MOSCOW The doomsday scenario of Soviet nukes falling into the hands of rogue states or terrorists has, as far as is known, remained fiction, thanks to a massive U.S.-Russian effort to lock the weaponry up safely after the Soviet Union fell apart.
The vast nuclear arsenal, scattered among several newly independent nations, was secured because Russian military officers acted with professionalism and honesty, Moscow and Washington shared clear priorities and the U.S. taxpayer coughed up billions of dollars, former top officials who dealt with the Soviet nuclear legacy say.
Even so, as the world marks the 20th anniversary of the Soviet demise at the end of 1991, occasional doubts surface about whether the system was airtight. Theres the Russian scientist who perhaps went to work for Irans nuclear program, an old claim that portable nuclear devices went astray, the seizures of smuggled fissile material in the 1990s.
But difficult though it is to prove a nuclear negative, U.S. and Russian officials insist in interviews with The Associated Press that the fears of the 1990s have not become a reality, even though the challenges of safeguarding Soviet nukes were daunting at the time.
Twenty years on, its pretty hard to believe that not a single nuclear weapon has shown up loose, said Graham Allison, who played a key role in the effort as an assistant secretary of defense under President Bill Clinton and now heads Harvards Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs.
A quick U.S.-sponsored deal had Belarus, Ukraine and Kazakhstan handing all their nukes over to Russia, and American cash helped safeguard the weapons at a time when the new governments couldnt even afford to pay military wages on time. Additional U.S. incentives offered jobs to disgruntled nuclear scientists from the former Soviet Union, many of whom were courted by nations such as Iran.
There have been gnawing fears that a few Soviet nukes still might have gone missing, but experts with inside knowledge say that if it were true, the world already would know.
If somebody or a terrorist group got hold of a nuclear weapon, they would probably use it as quickly as possible, said Steven Pifer, who served as U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, held other senior State Department posts and now is director of the Brookings Institutes Arms Control Initiative. So the fact that you havent seen a nuclear detonation ... reflects the fact that the nuclear weapons have been maintained in a secure way.
That was no mean achievement given the enormous proliferation risks posed by the Soviet breakup.
The economic meltdown of the early 1990s forced many officers of the once-proud Soviet Army to moonlight as security guards or even cab drivers. And with the wars and ethnic clashes triggered by the Soviet collapse came strong incentives to steal weapons for the black market.
The immediate task for the Russian military was to quickly remove thousands of battlefield weapons such as nuclear artillery shells and land mines from other Soviet nations. These relatively compact arms posed the biggest proliferation risk and often were stored close to areas of conflict.
The military officers who did the job were the unknown heroes, said Alexander Golts, a Russian independent analyst. Its hard to imagine what might have happened if the tactical nuclear weapons had remained on the territories of the states involved in military conflicts.