Are Suitcase Nukes on the Loose? The Story Behind the Controversy

Scott Parrish
November 1997

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Former Russian Security Council Secretary Aleksandr Lebed has stirred controversy in both Russia and the United States with his allegations that the Russian government is currently unable to account for some eighty small atomic demolition munitions (ADMs) which were manufactured in the USSR during the Cold War. Lebed originally made the allegations in a closed meeting with a US congressional delegation in May 1997. His charges generated public controversy three months later when he repeated them in an interview with the CBS newsmagazine 60 Minutes, which was broadcast on 7 September 1997.[1] Russian officials initially dismissed Lebed’s charges, saying all of the country’s nuclear weapons were accounted for and under strict control. Top-ranking Russian defense officials later went further and denied that any such weapons had ever been built by the USSR, claiming that they would be too expensive to maintain and too heavy for practical use. Lebed has stood by his statement, however, and his charges have been backed by a former advisor to President Yeltsin, Aleksey Yablokov, who told a US Congressional subcommittee on 2 October 1997 that he was “absolutely sure” that such ADMs had been ordered in the 1970s by the KGB.

Despite a coordinated campaign by Russian officials designed to discredit Lebed and Yablokov, technical inaccuracies and inconsistencies undermine the credibility of the official Russian denials that Soviet ADMs were never manufactured. In addition, the current controversy is not the first public discussion of whether former Soviet ADMs are under adequate control in Russia. During 1995, a flurry of Russian media reports claimed that Chechen separatist fighters had obtained such weapons. And in January 1996, long before the current media furor, the Monterey Institute’s Center for Nonproliferation Studies received information from a Russian presidential advisor that an unspecified number of small ADMs had been had been manufactured in the 1970s for use by the KGB.[2] This evidence does not corroborate Lebed’s claims that ADMs have “gone missing,” but it does strongly suggest that the Russian government is not being completely candid in its discussion of the issue.

Lebed’s Charges

In the interview broadcast on “60 Minutes,” and in a follow-up interview on 8 September with Interfax, Lebed alleged that during the Cold War, small atomic demolition munitions had been manufactured for use by the special forces brigades of the Main Intelligence Directorate (GRU) of the USSR General Staff. The munitions were designed to be used in sabotage operations behind enemy lines. Lebed said he had received information about the existence of these ADMs, which could be carried in a case approximately 60x40x20 cm, in September and October 1996, when he was serving as secretary of the Russian Security Council. Since the ADMs, which have an explosive yield of around one kiloton (TNT equivalent), could be “activated by one person” and are “easy to transport,” Lebed concluded they were “an ideal weapon for nuclear terror.”[3] The ADMs also reportedly lacked the safety systems to prevent unauthorized use—usually electronic combination locks—that were built into most Soviet tactical nuclear weapons. Lebed therefore ordered an inventory taken to determine whether all of them were accounted for.[4]

While he did manage to confirm that such weapons existed, Lebed said he “did not have time to find out how many such nuclear warheads there were” prior to his dismissal by President Yeltsin on 18 October 1996. He argued that “a very thorough investigation is necessary,” because the majority of the GRU special forces brigades had been based along the USSR’s borders and that some of the ADMs may have been left behind in the former Soviet republics after the Soviet Union collapsed. Lebed concluded that the question was, “how many such ‘cases’ remained on the territory of Russian and other CIS member states?”[5]

Official Denials and Rebuttals: Do They Ring True?

Official Russian reaction to media reports about Lebed’s allegations was dismissive. On 5 September 1997, before the 60 Minutes interview had even been aired, Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin responded to reports of Lebed’s charges by terming them “absolute absurdity.” Chernomyrdin asserted that all Russian nuclear weapons were accounted for and under strict control, and said it was “absolutely impossible” that any nuclear weapons had been left behind in any of the former Soviet republics.[6] The official government newspaper, Rossiyskaya gazeta, went even further saying that “such superfantasies can only be the product of a diseased imagination.”[7] On 10 September 1997, the Russian Ministry of Atomic Energy also dismissed Lebed’s claims, saying that “the Russian system of nuclear weapons safety keeps nuclear warheads under full control and makes any unauthorized transportation of them impossible.”[8] Russian President Boris Yeltsin’s press secretary, Sergey Yastrzhembskiy, who also coordinates the foreign policy work of the presidential staff, suggested that Lebed was simply trying to attract attention to himself by making controversial statements. “Lebed is looking for pretexts to remind people of his existence,” Yastrzhembskiy concluded.[9]

A number of less authoritative sources in Moscow were also quick to heap scorn on Lebed’s allegations. In an interview with ITAR-TASS, the director of the Institute of Strategic Assessments, Sergey Oznobischev, termed Lebed’s charges “devoid of logic and sense,” saying that as a paratroop commander, Lebed had “never been familiar with the situation in the area of nuclear weapons of the USSR or Russia.” Repeating the commonly accepted Russian explanation of Lebed’s accusations, Oznobischev called them a “purely political move,” suggesting that Lebed was merely trying to attract attention by starting a scandal.[10]

On 10 September 1997, the Moscow daily Nezavisimaya gazeta quoted an anonymous “high-ranking” source in the Operational Intelligence Directorate of the GRU as flatly denying the existence of “any 60x40x20cm briefcases containing nuclear charges.” The source said that while special GRU detachments are tasked with conducting sabotage operations behind enemy lines, “they never use nuclear munitions to do so,” relying instead on conventional explosives. The anonymous officer claimed that US special forces also did not use nuclear explosives. “We are not suicide squads,” the anonymous Russian officer concluded.[11] The insistence of this anonymous GRU officer that the USSR had not possessed ADMs was unusual at this stage of the controversy. Official Russian government statements refuting Lebed’s charges had not denied that such weapons existed, but had merely said that all Russian nuclear weapons were under strict control.

While official Russian reaction was skeptical or derisory, Lebed’s claims received a more open and positive reception in Washington. Representative Curt Weldon (R-PA), Chairman of the US House Subcommittee on Military Research and Development, pointed out that Lebed had originally made the charges in a private May 1997 meeting in Moscow with a US Congressional delegation led by Weldon. Weldon has argued that had Lebed wanted to create a stir he would have gone public with the information at that time, but that instead he quietly communicated it to the Congressional delegation. Indeed, Weldon told The Washington Post that he sees “no reason why [Lebed] would make this story up.”[12] At the time, Lebed informed the delegation that he was able to confirm the production of 132 ADMs, but could only account for 48. When asked about the whereabouts of the other 84, said Weldon, Lebed replied “I have no idea.” A State Department cable sent to Washington summarizing the same meeting cites 100 as the number of ADMs Lebed said were produced, but otherwise agrees with Weldon’s account.[13] This does not, however, square with Lebed’s later statements that he does not know how many ADMs were produced.

At a hearing held by the Subcommittee to investigate Lebed’s charges, Weldon said that the delegation, not Lebed, had requested the meeting, and that “nuclear suitcases” was only one of several topics discussed. According to Weldon, the story became public only after the delegation published a report on the meeting, which then prompted the press to cover the issue. “This was not an attempt to have an international story appear,” the Congressman insisted.[14]

Lebed is not a political novice, however, and he could have decided that it was to his advantage to raise the issue in a subtler manner than simply issuing a press release. Consequently, Weldon’s account does not completely exclude the possibility that Lebed’s story is politically motivated. Congressman Weldon is an outspoken critic of the Clinton Administration’s policy toward Russia, and has criticized the president for using “the bully pulpit of the presidency to create some false impression of stability in Russia.” He also has criticized the Russian government for issuing “absolute denials of what we know to be fact,” indicating that he gives some credence to Lebed’s account.[15] Clinton administration officials, by contrast, have indicated that they accept Moscow’s assurances that the Russian nuclear arsenal is under tight control.[16] The issue is highly politicized in both Moscow and Washington, which greatly complicates the interpretation of the available evidence.

A Former Colleague Supports Lebed’s Story

There was some partial corroboration of Lebed’s story, however. One of his former deputies on the security council, Vladimir Denisov, told Interfax on 13 September that he had served as head of the special commission formed by Lebed to ascertain the disposition of former Soviet ADMs. Denisov said that the commission had been formed on 23 July 1996 in response to reports that separatist Chechen fighters had possibly gained access to these weapons. Denisov’s commission was to ascertain whether the “nuclear suitcases” were in the active arsenal of the Russian armed forces, interview specialists trained to use them, and determine if similar munitions could be manufactured illegally.

By September 1996, Denisov’s commission had concluded that no Russian military units had any of the “suitcases” in their arsenals, and that all such bombs were kept at “appropriate” storage facilities. Denisov’s comment suggests that like most land-based tactical nuclear weapons, the small ADMs had been withdrawn to central storage facilities. However, Denisov added that “it was impossible to say the same about former Soviet military units which remained on the territory of the other states in the CIS.” But he did not provide any concrete evidence suggesting that ADMs had “gone missing” in the former Soviet republics, saying only that there “was no certainty that no low-yield nuclear ammunition remained on the territory of Ukraine, Georgia or [the] Baltic states or that such weapons had not appeared in Chechnya.”[17]

However, Denisov’s comments cannot be regarded as providing independent confirmation of Lebed’s account, given his close ties to Lebed. Denisov was appointed Lebed’s deputy on 25 June 1996 as part of a personnel shakeup after Lebed became Security Council Secretary, but after President Yeltsin dismissed Lebed in October 1996, Denisov was also ousted.[18] Denisov’s comments could therefore be political cover for his former boss.

Parallel Allegations

Just as the furor over Lebed’s statements was beginning to abate, another former Yeltsin advisor came forward with a similar story. Aleksey Yablokov, who had formerly served as an advisor on the environment to the Russian president, published a letter in the Moscow paper Novaya gazeta on 22 September 1997 in which he said he had met the scientists who had designed “suitcase” nuclear weapons, confirming that such systems did exist. In the letter and a subsequent television interview, Yablokov said that the “suitcases” were not made for use by the military’s special forces, but rather were intended for the Soviet secret police, the KGB. He added that since they were made for the KGB, the suitcase bombs were “not recorded on Defense Ministry records,” and “so this might have taken a different turn, they may not be taken into account at all in our general nuclear arsenal, but were—and are now—somewhere else.” Yablokov noted that the United States had built similar weapons, called “backpack bombs” during the Cold War. Based on this evidence, Yablokov concluded that Lebed’s statement “is apparently far from ‘wild ravings.'”[19]

Yablokov’s statement, which corresponds closely to the to charges reported to the Center for Nonproliferation Studies in January 1996, appears to confirm some aspects of Lebed’s earlier claims, but it also differs from them in several key respects. While Lebed said the “suitcase” bombs were built for use by military special forces, Yablokov said they were intended for the KGB. To this extent the two accounts do not fully support one another. But as Yablokov has no obvious connection with Lebed, and no clear political motive, his statement was not so easy to dismiss as Denisov’s. Nevertheless, Yablokov’s letter provoked a coordinated denial campaign by a wide range of Russian government officials.

An Orchestrated Campaign of Denials?

The day after Yablokov’s letter appeared, Russian government spokesman Igor Shabdurasulov reiterated that reports of uncontrolled nuclear materials or “nuclear suitcases” were “absolutely groundless.” Shabdurasulov stated that all nuclear materials were under the control of either the military or the Ministry of Atomic Energy. Shabdurasulov also suggested that those who were raising the issue of nuclear security in such a sensational manner were probably seeking to undermine Russia’s negotiating position in the just-opened ninth session of the Gore-Chernomyrdin commission, which often deals with nuclear security issues.[20]

In its 24 September issue, the pro-Communist Moscow daily Pravda-pyat published an article ridiculing the claims of both Lebed and Yablokov. The article cited Georgiy Kaurov, a spokesman for the Ministry of Atomic Energy as refuting the claims of both men. Kaurov admitted that small nuclear weapons were technically feasible, and he agreed with Yablokov that the United States had produced them. But Kaurov dismissed Yablokov and Lebed’s allegations as “designed to attract attention to themselves,” and reiterated that all Russian nuclear warheads were under strict control. He disdainfully described Yablokov as a “narrow specialist,” who was only “an expert in marine mammals” and had no business issuing statements about nuclear weapons. Kaurov mockingly concluded that Yablokov should “stick to what he knows about—ecology—which has fallen into a sorry state under his supervision.”[21]

The Defense Ministry issued the most detailed refutation of Lebed and Yablokov’s charges on 25 September. Lieutenant General Igor Valynkin, the head of the ministry’s Twelfth Main Directorate, which is responsible for the storage and security of nuclear weapons, attempted to reassure journalists about the safety of the Russian nuclear arsenal. Valynkin asserted that absolutely all nuclear weapons in the Russian armed forces are currently in the custody of his directorate, which ensures their “state acceptance at the factory, storage in arsenals, servicing, and their transport to the troops.” Valynkin said that because of concerns about the “criminal situation” in Russia, at the beginning of the 1990s all Russian tactical nuclear weapons, including nuclear mines and artillery shells, were removed from the arsenals of individual military units and transferred to special storage sites under the control of the Twelfth Directorate. This step was taken in order to prevent terrorists from gaining access to the weapons, as the arsenals at individual units are much less secure than the central storage sites.

Valynkin explained that at these storage sites, the weapons are guarded by specially screened Twelfth Directorate personnel. Only officers and warrant officers are permitted to work with nuclear weapons, and current regulations allow the weapons to be moved only on the personal orders of the head of the Twelfth Directorate, and even then only if his orders are confirmed by the head of the Russian General Staff. The weapons storage areas themselves can be opened only in the presence of the commander of the storage site, together with two other officers. Any work with the weapons is strictly regulated and careful records are maintained. As a result of these procedures, said Valynkin, it was impossible for any nuclear weapons to disappear unnoticed, and he described the idea that any of the weapons could be lost or stolen as “unrealistic.” He reinforced this claim by noting that in the 50 years since the establishment of the Twelfth Directorate, there had not been a single accident involving Soviet or Russian nuclear weapons. He compared this unblemished record favorably with that of the United States, which he said had experienced at least two accidents with nuclear weapons.[22]

Referring directly to the issue of the “suitcase” bombs, Valynkin admitted that is technically possible to build a small low-yield nuclear warhead. However, he denied that the USSR or Russia had ever manufactured such small nuclear weapons. Valynkin noted that such a small nuclear weapon would be too expensive to be practical, since its “nuclear core” would need to be “recharged” every three months in order to retain its effectiveness.[23] Even the United States, said Valynkin, could not afford such weapons.[24] He concluded by reiterating that those smaller tactical nuclear weapons which Russia does possess, principally artillery shells and land mines, are under strict control in the storage depots of the Twelfth Directorate, and their “planned destruction is being carried out.” He added that in any event, the size and weight of these systems were not comparable with “small carrying cases,” which made their theft highly improbable.

Responding to Yablokov’s claim that the “suitcase” weapons were made for the KGB, Valynkin insisted that all nuclear weapons produced in the USSR and Russia were delivered to the Twelfth Directorate directly from the production lines. He added that it was impossible for “parallel” production lines for nuclear weapons to have been established for KGB use. He stated that other federal agencies like the Federal Security Service (the domestic successor to the KGB) and the Interior Ministry did not have access to nuclear weapons, but were only involved in guarding those in the custody of the Defense Ministry. [25]

Following Valynkin’s press conference, which was heavily covered by Russian media, a string of former and current Russian government officials issued their own denials of Lebed and Yablokov’s claims in what appeared to be a coordinated campaign. Tatyana Samolis, spokesperson for the Foreign Intelligence Service (another KGB successor agency), declared that her agency “had no information” about the alleged “suitcase bombs.” Vladimir Kryuchkov, the former head of the KGB, termed the allegations “complete nonsense,” saying there had never been any need for the KGB to have nuclear weapons. Lieutenant-General Vyacheslav Romanov, the head of the National Center for the Reduction of Nuclear Danger, asserted that small nuclear weapons “are a myth.” Romanov, whose organization is a department of the Russian General Staff responsible for monitoring the implementation of, and compliance with, arms control agreements, claimed that the “minimum weight of a device would be about 200 kg.” He said it was “absurd” to claim that one person could carry a nuclear bomb to a target and detonate it.[26]

That same day, Ivan Rybkin, Lebed’s successor at the Security Council, announced that a search of the council’s records had produced “no documents” related to ADMs. Rybkin said the council and its staff “know nothing” about the existence of small nuclear weapons used by Russian special forces.[27] In an interview on Russian Public Television (ORT), Minister of Atomic Energy Viktor Mikhailov said, “I can tell you unequivocally that they never existed, and do not exist.” Boris Kostenko, a spokesman for the Federal Security Service (FSB), told the network that “the Federal Security Service has no information about the USSR KGB possessing nuclear ammunition of this kind—that is, super-small charges in the form of nuclear cases.”[28]

Inconsistent Denials and Inaccuracies

If these denials represented a coordinated government attempt to refute the charges, they were less than totally convincing. There were several inconsistencies and inaccuracies in these statements that suggest that the Russian government is being less than candid in its discussion of Lebed’s allegations. General Valynkin’s detailed discussion of the technical problems with small nuclear weapons, for example, is inconsistent with unclassified information about the US nuclear weapons stockpile. Valynkin said that the United States could not afford to make small nuclear weapons of the type described by Lebed. In the strictest, sense, he is correct that the US did not make nuclear weapons that would fit in a 60x40x20 cm suitcase. However, according to the NRDC Nuclear Weapons Databook, a standard reference work on American nuclear forces published by the Natural Resources Defense Council, the United States did deploy a low-yield Special Atomic Demolition Munition (SADM), based on the W-54 warhead. The SADM could be transported in a shipping case not too much larger than that described by Lebed (89x66x66cm), and is reported to have weighed “less than 163 pounds” (74 kg). In its operational form it may have weighed quite a bit less, and been considerably smaller than the shipping case noted above, since the same warhead was used in the now-retired Davy Crockett system, which used a recoilless rifle to launch a nuclear-armed projectile. The Davy Crockett projectile was only 65 cm long and had a maximum diameter of 28 cm, which would very nearly fit inside Lebed’s suitcase. It also weighed 51 pounds (23 kg), a weight which would be transportable by one person. Other sources have reported that the version of the W-54 used in the SADM weighed about 58 pounds.[29]

Unclassified sources report that the W-54 warhead was developed from 1960-1963, and initial deployment began in 1964. It had a variable yield of .01-1 kT. The Davy Crockett warhead was tested twice in July 1962, with yields of 22 and 18 tons (TNT equivalent), or .022 and .018 kT.[30] About 300 SADMs were deployed by the United States, and Army and Marine Corps commando units were trained to use the munitions, as were the special forces of several US allies, including Germany, Britain, and the Netherlands. The SADM was intended for use behind enemy lines to disrupt communications and logistics, a mission similar to that ascribed by Lebed to the Soviet “suitcase” bombs.[31] The Davy Crockett was removed from service in 1972, but the SADM apparently remained deployed until at least the mid-1980s, and may only have been withdrawn from forward deployment following the 1991 Bush-Gorbachev unilateral initiatives.

The existence of the W-54 and the SADM derived from it undermines the credibility of Valynkin’s denials that the USSR built similar systems, especially since he justified his claims by arguing that even the United States could not afford such small nuclear weapons. Apparently, the United States could afford them, since it had several hundred in its stockpile during the Cold War.

The existence of the W-54 and SADM undermines Valynkin’s claim that small nuclear weapons would be prohibitively expensive to maintain. Valynkin claimed that a small nuclear weapon would need to be disassembled every three months for its “nuclear core” to be recharged. However, American physicists familiar with nuclear weapons design consulted by the author have dismissed Valynkin’s argument. A small weapon would probably be a uranium or plutonium implosion device, possibly boosted with tritium to compensate for the reduced amount of conventional explosive used to compress the fissile core in the compact device. Neither the uranium nor plutonium metals used in the fissile core of such a bomb would need such frequent maintenance, and even tritium, which has a half-life of 12.3 years, and must be recharged periodically, would not need replenishing so frequently. While we do not know the details of Soviet weapons design, there is no obvious technical constraint that can account for Valynkin’s claim that small ADMs would require frequent and expensive maintenance. Since the United States maintained a stockpile of several hundred such systems for at least twenty years, it seems unlikely that the maintenance cost for such systems is so high as to have been prohibitive for the USSR.

The Russian official denials are also inconsistent and contradictory. While Valynkin denied that the US or USSR had built such weapons, other Russian spokesmen—like Georgiy Kaurov of the Ministry of Atomic Energy—admitted the existence of equivalent US weapons. General Romanov, of the National Nuclear Risk Reduction Center, tried to discredit Lebed’s allegations by implausibly arguing that any nuclear warhead would need to weigh at least 200 kg, while others, like Valynkin, admitted that lighter, more compact weapons were technically feasible. Although ignorance or incompetence could account for both these inconsistencies and the glaring factual inaccuracies that mar the official denials, the pattern suggests a poorly designed “cover story.” So many of the official arguments explaining why the USSR did not construct ADMs are based on obviously false premises that one is led to wonder whether the denials are false as well. This circumstantial reasoning does not support the claim that such ADMs are currently unaccounted for, but it does suggest that Soviet ADMs may have existed and that the issue of their current disposition is a real one.

Most Russian media accepted the official denials without closely examining their specifics. Thus Komsomolskaya pravda published General Romanov’s claim that a nuclear weapon would have a minimum weight of 200 kg without comment. The most notable exception was the 51% state-owned ORT network, which broadcast a special report on the “suitcase” bomb controversy on 27 September. The broadcast said that information it had uncovered suggested that small nuclear weapons had been manufactured by the USSR, but that although “the Defense Ministry knows this, it prefers to be insincere.” The program reported that some small nuclear devices were built by the Soviet Union for use in geological prospecting and oil exploration. Consistent with the statement by Valynkin, the program said these systems had a “service life” of only a few months, after which they would cease to function.[32] Some support for the existence of small peaceful nuclear explosives (PNEs) is contained in a recently-published official history of Russian the nuclear testing program. The history reports that several low-yield PNEs were detonated at a site in Kazakstan during the mid-1970s for “industrial” purposes. The yields in these tests ranged from .01 kT (10 tons) to .35 kT (350 tons).[33] While the report does not indicate if these low-yield devices were small in size, it does provide some indirect support for the ORT report and hints at the existence of similar low-yield military systems.

The ORT report added that other small nuclear weapons were developed for use by military special forces, which would use them for such missions as blocking mountain passes to enemy tank armies. The program insisted that the weapons were not developed for “terrorist purposes,” were not issued to the KGB, and if they had been deployed outside the USSR, had been returned to Russia in the early 1990s. The program also assured its viewers that like similar devices in the United States, the Soviet ADMs “always remained under official control.”[34] While rebutting most of Lebed and Yablokov’s charges, the program did break with the official explanation that ADMs were never manufactured.

A Chechen Connection?

An interesting aspect of the controversy is the role played by reports that the Chechen separatist forces led by Dzhokhar Dudayev may have acquired tactical nuclear weapons. According to Denisov and Lebed, reports that Chechen fighters had obtained some of the “suitcase” weapons triggered the original Security Council inquiry.[35] Indeed, at several points during the Chechen conflict, reports appeared in the Russian press suggesting that Chechen fighters had acquired nuclear weapons. According to an unattributed account in the book One Point Safe, the Chechen government of Dzhokar Dudayev reportedly warned the US government in the summer of 1994 that it had two tactical nuclear weapons and that they would transfer them to Libya if the United States did not recognize Chechnya’s independence. Dudayev reportedly provided sufficiently convincing technical details that the United States (with Russian acquiescence) sent an undercover team to visit Chechnya, where they were to be shown the weapons. After the weapons failed to materialize, however, the team departed. If this account is accurate it clearly indicates US government concern over possible warhead theft, and foreshadowed subsequent reports of a “Chechen bomb.”[36]

One of the most detailed such reports appeared in the extremist newspaper Zavtra in October 1995, which published an interview with an alleged former Chechen intelligence agent who claimed to have purchased two “portable” nuclear weapons in Estonia in 1992.[37] This account, and others like it, is not very credible, since the Chechen fighters do not appear to have publicly announced that they had a nuclear weapon, which would seem strange given the extreme methods which were used by both sides during the conflict. Chechen field commander Shamil Basayev did threaten to use radioactive isotopes as a radiological weapon, and even buried a container of cesium-137 in a Moscow park in November 1995 as a demonstration of this capability.[38] Basayev and other Chechen commanders also threatened to attack Russian nuclear power plants. While these threats could be regarded as “nuclear terrorism,” they did not involve nuclear weapons. In fact, in a July 1995 interview with the Moscow daily Segodnya, Basayev explicitly denied having nuclear weapons.[39]

Appended to the October 1995 account in Zavtra was a “commentary” by the newspaper’s “security service,” that described in detail two designs for “portable” nuclear weapons. At first glance, this commentary is somewhat more credible than the body of the article, since Zavtra is believed by some analysts to have well-developed contacts in the Russian security services. One of the two designs was a uranium gun-type weapon that reportedly required three people to transport. The other design, however, was a uranium implosion device with the shape of a small barrel 16 inches (40 cm) in diameter and 24 inches (60 cm) high that weighed 42 pounds (19 kg). The device was reported to use barium as a neutron initiator, and TNT as the explosive that would squeeze the core to criticality. It was said to be “fully autonomous,” and easily transported by one person, although two operators were required to detonate it. In size and weight, this design again approximates the dimensions mentioned by Lebed. Although the paper did not say specifically that the designs mentioned were for Soviet ADMs, the context strongly suggested that they were.[40]

A close examination of this purported design, however, undermines the credibility of the report in several respects. First, available open sources indicate that barium is not used as a neutron initiator in a nuclear weapon. Initiators described in the open literature consist of two elements that are combined to generate neutrons at the moment the weapon begins detonating. The Zavtra report mentions only one element in the initiator, which is supposedly coated in gold—an implausible design in terms of basic physics. Indeed, one possibility is that the Zavtra report was based on a poorly translated US source, with barium confused with beryllium, which is present in nuclear weapons. The use of TNT as the explosive to produce the implosion is also highly improbable, since even early US implosion weapons used more energetic conventional explosives. The description of the weapon thus appears to have been written by someone with a very incomplete knowledge of nuclear weapons design, suggesting a hoax.

In addition to being technically implausible, the design mentioned in this article is identical to one cited in an August 1995 article in Moskovskiy komsomolets.[41] This article was another of the many Russian press reports in 1995 suggesting that Chechen fighters might have acquired a small nuclear device. As indirect evidence for this proposition, the article included a description of a US atomic demolition munition taken from the Russian-language edition of Soldier of Fortune magazine (Soldat udachy). This same Soldier of Fortune account, which claimed that several ex-Soviet military intelligence officers had been arrested in Lithuania and charged with selling former Soviet tactical nuclear weapons, was also the basis for a similar July 1995 article in the Russian government newspaper Rossiyskaya gazeta.[42] This one Soldier of Fortune article thus appears to have spawned a series of questionable reports that Chechen fighters had acquired former Soviet ADMs. Given the reputation of Soldier of Fortune, these reports must be regarded as of dubious reliability.

Zavtra published two follow-up articles to its original October 1995 report. In the first of these reports, the paper claimed that the reporter who had written the original article had been abducted by four gunmen who “brutally beat him up,” and threatened that “if you’ll be digging for nuclear arms, we’ll kill you!”[43] However, two issues later the paper concluded that the original story had been planted by Chechen agents, who, after feeding Zavtra the material, beat up the reporter in order to attract attention to the story. The paper alleged that the goal of this Chechen “operation” was to increase the separatists’ leverage in ongoing negotiations with the Russian federal government.

After admitting that the story recounted in the original article was a “bluff,” the paper went on to say that officials at the Federal Security Service (FSB) denied that the Soviet Union had built ADMs. However, it added that anonymous sources at the agency “close” to the paper admitted that the USSR had made ADMs. These sources told Zavtra that the ADMs had been removed to special central storage facilities before the collapse of the USSR. The paper added that while its sources believed these arsenals to be secure, they did not rule out that “elements” of the ADMs and “production techniques” could have been stolen from the plants where they were manufactured. The article concluded that the Russian military and intelligence agencies should devote more efforts to dealing with “this acute and dangerous problem.”[44]

The overall credibility of this series of reports in Zavtra is questionable, since the paper is known for its sensationalistic and biased reporting. The paper’s harsh stance on the Chechen issue gave it ample motivation to publish unfounded reports suggesting that Chechen fighters had access to nuclear weapons. Although it cannot be proven that the Chechens did not acquire a nuclear device, the available evidence suggests that they did not. Nevertheless, the paper’s reportedly close ties with Russian intelligence agencies give its claim that ADMs were made by the Soviet Union some residual plausibility. The story, and the others like it cited above, demonstrate that the issue of the current disposition of Soviet ADMs was not invented by Lebed, but has been repeatedly raised by other sources over the past few years.

Lebed and Yablokov Stand Firm

As for Lebed and Yablokov, neither has retracted the substance of their allegations in the face of almost universal condemnation by Russian officials. In an interview with MSNBC on 2 October, Lebed insisted that “compact nuclear devices are possible and they have been made.” He reiterated his earlier claims that the commission he had formed in 1996 to study the issue had concluded that “so called ‘backpack’ or ‘suitcase’ nuclear devices were in the possession of the Soviet armed forces.” Lebed used the well-documented case of US and Soviet 155mm and 152 mm nuclear artillery shells to underline his point that small nuclear bombs were feasible. He repeated that he had been unable to account for all such devices before his dismissal, and said he considered doing so “a matter of principal importance.” He did backtrack somewhat on the number of ADMs that he believed had been manufactured by the USSR, saying “As for their number, I can’t say…maybe 100, maybe 500.”[45]

Even this interview attracted a riposte in the Russian press, with the well-known military analyst for the Moscow daily Segodnya, Pavel Felgengauer, misleadingly claiming on 7 October that in the interview Lebed had retracted his claims that ADMs had been stolen. In fact, Lebed simply reiterated his earlier claims that the weapons exist, but cannot currently be accounted for. Felgengauer also ridiculed Lebed’s use of 155mm and 152mm nuclear artillery shells as evidence that “compact” nuclear bombs are possible. These shells, said Felgengauer, naming the US W-48 warhead for the 155mm artillery shell, weigh “well over 100 kg (220 lbs),” making them all but impossible for a single person to carry. He also argued that “portable” nuclear devices are “senseless” from a military point of view.[46] But Felgengauer’s arguments are based on inaccurate information. According to the NRDC Nuclear Weapons Databook, the 155mm projectile containing the W-48 warhead weighs 128 pounds (58 kg), still heavy for a suitcase, but not as impossible for one person to carry as Felgengauer would have his readers believe.[47] The warhead separate from the projectile would weigh even less. And if portable nuclear weapons are militarily senseless, then why did the United States and NATO deploy over 300 of them during the Cold War? Felgengauer, who has close ties to the Russian Defense Ministry, thus continued the pattern of using arguments based on false premises to rebut Lebed’s charges.

At an international conference in Berlin on 6 October, Lebed again reiterated that he remained “convinced” that small Soviet ADMs had been built, and repeated that he had been unable to establish their current whereabouts while he was in office. In an apparent reference to the W-54 warhead discussed above, Lebed argued that the United States had built such weapons “about 30 years ago, and at that time, the USSR did not lag behind America in anything.”[48]

Yablokov also stands by his story. In testimony before the US House Subcommittee on Military Research and Development on 2 October, Yablokov stated that he was “absolutely certain” that suitcase-sized nuclear weapons had been manufactured for use by the KGB during the 1970s. He reiterated his earlier assertion that he had met with scientists who designed these weapons, which he said would not have been included on any “official list” of Soviet nuclear weapons. But he added, “nobody knows” how many such weapons were made, and expressed the opinion that they might not exist any longer. Yablokov estimated that the bombs would have required two major overhauls in the over twenty years since they had been manufactured, which he doubted would have been carried out, especially during the last decade. Yablokov chastised Russian officials for not telling the truth about the issue, and said the controversy over the suitcase bombs was “connected” with the larger problem of nuclear security in Russia.[49] On 31 October 1997, Yablokov went one step further, threatening to release the technical details of the “nuclear suitcases” if President Yeltsin does not reply to a letter Yablokov sent to him on 27 October. According to Yablokov, the letter warns that Russia has “a whole class of nuclear weapons, not immediately controlled by the President.”[50] Rather than backing down from the controversy, Yablokov has upped the ante, placing the onus on the Russian government to reveal what it knows about the subject.

Ironically, on 6 October 1997, Russian President Boris Yeltsin signed a set of amendments to the Russian Federation Law on State Secrets, which effectively classified virtually all information about military nuclear facilities.[51] The amendments, which have been attacked by Russian environmentalists and human rights activists as designed to restrict public access to information about the Russian nuclear complex, are likely to have a chilling effect on public discussion of issues such as warhead storage and security.[52] And just one day after General Valynkin denounced Lebed’s allegations, his boss, Defense Minister Igor Sergeyev, and other top military officers discussed the safety and security of warhead storage at a 26 September session of the ministry’s collegium. While the session reportedly emphasized the reliability of the current system of safeguards, Sergeyev pointed out that it was necessary to speed up the introduction of new automated systems to make storage sites even more secure.[53] So while Lebed and Yablokov’s allegations may already have begun to fade from the public eye, the underlying issues they have illuminated will not go away so easily.


What conclusions can we draw from this controversy? First, given the secrecy surrounding Soviet nuclear weapons, it is impossible to reach any definitive conclusion about the veracity of Lebed’s claims. There is no convincing evidence that any former Soviet nuclear warheads have been lost, stolen, or misplaced. But since both the Russian and US governments would have powerful incentives to keep any such evidence confidential, and we have very little information about the number of nuclear weapons in the Russian stockpile and the location of the depots where they are stored, we also have no way to disprove Lebed’s claim that some weapons are unaccounted for.

Although there is no conclusive evidence to support Lebed’s charges about the diversion of ADMs, there is a good deal of evidence that small nuclear devices, analogous to known US systems, were produced in the Soviet Union. Internally contradictory official Russian denials that such systems were ever made raise the question of how candid the Russian government is being in response to Lebed’s charges. If small ADMs were made by the USSR, why does the Russian government deny it? Are the denials designed to allow the government to avoid having to answer questions about the disposition of the current stockpile of tactical nuclear weapons? Although it is impossible to answer these questions on the basis of currently available information, they do point out the need for greater transparency of nuclear stockpiles in both the United States and the USSR. Although Presidents Yeltsin and Clinton agreed at their March 1997 summit in Helsinki that the planned START III treaty would address such issues, the controversy over Lebed’s comments underlines how far the two countries still have to go in this respect.

(1) The contents of the interview were leaked to the press prior to the broadcast, meaning that initial media coverage and official reaction to the charges began before 7 September 1997.
(2) William Potter, “‘The Peacemaker’ Is a Warning to All,” The Los Angeles Times, 29 September 1997.
(3) Interfax, 8 September 1997; in “Lebed Says Individual Warheads in CIS Pose Danger,” FBIS-TAC-97-251.
(4) Ibid.
(5) Ibid.
(6) Interfax, 5 September 1997; in “Chernomyrdin Denies Lebed Claim on Nuclear Warheads,” FBIS-SOV-97-248.
(7) Valdimir Klimov, “Khvatay meshki, vokzal otkhodit!” Rossiyskaya gazeta, 6 September 1997, p. 2.
(8) “Minatom oprovergayet zayavleniye Aleksandra Lebedya o propazhe okolo sotni yadernykh zaryadov Rossii,” ITAR-TASS, 10 September 1997.
(9) ITAR-TASS, 10 September 1997; in “Moscow Denies Lebed’s Claims on Nuclear Charges,” FBIS-SOV-97-253.
(10) ITAR-TASS, 11 September 1997; in “Lebed Statement on Missing Nuclear Warheads Dismissed,” FBIS-UMA-97-254.
(11) Aleksandr Shaburkin, “Voyennyye oprovergayut zayavleniye Lebedya,” Nezavisimaya gazeta, 10 September 1997, p. 2.
(12) R. Jeffery Smith and David Hoffman, “No Support Found for Report of Lost Suitcase-Size Nuclear Weapons,” The Washington Post, 5 September 1997, p. 19.
(13) Ibid.
(14) U.S. House, Committee on National Security, Subcommittee on Military Research and Development, Testimony of Alexei Yablokov at a Hearing on Russian Nuclear Materials, 2 October 1997 (unofficial transcript by Federal News Service), pp. 41-43.
(15) Ibid., p. 40.
(16) See for example, “Transcript: State Department Noon Briefing, September 5, 1997,” available from the USIA Washington File web page at
(17) Interfax, 13 September 1997; in “Further on Possible Nuclear Arms in Former Soviet Republics,” FBIS-TAC-97-256; Michael Hoffman, “Suitcase Nuclear Weapons Safely Kept, Russian Says,” The Washington Post, 14 September 1997, p. A23.
(18) Interfax, 25 June 1996; in “Yeltsin Dismisses Two Deputy Security Council Secretaries,” FBIS-SOV-96-123; and ITAR-TASS, 30 October 1996, in “Rybkin to Meet with Two New Aides Soon,” FBIS-SOV-96-211.
(19) Yuriy Shchekochikhin, “Znamenityy uchenyy utverzhdaet: vozmozhno, my vse sidim na chemodanakh. Yadernykh,” Novaya gazeta, 22 September 1997, pp. 1-2; and “Segodnya,” NTV, 22 September 1997; in “Scientist Confirms Missing Suitcase Nuclear Bombs Exist,” FBIS-UMA-97-265.
(20)”Rassuzhdeniya o beskontrolnosti v khranenii yadernykh materialov v Rossii bespochvenny, zayavil ofitsialnyy predstavitel pravitelstva,” RIA-Novosti, 23 September 1997.
(21)Vyacheslav Zalomov, “Yaderniy detektiv k priyezdu Gora,” Pravda-pyat, 24 September 1997, pp. 1-2.
(22) Aleksandr Bondarenko, “Yadernoye oruzhiye my nikogda ne teryali,” Krasnaya zvezda, 26 September 1997, p. 1.
(23) Vladimir Zaynetdinov, “Ministerstvo oborony klyanetsya, chto yadernykh chemodanchikov ne bylo i net,” Izvestiya, 26 September 1997, p.
(24) “Vse yadernye zaryady rossiyskikh vooruzhennykh sil nakhodyatsya na meste, zayavil vysokopostavlennyi predstavitel minoborony,” RIA-Novosti, 25 September 1997.
(25) Bondarenko, “Yadernoye oruzhie,” p. 1.
(26) Viktor Sokirko, “A chto u vas, rebyata, v ryukzakakh?” Komsomolskaya pravda, 26 September 1997, p. 2.
(27) Interfax, 25 September 1997; in “Rybkin Denies Knowledge of Small Nuclear Weapons,” FBIS-SOV-97-268.
(28) “Vremya,” ORT, 27 September 1997; in “Russian TV Discusses Contradictory Views on Nuclear Charges,” FBIS-TAC-97-270.
(29)Thomas B. Cochran, William M. Arkin, and Milton M. Hoenig, Nuclear Weapons Databook, Volume 1: U.S. Nuclear Forces and Capabilities, (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Ballinger, 1984), p. 60.
(30) For a summary of the Davy Crockett system, see the web pages of The U.S. Nuclear Weapons Cost Study Project of the Brookings Institution, at HTTP://WWW.BROOK.EDU/FP/projects/nucwcost/davyc.HTM.
(31) Cochran, Arkin, Hoenig, Nuclear Weapons Databook, Volume 1: U.S. Nuclear Forces and Capabilities, pp. 60, 89, 91, 96, 281.
(32)Vremya, ORT, 27 September 1997; in “TV Examines History of Nuclear Suitcase Bombs,” FBIS-SOV-UMA-97-270.
(33)Viktor Mikhailov, et. al., Yadernye ispytaniya SSSR: obshchiye kharakteristiki, tseli, organizatsiya yadernykh ispytaniy SSSR, (Moscow: Izdat, 1997), pp. 116, 162, 164-166.
(34) “Vremya,” ORT, 27 September 1997; in “TV Examines History of Nuclear Suitcase Bombs,” FBIS-SOV-UMA-97-270.
(35) “Is Lebed Russia’s Loosest Cannon?” MSNBC Interview with Aleksandr Lebed, 2 October 1997, available at
(36) This story is told in detail in Andrew Cockburn and Leslie Cockburn, One Point Safe, (Washington, DC: Doubleday, 1997), pp. 101-103.
(37) Aleksey Andreyev, “Yadernaya bomba dlya…Chechni,” Zavtra, no. 40, (October 1995), pp. 1,5.
(38) OMRI Daily Digest, 27 November 1995.
(39) H. Eismont “Basaev Doesn’t Sound Interested in Having Any Nuclear Weapons in His Weapons Chest Now,” Segodnya, 27 July 1995, p. 2.
(40) Andreyev, “Yadernaya bomba,” p. 5.
(41) Alekdsandr Pgonchenkov, “A Nuclear Bomb in Basayev’s Hands: Myth or Reality?” Moskovskiy komsomolets, 22 August 1995, p. 2.
(42) V. Kucherenko, “Basayev Threatens Russia with Nuclear Terror,” Rossiyskaya gazeta, 15 July 1995, p. 4; Dzhim Morris, “On ne pustobrekh–on geroy,” Soldat udachy, no. 6, 1996, pp. 12-15, 57.
(43) “Terrorist Act Against Zavtra Correspondent,” Zavtra, #41, October 1995, p. 1.
(44) “Is There a Backpack Nuclear Bomb?” Zavtra, #43, October 1995, p. 1.
(45) “Is Lebed Russia’s Loosest Cannon?” MSNBC Interview with Aleksandr Lebed, 2 October 1997,
(46) Pavel Felgengauer, “Lebed otreksya ot yadernykh chemodanchikov,” Segondya, 7 October 1997.
(47) Cochran, Arkin, Hoenig, Nuclear Weapons Databook, Volume 1: U.S. Nuclear Forces and Capabilities, pp. 54-55, 308.
(48) Konstantin Eggert, “General Lebed nameren nayti ‘yadernye chemodanchiki,” Izvestiya, 7 October 1997.
(49) U.S. House, Committee on National Security, Subcommittee on Military Research and Development, Testimony of Alexei Yablokov at a Hearing on Russian Nuclear Materials, 2 October 1997 (unofficial transcript by Federal News Service), pp. 34-36.
(50) Interfax, 31 October 1997; in FBIS-TAC-97-304.
(51) “Federalnyy zakon o vnesenii izmeneniy i dopolneniy v zakon Rossiyskoy Federatsii ‘o gosudarstvennoy tayne,” Rossiyskaya gazeta, 9 October 1997, p. 4.
(52) Anna Badkhen and Charles Digges, “New Secrets Law ‘Aimed’ at Nikitin,” The St. Petersburg Times, 20-26 October 1997
(53) RIA-Novosti, 26 September 1997; in “Sergeyev to Establish Reliable Control Over Nuclear Sites,” FBIS-TAC-97-289.

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