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Citing Russia in Nuclear Smuggling Could Backfire, Experts Caution : Germany: After seizures of plutonium, any finger-pointing could cause Moscow to withhold cooperation on security.

August 20, 1994|RICHARD BOUDREAUX and MARJORIE MILLER | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

MOSCOW — As a top German official headed here with evidence of nuclear smuggling from Russia, specialists in both countries warned Friday that harsh finger-pointing at Moscow could undermine international efforts to secure its vast stockpiles of bomb-making materials.

The seizure of more than 10 ounces of deadly plutonium in a suitcase flown from Moscow to Munich last week set off alarms in Germany about the disarray of Russia's nuclear Establishment, which lacks a full inventory of its weapons-grade uranium and plutonium.

But the alarm itself raised a new threat, officials and nuclear specialists here and in the West say. They noted that public blame of Russia's lax security has irritated the military and civilian bureaucrats who control the stockpile and resist any scrutiny by outsiders.

Russia's readiness to help find the origin of the plutonium, the largest quantity of weapons-grade nuclear contraband ever seized, will be tested after a team led by Germany's intelligence coordinator, Bernd Schmidbauer, arrives in Moscow today with data from the lab that analyzed it.

German Chancellor Helmut Kohl said the team of senior intelligence officials and nuclear scientists will urge Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin to tighten controls and reassure the Germans, whose police have seized three smaller shipments of stolen nuclear material since May.

"We have to tell our Russian friends, 'You must guarantee that these possibilities for theft are reduced as much as possible,' " Kohl said on German television. "We are not talking about car theft here. We're talking about dangers that are far different."

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Kohl has made his country Russia's biggest aid donor and last month helped bring Yeltsin into the exclusive club grouping leaders of the seven richest industrial nations. The Bonn-Moscow partnership is viewed as an anchor of stability in Europe.

But as they have done on a range of other contentious issues from Bosnia-Herzegovina to the expansion of NATO, Russia and Germany showed this week how troubled a partnership it is.

The sniping started Monday, in edgy Cold War rhetoric. The Germans announced they had laboratory evidence of Russian manufacture for the plutonium-239 in the suitcase. "Pure fabrication," the Russians shot back, arguing that the German effort was aimed at boosting Kohl's party in the Oct. 16 elections and justifying foreign control over Russia's nuclear power industry.

Russia's Federal Counterintelligence Service insisted that "not a single gram" of plutonium-239 was missing. German commentators said the denials recalled Chernobyl, the 1986 nuclear reactor disaster that Moscow covered up for 16 days.

Unnamed "nuclear experts" told Russia's Interfax news agency that "it is no coincidence" that all these "so-called nuclear smuggling incidents" are reported from Germany, where "a strong black market in radioactive materials" invites contraband from the world over.

German police, it turned out, knew that plutonium smugglers were aboard the flight from Moscow to Munich on Aug. 10. When Moscow vented outrage at not being informed at the time, Schmidbauer said the Germans suspected that unnamed, high-ranking Russians were involved and didn't want to tip them off.

"The way this conflict is developing is dangerous and un-constructive," said Vladimir M. Kuznetsov, a former member of Yeltsin's nuclear regulatory agency. "Our nuclear safety system is virtually nonexistent, full of holes that cannot be patched without open, honest cooperation from the West."

Likewise, European scientists involved in the complex lab work of tracing the four smuggled batches cannot learn for sure where they originated and who stole them without active cooperation by Russian authorities.

So far, the scientists' best guess is that at least two shipments--the plutonium-239 seized in Munich and a six-gram batch taken from the garage of a German salesman--came not from nuclear warheads but from Russian enrichment or reprocessing facilities.

What is not clear is whether the thieves breached military or civilian security in Russia and who the intended buyers were. In any case, German authorities said the larger plutonium batch was of sufficient purity and about 1/20th the quantity required to build a nuclear bomb.

But while Kohl stressed the urgency of Russian action against smugglers, the Clinton Administration cautioned against jumping to conclusions about incomplete evidence.

After Secretary of State Warren Christopher met Friday in Brussels with his British, French and German counterparts, a British spokesman said they reached a consensus to avoid a confrontation that might stiffen resistance to Yeltsin in the Russian bureaucracy.

"All that can be done now is moral suasion . . . telling Yeltsin, 'This is your business,' " said Heinrich Vogel, a political scientist and Russian specialist in Cologne, Germany, who warned that too much pressure would invite "a conditioned reflex of keeping out the West."

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