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
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