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At a recent Kennan Institute talk, Louise Shelley, Director, Transnational Crime and Corruption Center, American University, and former Title VIII-Supported Research Scholar, Kennan Institute; and Robert Orttung, Associate Research Professor, Transnational Crime and Corruption Center, American University, and former Title VIII-Supported Short-Term Scholar, Kennan Institute, argued that there is a fatal flaw in most U.S. programs designed to safeguard nuclear materials in the former Soviet Union. Such programs, according to Shelley, focus exclusively on the technical aspects—such as locks and security systems—of safeguarding nuclear materials. Although these technical safeguards are important, Shelley contended that we need to pay more attention to the complex criminal and terrorist networks that have the desire and ability to gain access to nuclear materials.
According to Shelley, the greatest threat to post-Soviet nuclear security is no longer under-paid scientists selling their skills to the highest bidder. Much more dangerous today are the connections between the corrupt officials who have access to nuclear materials, the criminal groups that already control transit networks for drugs and other illegal goods, and the terrorist groups that want to acquire nuclear materials. Shelley noted that some of these connections have been formed when criminals and terrorists have been imprisoned together in European jails. Unlike traditional, nationalist mafia groups, she argued, criminal groups in the former Soviet Union are not averse to working with terrorists, and often the two groups feel that they have common enemies.
Orttung gave an overview of the many complex networks through which nuclear materials may pass from storage facilities in Russia into the hands of terrorists groups, based on research on closed nuclear cities in Chelyabinsk oblast. He explained that the region is on a major drug trafficking route, and drug dealers inside of closed cities have connections to Tajik drug groups, which in turn may be connected to terrorist groups. Released convicts living in the closed cities, as well as corrupt employees of the nuclear plant, may have the incentive and the ability to sell nuclear materials to local and transnational criminal groups, potentially taking advantage of transport conduits such as conscript soldiers who guard the closed cities or criminalized taxi and construction groups. Finally, nuclear plants in Chelyabinsk oblast have many Tatar and Bashkir employees, whose families living outside of the closed city are targeted by recruiters for Islamic extremist groups that may have an interest in acquiring nuclear materials.
Small quantities of stolen nuclear materials—probably intended for terrorist groups hoping to build dirty bombs—have been intercepted at a great distance from Russian nuclear plants, primarily in the South Caucasus, Shelley said. She argued that this leads to the disturbing conclusion that some stolen material has likely not been caught. There are a number of factors that facilitate nuclear smuggling in the South Caucasus, according to Shelley, including: lack of state control in separatist regions, cooperation among established smuggling networks and criminal and terrorist groups, high rates of poverty that drive many people into illicit activities, a large shadow economy, porous borders, and inexperienced and corrupt law enforcement. Shelley concluded that it is vital to understand all of the factors involved in nuclear smuggling in the region if we hope to keep nuclear materials out of the hands of terrorist groups.