MOSCOW — All it could take to endanger world peace would be a dish of microbes or a few pounds of uranium. Or a hungry scientist.
Ever since the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union, pundits have worried about nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons falling into the hands of governments such as Iraq or Iran.
The softening of strict surveillance of Russians and the creation of 15 new porous borders in the former Soviet republics have created the risk not only of leakages of materials, they say. There is also the possibility that an impoverished and disillusioned scientist could slip abroad to sell deadly secrets.
Scientists at the Russian Academy of Sciences in Moscow describe a profession in crisis - where they have lost their venerated place in society and on average earn $150 a month.
It is not wildly inconceivable that someone might be tempted to supplement a meager wage with a shady deal, says Vsevolod Medvedev, the academy's deputy scientific secretary. The possibilities are there, given Internet communications with the outside world, powerful organized crime, and widespread corruption.
"The limits on scientists are absolutely useless," says Dr. Medvedev. "If one wants to sell an idea he can always find a way."
Even after the cold war's end, Russia today has the largest chemical arsenal on earth and an official stock of more than 10,000 nuclear weapons. Add to that the more than 1,000 scientific institutions and hundreds of factories that were involved in defense-related activities, each of which employed hundreds of experts.
Concern was stoked last year when Russia's former security chief, Gen. Alexander Lebed, claimed dozens of portable nuclear weapons were missing. Military authorities quickly denied his assertion, but many observers were not reassured.
Intelligence officials say they made arrests last year in three separate incidents of people who attempted to sell military equipment and know-how to Iran. The materials included units for missile systems and documents connected with the production of missile engines and jets. But that does not mean everyone was caught. Officials with the Federal Security Service (FSB), the successor to the KGB, said it would be harder to stop the flow of people and their ideas than of physical materials.
"We keep under control everyone who goes directly to Iraq, and the number is very small. But we can't control those who go there via a third country," says FSB spokesman Col. Mikhail Kirilin.
The threat of biological weapons in particular is hard to assess, as officially Russia will not admit to owning them. And the Russian Foreign Ministry on Thursday strongly denied a report in The Washington Post that United Nations weapons inspectors had found what they believed to be evidence Russia agreed in 1995 to deliver to Iraq a fermentation tank that could be used either for brewing animal feed or in the production of biological weapons.
"Russia has never made any deals with Iraq in violation of the sanctions or supplied to that country any equipment or material which could be used for wrong purposes in biological or any other fields," says Foreign Ministry spokesman Gennady Tarasov.
On the chemical weapons front, diplomats are encouraged by Russia's ratifying of the Chemical Weapons Convention, but say that given the magnitude of stocks, the margin for error exists.
To stem the risk, Washington is encouraging exchange programs to retrain Russian scientists for civilian work. The US has also helped tighten security at Russian nuclear installations and laboratories, facilitated the removal of highly enriched uranium from Kazakstan, and aided the transformation of military plants to serve civilian purposes.
These measures have been judged a move in the right direction, but diplomats will not rest easy until even the slimmest potential for danger is removed.
Robert Mosher, first secretary at the American Embassy in Moscow, says, "The risks associated with the possible use of weapons of mass destruction are such that we would have to take seriously any slightest possible leakage that would contribute to it."