Russain Realities and the Illusion of Arms Control Moscow's Strategic Arms Are Controlled by a System on the Verge of Collapse

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THE end of the cold war, an abortive coup in Moscow, and the breakup of the Soviet empire changed the nature of the nuclear danger posed by Russia. The threat of a deliberate attack receded, while the danger of anarchy grew. Preventing a breakdown of control over nuclear weapons and materials seemed more urgent and much harder than containing Russian imperialism and deterring aggression. Despite bipartisan US efforts to shore up nuclear control in Russia and other former Soviet republics, that control remains shaky. We can take some comfort from the denuclearization of Kazakhstan and the ongoing removal of weapons from Ukraine. We can also take heart that Russia, with American assistance, is improving safeguards on fissile materials at some major facilities. But apprehension persists about the smuggling of nuclear weapons or fissile materials to rogue states or terrorists; the unauthorized use of nuclear weapons by rouge Russian units; the loss of legitimate and competent control at the top of the chain of command; and the launch of nuclear forces on false warning. Smuggling grabs the headlines, as specialists and the media declare this the biggest threat to US security today. Yet scant evidence of smuggling exists. Since 1991, Russia has temporarily lost control over small quantities of weapons-grade material in a few cases. The most sensational incident involved a sting operation hatched by German intelligence that created artificial demand for the stuff. In all cases, Russian or European security agencies seized the diverted material. The record does not faze some purveyors of doom: A recent issue of Business Week, for instance, asserts that "contraband trade in weapons-grade nuclear material is thriving." The chorus crying wolf only distorts and discredits the reality that a serious risk of future leaks exists. The civilian nuclear institutes certainly have deficient safeguards, and custodianship has deteriorated across the board. Amateur crimes of opportunity as well as insider corruption remain a distinct risk at Atomic Energy and Defense Ministry sites. SUBSTANTIAL leakage of other sensitive dual-use technologies has already taken place. Lax enforcement of export controls continues to allow such technology to flow rather freely out of Russia, Ukraine, and Kazakhstan. Moreover, criminal conspiracies in this illegal trade have surfaced. In one foiled caper, criminals diverted beryllium from an institute that also housed a huge stockpile of weapons-grade nuclear materials. The risk of the unauthorized use of strategic forces by rogue commanders of the land-based rockets, submarine missiles, and bombers appears to be negligible today. Low-level commanders have little ability to do anything without permission from Moscow. Intercontinental rockets in silos have especially impressive safeguards. Any attempt by a local launch crew to pick the lock on their blocking devices would automatically be reported to the war room of the General Staff, which can electronically isolate the deviant launch center. Safeguards are weaker on submarines because of the crew's autonomy during long patrols at sea. A renegade crew might be able to circumvent the blocking devices. Even weaker safeguards are found on the bombs and cruise missiles for bombers, though to compensate, Russia keeps payloads separate from the aircraft and specially guarded. …