaction and that, again, would have led to determinations of their credibility on whether or not they truly could have delivered them.

NARRATOR: Darichev and Pogrebezskij were convicted on arms-smuggling, money-laundering and conspiracy charges. They are serving 48 months in a federal penitentiary.

MATTHEW BUNN, Former Science Adviser to President Clinton: The big question is of what iceberg have we seen the tip? In smuggling of virtually any other commodity known to man, you're lucky if you detect 5 or 10 percent of what's actually taking place. Now, it may be that nuclear material is so much more serious, and understood to be so much more serious, that that percentage is much higher. But we just don't know that there haven't been thefts that we don't know about, that did go somewhere that we don't know about.

Pres. BILL CLINTON: [State of the Union address, January 19, 1999] As we work for peace, we must also meet threats to our nation's security, including increased dangers from outlaw nations and terrorism. We must expand our work with Russia, Ukraine and the other former Soviet nations to safeguard nuclear materials and technology so they never fall into the wrong hands.

NARRATOR: In his state of the Union address last month, President Clinton pledged $4.7 billion more for programs to control the Russian nuclear arsenal, and the next day the administration committed even more money to a much more aggressive program.

WILLIAM COHEN, Secretary of Defense: [press conference] -committing additional billions of dollars and taking other steps to protect our troops and the American people from the growing threat posed by weapons of mass destruction delivered by ballistic missiles.

NARRATOR: Secretary Cohen announced the accelerated development of the national missile defense system designed to shoot down the ballistic missiles of rogue states like Iraq or North Korea, should they develop nuclear warheads.

Nearly a decade after the end of the cold war, the United States now believes this is the most serious threat to its security.

MATTHEW BUNN: I think the United States is much more safe from the threat of an all-out devastating nuclear war than it was at 1991, or for decades before that. But I think, if you ask the question, "What is the probability that one nuclear bomb might go off somewhere in America, maybe a crude nuclear bomb from a terrorist or a rogue state, is that probability higher today than it was in 1991?" I think the answer is definitely yes.

Adm. STANSFIELD TURNER: We do not want to leave a world to our children that has occasional use of nuclear weapons. It's not just that it's going to destroy the world. No. It won't, necessarily, if there's one here or one there. But a world in which there is one here and one there next year, two years, is a different world.

Copyright 1999 WGBH Educational Foundation

All rights reserved

ANNOUNCER: Pursue this story further at FRONTLINE's Web site. Learn more about those nuclear suitcase bombs and get the details on the Florida nuclear arms smuggling sting and read a debate on what's to be done with the U.S. and Russian nuclear arsenals and much more at

Next time on FRONTLINE, marijuana. Two and a half million dollars a year is spent to combat it. One in six federal prisoners is serving time because of it.

ANDREA STRONG: And he's facing a life sentence. Well, who did he kill?

ANNOUNCER: Are we fighting the wrong battle in the war on drugs?

MARK KLEIMAN: I think we ought to start basing mandatory sentences on the conduct of the people engaged. Are they using violence? Are they using kids?

ANNOUNCER: Watch Busted: America's War on Marijuana next time on FRONTLINE.

For videocassette information about tonight's program, please call this toll-free number: 1-800-328-PBS1. [For educational use only]






Produced and Directed by





June Cross



Steve Audette



Will Lyman





Rod Iverson

Finn Arden



Angela Spindler Brown



Terry Bezant

Sue Harvard



Ruby Evans



Mike Coles

David Marsh

Richard Ranken

Edgar Boyles

Valentine Chernovol



Hamish Niven

Toby Miles



Keith Rodgerson

Judi Headman

Simmy Clere

Renato Ferrari

David Pickner

Mark Roy



Andy Cowtan



Craig Woodrow



Rob Cooper

Jonathan Ellis



Bob Jackson






Frank Usher




Image Bank

Index Films


Latvian TV


Novosti TV Productions

Oxford Scientific Films


Science Museum Library

Sveriges Television

The Telegraph Picture Library

TV2, Norway




David Dugan


A Production by

Windfall Films for Channel 4

© 1998 Channel 4 Television




Deborah J. Fryer



Michael A. Dawson



Kara Mathis



Ray Brislin

Bob Eyres

Gary Henoch

Mark Stoddard



Nick Grenier

Edward Jones

Juan Rodriguez

Gunnar Westerlund



Steve Audette

Michael A. Dawson



Jim Sullivan



Frank Capria



Anton Fedyashin

Vlad Levykin




Anton Fedyashin

Mike McNally

Boris Maksimov




ABC News

CBS News

CNN Image Source


DOE, Nevada Operations Office

DOE, Albuquerque & DTRA

Discovery Channel

Offutt Air Force Base

U.S Customs

U.S Dept. of Defense

Allan Cartography

Miami Herald

New York Times

Los Angeles Times



Graham Allison

Captain Steve Daub

U.S. Dept. of Defense

Richard Gregorie

Jessica Hobart

Lisa Jones

James Kout

Michael Sheehan

Dick Wirt




Tim Mangini




Julie A. Parker



Michael Stevenson



Mason Daring

Martin Brody



LoConte Goldman Design



The Caption Center



Richard Byrne



Christopher Kelly



Emily Gallagher



Frances Arnaud



Denise Barsky



Lee Ann Donner



Robert O'Connell

Joe Fox



Karen Carroll Bennett




Scott Clevenger




Stephanie Ault




Liz Matson




Sam Bailey



Catherine Wright



Dana Reinhardt



Robin Parmelee



Sharon Tiller



Karen O'Connor



Marrie Campbell



Jim Bracciale



Michael Sullivan




David Fanning


© 1999



home . atomic suitcase bombs . a close call? . a nuclear smuggling scenario . russia's nuclear complex . debating the future . interviews . readings
join the discussion . synopsis . links . press . tapes & transcripts
frontline online . pbs online

web site copyright 1995-2014 WGBH educational foundation