Russia’s Continuing Threat to the West
January 1, 2002
by David Satter
As President George W. Bush and Russian president Vladimir Putin work out the framework of a new bilateral relationship, it is important to bear in mind that the United States needs not only foreign policy cooperation from Russia, but policies to stem the inner lawlessness which has left entire sections of that country under the control of organized crime. Russia today presents a serious danger to the United States; it has huge stores of poorly guarded weapons of mass destruction and powerful criminal syndicates prepared to sell anything to anyone, for a price.
The danger that Russian criminals may sell weapons of mass destruction to terrorists for use against the United States makes some of the recent enthusiasm for Putin’s turn to the West misplaced. Russia’s willingness to accept a U.S. military presence in Central Asia is very important, but unless Russia also cracks down on its rampant lawlessness, it will still present a threat to the West even if it joins NATO, by remaining a base area for Islamic terrorism.
Russia has enough plutonium and uranium to make 33,000 nuclear weapons. These reserves are stored at fifty scientific centers guarded by soldiers who have gone months without being paid, in recent years. Russia also has vast quantities of nuclear waste that can be used to make crude bombs capable of contaminating large areas. It has the world’s largest inventory of chemical weapons—40,000 tons—and a wide variety of biological weapons, including drug-resistant anthrax, smallpox, and plague.
At the same time, Russia’s organized-crime groups have a history of cooperation with terrorist organizations. Russian and Chechen criminal organizations, for example, cooperated in the transport and marketing of heroin from Afghanistan and, according to the Russian newspaper Izvestiya, Osama bin Laden used these criminal organizations to launder money for the Taliban, receiving between $133 million and $1 billion per year.
Prior to the sarin nerve gas attack on the Tokyo metro in 1993 by the Japanese doomsday sect Aum Shinri Kyo (the only case in which terrorists have ever used nerve gas successfully), the production design for the manufacture of sarin was given to the sect by Oleg Lobov, Russia’s former first deputy prime minister, for $100,000, according to testimony by cult members at the trial of the group’s leaders in Tokyo. There are some reports that Lobov, a close associate of former Russian president Boris Yeltsin, was given $100 million for his many services to Aum Shinri Kyo. The Japanese “businessmen” were allowed to train on Russian military bases and attended lectures at the Institute of Thermodynamics of the Academy of Sciences in Moscow, where they studied the circulation of gases.
In recent weeks, there have been reports that bin Laden bought several suitcase nuclear bombs from Russia, which have not been used only because they are protected by Soviet codes which require a signal from Moscow before the devices can be detonated. Izvestiya has reported that bin Laden has already spent considerable sums of money on the recruitment of Russian scientists and former KGB agents capable of helping him break these codes.
Russian authorities deny the existence of suitcase nuclear bombs, but organized crime groups there have been involved in nuclear smuggling since 1992. Recently, smugglers were arrested in Turkey after trying to sell 4½ kilograms of unprocessed uranium and six grams of plutonium. Russian gangsters have sold combat helicopters to Colombian drug dealers and have attempted to sell not only surface-to-air missiles but even a Tango-class submarine.
Under these circumstances, it is just as important for the Russian government to crack down on organized crime as it is for the Muslim world and the West to eliminate any network capable of facilitating terror. In the case of Russia, this would be relatively easy. The activities of Russia’s criminal syndicates have been exhaustively documented not only by the organs of law enforcement but also by the security services of their commercial competitors. For years under Yeltsin, a massive crackdown on Russian organized crime awaited only a signal from the political authorities. Unfortunately, that signal never came. Under Putin, the indifference to the role of organized crime continues.
In 1997, then FBI director Louis J. Freeh, in testimony before the U.S. House International Relations Committee, said that American law enforcement agencies took very seriously the possibility that nuclear weapons could fall into the hands of Russian criminal gangs, and that Russian organized crime groups, by fostering instability in a nuclear power, constituted a direct threat to the national security interests of the United States. Now, with the entire world under direct threat from Islamic extremists, the United States needs to ask its new ally, Vladimir Putin, to begin to eradicate this danger—even if doing so would disrupt the corrupt system of crony capitalism that has grown up in Russia during the last decade.
David Satter, a Senior Fellow at Hudson Institute and a visting scholar at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS), is the author of It Was a Long Time Ago, and It Never Happened Anyway: Russia and the Communist Past (Yale). Age of Delirium, a documentary film about the fall of the Soviet Union based on his book of the same name, was recently released.