Thursday, 05 April 2007


Published in Analytical Articles

By Richard Weitz (4/5/2007 issue of the CACI Analyst)

Revelations in January 2007 about the details of a recent smuggling incident in the Republic of Georgia have intensified concerns about the security of nuclear materials in the South Caucasus. Although the initial effect of the case has been to sharpen tensions between Russia and Georgia, over the long-term it could result in enhanced nonproliferation cooperation in the region. Indeed, the only two seizures of Highly Enriched Uranium in recent years have taken place in Georgia, indicating the need for greater involvement by the international community in countering WMD smuggling in the South Caucasus.

Revelations in January 2007 about the details of a recent smuggling incident in the Republic of Georgia have intensified concerns about the security of nuclear materials in the South Caucasus. Although the initial effect of the case has been to sharpen tensions between Russia and Georgia, over the long-term it could result in enhanced nonproliferation cooperation in the region. Indeed, the only two seizures of Highly Enriched Uranium in recent years have taken place in Georgia, indicating the need for greater involvement by the international community in countering WMD smuggling in the South Caucasus.

BACKGROUND: On January 25, 2007, a Georgian court sentenced a citizen of the Russian region of North Ossetia to eight years in prison for attempting to sell 100 grams of weapons-grade Highly Enriched Uranium (HEU) for $1 million on the black market. The authorities had detained Oleg Khintsagov for almost a year following his arrest in February 1, 2006, in a complex multinational sting operation that eventually involved the CIA, the FBI, and the U.S. Department of Energy. The Georgian government provided details about the case only after the court reached its verdict.

Although the court also sentenced three Georgian citizens to between four and six years in prison, the immediate effect of the new revelations surrounding the case was to worsen the already problematic relationship between Russia and Georgia. The Russian Ambassador to Georgia, Vyacheslav Kovalenko, had only just returned to Tbilisi after having been absent for four months following revelations about alleged Russian espionage activity in Georgia. The two countries have also experienced acute bilateral disputes over Georgian efforts to join NATO, Russian economic sanctions on Georgia, and Russian support for the two remaining separatist governments—in Abkhazia and South Ossetia—on Georgian territory.

The Georgian authorities have offered different reasons why they delayed providing details about the case until now. Some Georgian officials said they needed time to investigate the incident thoroughly. At least one Georgian legislator said the United States had requested a temporary media blackout. At a press conference announcing the verdict, however, Georgian Interior Minister Vano Merabishvili implied that his government had decided to publicize the case because it had lost patience waiting for greater Russian cooperation in investigating the incident.

Russian officials insisted they have cooperated fully with the investigation. Some attributed the delay to a Georgian attempt, supported by some U.S. officials, to release the information at the most opportune time for embarrassing the Russian government. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said, “I hope very much that this is not an attempted political provocation.” Lavrov asserted that experts from Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB) and Federal Atomic Energy Agency (Rosatom) had interrogated Khintsagov, but he “could say nothing coherent.”

A representative of the Office of the Russian Prosecutor General told the ITAR-TASS news agency that the Georgian Prosecutor General’s Office had asked for legal assistance in investigating Khintsagov. He claimed, however, that the Georgian authorities had failed to respond to the Russian government’s request for copies of the materials Russia needed to launch an investigation. Under Russian law, it is illegal for unauthorized personnel to acquire, store, or sell radioactive materials.

Several influential Russians speculated that Georgian and American officials had colluded to exploit the incident to damage Russia’s reputation as a responsible steward of sensitive nuclear materials. Konstantin Zatulin, director of the Institute of CIS Countries and a deputy in the Duma, noted the resemblance between the Khintsagov incident and the case of former Russian security agent Alexander Litvinenko, killed with radioactive polonium also widely thought to have originated in Russia: “I see only one reason to again return to the theme of mysterious Russian spies who are transporting uranium and plutonium and other such substances all over the world.”

Andrei Cherkasenko, chairman of the board of AtomPromResursy, a Russian manufacturer of nuclear power equipment, explicitly accused Georgian and American officials of deliberately timing the release of the information about the Khintsagov case to coincide with Russian President Vladimir Putin’s visit to India, where he signed a memorandum of intent to construct four additional Russian nuclear power plants. Russian, American, and other foreign companies are expected to compete vigorously to sell nuclear equipment to India if the Nuclear Suppliers Group authorizes such sales, a decision expected to occur sometime this year.

Whatever the reason for the timing, the Georgian government did cite the smuggling incident to reaffirm its call for the deployment of international observer missions in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, including along the Georgian-Russian border, to supplement or replace the Russian peacekeeping forces there. After meeting with Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili on February 26, EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana said EU governments might deploy peacekeepers in Georgia provided the mission had a clear and achievable objective. Publicizing the arrest of uranium smugglers operating in the breakaway regions supports the Georgian argument that neither the local authorities nor Russian peacekeepers have proven able to secure the territories from serious nonproliferation threats and dangerous criminal networks.

In the past, Russian officials as well as both regions’ unrecognized separatist governments have rejected proposals for deploying permanent observer missions from non-CIS countries on their territories. Murat Dzhoyev, the South Ossetian de facto government’s designated foreign minister, dismissed claims that his autonomous region had become a transit zone for nuclear trafficking as “laughable.” His office issued a formal statement accusing Georgia of engineering the scandal to discredit the South Ossetian government. The separatist authorities in Abkhazia also denounced the timing of the Georgian announcement, hinting that Tbilisi sought to influence UN Security Council deliberations by spreading alarm about the security situation in Georgia’s separatist regions. In mid-February 2006, the “foreign ministers” of Abkhazia and South Ossetia conferred in Moscow with their counterpart from the separatist region of Transnistria on how to strengthen their autonomous positions.

Representatives of the Russian Federal Customs Service also expressed skepticism that the material in Khintsagov’s possession came from Russia. They insist that the Russian government has installed very effective Russian-made “Yantar” radiation monitoring equipment along its southern borders and other trafficking routes that would have detected any smuggled radioactive materials. Georgian officials subsequently revealed that Khintsagov smuggled the uranium across a border checkpoint near Kazbegi, a remote town in eastern Georgia where radiation detection devices might have been less advanced than those deployed at more heavily used transit points.

IMPLICATIONS: The Khintsagov incident underscores the potential nonproliferation threats associated with the anarchic conditions existing in the breakaway regions in the South Caucasus and the other “frozen conflict” regions of the former Soviet Union. The weak law enforcement and porous borders in both Abkhazia and South Ossetia (which permit easy transit with neighboring Russian regions as well as into Georgia) facilitate trafficking in nuclear materials as well as more conventional forms of contraband (e.g., narcotics, counterfeit currency, persons).

Although the Georgian government has made a number of efforts to enhance the safety and security of the nuclear materials under its control, especially after Georgia joined the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in February 1997, the country remains especially vulnerable to nuclear trafficking through its territory. Besides the lack of effective political authority in the two separatist regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia., foreign governments and nonproliferation experts have expressed concern about the level of corruption in Georgian law enforcement agencies, the growing strength of transnational criminal organizations in the South Caucasus, and the republic’s pivotal location at the crossroads between Europe, Russia, Asia, and the Middle East.

In June 2003, Georgian authorities apprehended Garik Dadayan, an Armenian national, in the border town of Sadakhlo for attempting to smuggle 170 grams of weapons-grade HEU across Georgia’s borders with Armenia and Azerbaijan. Smuggling had become rampant in the region after relations between Armenia and Azerbaijan deteriorated following their war over the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh. Dadayan told investigators that he had acquired the material from intermediaries of Russian and other nationalities in Vladikavkaz, the same North Ossetian city where Khintsagov resided. Georgian authorities concluded that the HEU originated in Novosibirsk. According to the media, however, the FSB sent a confidential letter in May 2006 to the Georgian authorities asserting that Russian experts had concluded that the uranium smuggled by Dadayan and Khintsagov were produced at separate times and "seriously differ in composition."

CONCLUSIONS: The two cases demonstrate the vulnerability of the South Caucasus, especially Georgia, to the smuggling of nuclear materials. According to IAEA, of the 481 occurrences of nuclear smuggling reported between May 2002 and early 2006, only the Dadayan incident involved weapons-grade nuclear material. The Khintsagov case now falls into that category. The international community clearly needs to adopt urgent measures to shore up its nonproliferation defenses in the region. Priorities include improving WMD detection capabilities, extending best practices into private industry, and strengthening the rule of law throughout Georgian territory.

AUTHOR’S BIO: Richard Weitz is Senior Fellow and Director for Project Management at the Hudson Institute.
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