September was not a good month for Russian nuclear security.
First there were the five soldiers at a nuclear testing facility in Novaya Zemlya who killed a colleague, seized hostages, and tried to hijack a plane. The next week a sailor in Murmansk killed seven people aboard a nuclear submarine and locked himself in the compartment where nuclear weapons are normally kept. Then a sergeant killed two comrades at a complex that handles spent nuclear fuel.
Military officials say these are isolated incidents, and this former superpower still has strict controls over its 30,000 nuclear weapons, silos, missiles, bases, and submarines.
But analysts worry that as Russia slips further into economic disarray, severe drops in living standards may create terrible dangers.
With workers and soldiers unpaid for months, the temptation to sell secrets and materials such as plutonium exists. Stress and low morale can lead to fights between guards. And lack of money means required repairs may not be carried out.
"Human beings are human with all their weaknesses," says Vladimir Kosyrev, a retired general, who paints disturbing scenarios of possible safety slip-ups or even mutinies.
According to the military general prosecutor's office, crimes committed by troops of strategic-missile regiments, including nuclear and space units, rose 25 percent last year over the previous year. About 30,000 Defense Ministry troops guard Russian nuclear sites. This is on top of the estimated 600,000 civilians who work in high-security closed cities or factories.
The head of the military department supervising nuclear sites, Col.-Gen. Igor Volynkin, told journalists Oct. 9 that he personally rejected 8 out of 30 graduates of military schools whom he deemed unfit to serve in nuclear facilities. "Russia is capable of maintaining nuclear armaments in ensuring its nuclear security," he said.
Grounds for concern
But complaints are growing among the military and civilian workers about wage arrears that in some cases go back 10 months, and a need to grow their own food or moonlight in other jobs just to survive.
The past few months have seen an unprecedented number of work slowdowns, strikes, and demonstrations in the sector by civilian workers, who are owed 800 billion rubles ($50 billion) in back wages, according to Union of Atomic Industry Workers chairman Igor Fomichyev. He warns that insufficient resources for maintenance repairs increased the risk of a Chernobyl-type accident.
"Certainly there are grounds for anxiety," says Makhmut Gareev, president of the state-run Academy of Military Science, who also frets over potential leaks of information or servicemen acting irresponsibly out of desperation. "Russian officers and soldiers are extremely patient. But there are limits to patience. A threat of security violations exists," he says.
Andrei Fyodorov, head of the political section at the Council on Foreign and Defense Policy, a state-linked center based in Moscow, worries about plans to ease restrictions on 20 closed cities and research sites connected with the nuclear military-industrial complex.
"You're talking about hundreds of thousands of people who will be difficult to control when they disappear from these areas. They could appear in other parts of the world. Also, these cities are now free of organized crime. The mafia could infiltrate when they open up, and make money stealing equipment or knowledge."
Alexandre Goltz, military correspondent for the influential news magazine Itogi, estimates that more than 15,000 tactical nuclear weapons such as bombs, torpedoes, motors, and surface-to-air missiles are at risk because no proper inventory exists.
Military officials stress that the incidents at the start of this article were at nonstrategic facilities and thus security was not at its tightest. They say there were no torpedoes or nuclear equipment on the submarine, and that Novaya Zemlya's nuclear field was abandoned some time ago.
US pays for nuclear safety
US officials also publicly tend to downplay the risk, although some privately admit to concerns about potential disaster. Since 1992, Washington has spent hundreds of millions of dollars on incentives for the removal of Ukraine's nuclear arsenals, completed in 1996, and on trying to improve Russia's nuclear safety.
On Sept. 23, US and Russian officials signed two deals in Vienna aimed at just that. One offers assistance in switching over personnel in classified nuclear towns to civilian roles. The second is linked with implementing the 1993 bilateral agreement on the delivery to the US of uranium obtained from scrapped nuclear weapons and turned from a highly enriched to a depleted state.
US officials say one thing that would help lessen the risks would be if the Rus-sian Duma, the lower house of parliament, ratified the START II agreement, which would limit nuclear warheads in each country to 3,000.
Even if the Duma continues to stonewall, however, Russian officials have conceded that they cannot sustain their vast nuclear arsenal. Deputy Prime Minister Yuri Maslyukov said Russia should reduce the number of warheads over the next decade.
"The state in its present condition does not have the means to maintain the current quantitative level of several thousand warheads," he told reporters last month. "The maximum we can hope for is a level of several hundred nuclear warheads by 2007 to 2010."