Ongoing Speculation about missing Russian 'Suitcase Nukes'

Disarmament Diplomacy -- Issue No 19

In late September, Alexander Lebed, Russia's former chief of national security, repeated his assertion, first made earlier in the month, that Russia may have 'lost' up to 100 1-kiloton 'suitcase-sized' nuclear bombs. Speaking in Tokyo on 22 September, Lebed said that despite unequivocal denials of his claim by the authorities, "the problem still exists." "Unfortunately," he added, "some people chose to protect their name or laugh off the issue." He repeated his view of the gravity of the situation: "These are ideal weapons to conduct nuclear terrorism... We must seriously look for them or else humankind cannot rest in peace."

Lebed revealed that he was investigating the matter when he was dismissed by President Yeltsin (October 1996). This was corroborated by another former official, Vladimir Denisov, who told the Interfax news agency on 22 September that he had headed an investigation team. According to Denisov, no missing weapons had been reported, but the investigation was incomplete - in particular, not having yet covered the Baltic States, Ukraine or Georgia - when it was terminated.

Also on 22 September, Alexander Yablokov, former advisor to the President on environmental issues, made clear that the weapons Lebed referred to had been produced - though he did not say he agreed that some might be missing. Speaking on the NTV television channel, Yablokov stated: "I talked to those who did those bombs. And I know that they exist." Yablokov had earlier made this claim in a letter, dated 9 September, in the weekly newspaper Novaya Gazeta: "The statement by Alexander Lebed concerning suitcases with nuclear bombs is definitely not groundless."

In Washington on 3 October, Yaklokov again insisted that the suitcase-sized bombs did exist. Addressing the US House of Representatives' Military Research and Development Subcommittee, Yaklokov referred to the weapons as "atomic demolition munitions" (see below). "I am absolutely sure that they have been made," he said. He went on to make the startling claim that they had been developed not by the Defence Ministry but by the KGB - and that their development was kept secret from the Defence Ministry: "It was the KGB, not the Ministry of Defence, that ordered it [the production]. They were never included in the official list of Soviet stockpiles."

Yaklokov's testimony was curtly dismissed by State Department spokesperson James Rubin (3 October): "there is no evidence other than hearsay to support such claims; therefore, we give such claims little credibility... We have no information or evidence suggesting that nuclear weapons were ever developed for or put under the control of the KGB." Rubin added:

"[Russia] continues to assure us that it retains adequate command and control [of nuclear weapons] and that appropriate physical security arrangements exist for these weapons and facilities... We have no reason or evidence to doubt these assurances."

Russian officials were indeed kept busy refuting the allegations. On 23 September, a government spokesperson, Igor Shabdurasulov, stated: "All speculation about the existence of such devices does not correspond with reality." The same day, Defence Minister Igor Sergeyev told NTV television: "Nuclear weapons are under constant control. And today I, as a Defence Minister, have no fears."

On 26 September, Igor Valynkin, a senior Defence Ministry official, averred that "nuclear suitcases have never been produced and are not now being produced." However, on 2 October, US Department of Defense spokesperson Captain Mike Doubleday observed: "I think we are aware that the Russian nuclear arsenal contained atomic demolition munitions which some people define or characterize as suitcase bombs. They are not really suitcase bombs since it requires two people to carry them, and they are not flat, so that they don't fit in suitcases." Doubleday added: "We had munitions that were small like that, also. They were tactical nuclear weapons."

Reports: Ecologist - Russia had suitcase bomb, Associated Press, 22 September; Lebed insists nuclear bombs are missing, Reuters, 22 September; Russia may have 'lost' nuclear bombs, Reuters, 22 September; Expert - Russia may have lost suitcase nukes, Reuters, 23 September; Moscow denies suitcase bombs, Associated Press, 23 September; Official - Russia has no atom briefcase bombs, Reuters, 24 September; Russia says it never produced nuclear suitcases, Reuters, 26 September; Department of Defense Briefing, 2 October; US sees no KGB role in Russia's nuclear arms, Reuters, 3 October; State Department Briefing, 3 October; Russian scientist backs claim of 'suitcase nukes,' Reuters, 3 October.

1998 The Acronym Institute.