Military history

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Aday after the failed coup, Senator Sam Nunn, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, squeezed his way through a crowd on the streets of Moscow. He had flown there from a conference in Budapest after receiving a phone call from Andrei Kokoshin, deputy director of the Institute for the Study of the United States and Canada. They had known each other for years, and there was urgency in Kokoshin’s voice. Kokoshin wanted Nunn to come to Moscow immediately. Kokoshin “said there were big things happening in Russia,” Nunn recalled. “He said Russia about four times. Always before it had been the Soviet Union. The bells went off in my head.” In Moscow, Kokoshin picked up Nunn in his cramped little car and they drove directly to the White House. Yeltsin’s supporters thronged streets still strewn with stone slabs and construction debris hastily erected as barricades against the tanks. Kokoshin introduced Nunn to several people he described as the new leaders of Russia. The next day, Kokoshin took Nunn to listen to the debates in parliament about the breakup of the Soviet Union. When Nunn left the building, he pushed his way through a crush of people. There was an atmosphere of intense excitement. “A new country was being created,” he recalled. The crowd was shouting, “Down with the Soviet Union!”

Next, Nunn went to see Gorbachev in the Kremlin. They talked for about an hour. “I thought he looked shaken,” Nunn recalled. “Obviously, he had been through quite an experience. And we talked a good bit about what was going to happen to the Soviet Union. He was still saying it was going to stay together. He was still the president.” Nunn brought up the issue of command and control over nuclear weapons. In the back of his mind, he was worried about all the small, easily transportable tactical nuclear weapons that were spread among the republics. Gorbachev “tried to reassure me that the Soviet Union was going to remain intact, and that things were under control,” Nunn recalled.

As he was leaving, Nunn turned to Gorbachev. “Did you lose command and control while you were in captivity?” he asked.

Gorbachev would not answer the question.1

Nunn grew up in a leading Methodist family in Perry, Georgia, population 11,000, in red dirt farm country. His father was a lawyer-farmer who was mayor of Perry when Nunn was born, and had served in the State Legislature and on the State Board of Education. After graduating from Emory University law school in 1962, Nunn went to Washington for a year, as a staff counsel on the House Armed Services Committee, returned to Georgia, served in the State Legislature and won a race for the U.S. Senate in 1972. Nunn had been mentored and influenced by powerful southern Democrats of an earlier generation, conservatives who were bulwarks of the military, among them Carl Vinson and John Stennis.2 In the Senate, Nunn was a moderate-conservative, wary of Soviet intentions; he voted for Reagan’s military buildup but was also an advocate for arms control agreements, especially to reduce the dangers of accidental nuclear war. Arms control, he once said, should “take the finger of both superpowers off the hair-trigger.”3

What Nunn saw in Moscow after the coup brought back a personal memory from a Cold War flashpoint many years earlier. In 1974, when he had been in the Senate for only a year, Nunn toured NATO headquarters in Brussels and American military bases in Germany and Italy.4If war were to come in Europe, the first battlefield would be divided Germany. Soviet war plans called for a massive sweep of sixty divisions from East Germany and Czechoslovakia into West Germany, reaching the German-French border within thirteen to fifteen days.5 They would face NATO’s tactical or battlefield nuclear weapons. American scientists and engineers had created tiny warheads that could fit into small missiles and artillery shells. The firepower of these miniature nukes was an alternative to using massive numbers of troops. The West had deployed seven thousand nuclear weapons in Europe during the period when Nunn visited. A substantial number of U.S. aircraft and missiles were on five-minute alert in case of a crisis.

At a U.S. tactical nuclear weapons base in Germany, where bunkers held warheads and shells, Nunn was shown the relatively small devices, including warheads that could be easily moved by one or two men. Nunn was reassured by the commanders that all the weapons were secure. As he left the building, a sergeant shook hands with him. In his hand, Nunn felt a piece of folded paper. He slipped it into his pocket.

“Senator Nunn,” it said, “please meet me and some of my guard buddies at the barracks around 6 tonight after work. I have very important information for you.”

That night, Nunn and his staff director, Frank Sullivan, went to the barracks. The sergeant and “three or four of his fellow sergeants related a horror story to me,” Nunn later recalled. “A story of a demoralized military after Vietnam. A story of drug abuse. A story of alcohol abuse. A story of U.S. soldiers actually guarding the tactical nuclear weapons while they were stoned on drugs. The stories went on and on for over an hour.” Nunn left “thoroughly shaken,” he said.6

In Europe, Nunn also saw how easy it would be to stumble across the trip wire to nuclear war. In his report to the Senate, Nunn wrote, “There is a considerable danger that tactical nuclear weapons would be used at the very outset of a war, leading to possible, or even probable, escalation to strategic nuclear war.” Nunn recalled that NATO briefers had told him they would want nuclear weapons released “as soon as necessary,” but “as late as possible.” Nunn felt they didn’t put enough emphasis on as late as possible.

For many years, Nunn worried that the small, tactical nuclear weapons were even more fraught with danger than the huge intercontinental ballistic missiles. What if there was a minor skirmish over Berlin that got out of hand? “All of a sudden, bang, you’ve got a request on an American president’s desk to be able to use battlefield nuclear weapons,” Nunn said. “I was convinced nobody in the world had any idea what was going to happen after that started. You can sit around and read all the analytical stuff in the world, but once we start firing battlefield nuclear weapons, I don’t think anybody knew.” In the 1980s, Nunn added a new dimension to his concerns about accidental nuclear war. He realized the superpowers could be drawn into confrontation by gaps in the early-warning systems. A lone missile, perhaps from a third-country submarine, if mistaken for a first strike, could unleash a retaliatory onslaught before anyone would know how it began. Nunn asked the U.S. Strategic Air Command whether they could detect the origin of a submarine missile launch rapidly and accurately. After a top-secret study, they reported to Nunn that while the United States had a “fair” capability to pinpoint the origin, the Soviet Union’s warning systems were much worse. If the Soviets spotted a missile from, say, China, and thought it was really from the United States, a terrible miscalculation could follow.7

Now, on a crowded street in Moscow in August 1991, all of Nunn’s experience, knowledge and fears about nuclear danger came together once again. Who would protect thousands of small atomic bombs spread all over the Soviet Union? What if the Soviet Union plunged into chaos and civil conflict? Who was responsible for command and control? What if the Russian military were as demoralized as the American soldiers had been after Vietnam? As he flew home, Nunn said, “I was convinced of two things. One, that there would be no more Soviet empire. And two, that they and we had a huge, huge security problem.”

Sitting on the deck of his family home at Walker’s Point, Maine, with a sweeping view of the Atlantic Ocean, Bush pondered the aftermath of the coup at the end of his summer holiday. In a morning press conference September 2, he said he would not “cut into the muscle of defense of this country” to provide aid to the faltering Soviet Union. At lunch, alone on the deck, writing in his diary, he recalled that on this day forty-seven years before, he had been shot down in the Pacific during World War II. So much had changed. Just that morning, he had recognized the independence of the Baltics.

In these days, Bush raised with Scowcroft the possibility of a sweeping new initiative to reduce the danger of nuclear war.8 For all his emphasis on prudence and his characteristic caution, Bush acted boldly. Within three weeks, he launched a significant pullback of U.S. nuclear weapons, both land and sea. He did it without drawn-out negotiations, without a treaty, without verification measures and without waiting for Soviet reciprocity. Raymond L. Garthoff, the historian, called it an arms race in reverse—and downhill. In a nationally televised address from the White House on September 27, Bush said, “The world has changed at a dramatic pace, with each day writing a fresh page of history before yesterday’s ink has even dried.” Bush announced the United States would eliminate all of its ground-launched battlefield or tactical nuclear weapons worldwide, and withdraw all those on ships; stand down the strategic bombers from high-alert status; take off hair-trigger alert 450 intercontinental ballistic missiles; and cancel several nuclear weapon modernization programs.9 The announcement meant a pullback of 1,300 artillery-fired atomic projectiles, 850 Lance missile nuclear warheads, and 500 naval weapons. In one stroke, Bush pulled back naval surface weapons that the United States had earlier refused to even discuss as part of strategic weapons negotiations.

On October 5, Gorbachev joined the downhill arms race. He announced a pullback of all ground-based tactical nuclear weapons and removal of tactical nuclear weapons from ships and submarines, took strategic bombers off alert and removed 503 intercontinental ballistic missiles from combat readiness. Again, the world witnessed real disarmament at lightning speed. The CIA noted in a report that Gorbachev’s initiative would essentially eliminate the nuclear capability of Soviet ground forces.10 Only weeks before, in St. Vladimir’s Hall in the Kremlin, Bush and Gorbachev had signed a strategic arms treaty that took nearly a decade to negotiate and allowed seven years to implement; now they both acted immediately, without a single negotiating session. Nothing was binding, and nothing was verifiable, but it was the most spontaneous and dramatic reversal of the Cold War arms race.11

On October 21, Bush wrote a note to Scowcroft, his national security adviser. “Please discuss,” he said. “Does Mil Aide need to carry that black case now every little place I go?” He was asking about the “football” with the codes for managing a nuclear war. Bush did not think it was still necessary for a military aide to shadow him with the suitcase. Scowcroft and others persuaded him it was still necessary. At the State Department, a new policy memorandum informed Baker: “The Soviet Union as we know it no longer exists. What matters now is how the breakup of the Soviet Union proceeds from this point onward. Our aim should be to make the crash as peaceful as possible.”12

It is hard to overstate the sense of relief, triumph and fresh possibility that arose from events in the Soviet Union that autumn. Forty-five years after George Kennan had written the Long Telegram, which laid the foundation for the Cold War strategy of containment, the protracted, draining competition that had shaped so much of the world abruptly came to an end, without cataclysm. “Today, even the most hard-eyed realist must see a world transformed,” said the CIA director, Robert Gates, who had voiced grave doubts about Gorbachev for years. “Communism has at last been defeated.”13

Yet even in these days of euphoria, when one could forget about the movie The Day After and the horror of nuclear winter, a danger appeared on the horizon. The threat was still masked by layers of Soviet secrecy and overshadowed by the celebratory mood. But an early hint came with Gorbachev’s pullback of tactical nuclear weapons. The warheads were hastily moved to new storage depots by train. Could a weakened Soviet military, barely able to feed hungry troops, adequately protect the nuclear charges? With so many competing power centers—republics breaking away into new nations—could the Soviet system of centralized command and control remain intact? No one knew the answers to these questions, but signs of chaos and upheaval were everywhere. The Soviet rail cars were relatively primitive, lacking sophisticated alarm systems. The warheads were deactivated before being put on the trains, but there were no armored blankets to protect them from a bullet or shrapnel. The warhead depots were filled to capacity. Sometimes the trains just stopped dead on the tracks. There was an acute shortage of containers to protect the uranium and plutonium removed from dismantled weapons. The Soviet system did not have a suitable, secure warehouse to store these dangerous materials over the long term. When a Soviet official visited Washington that autumn, he was insistent on the need for help from the West to build a secure warehouse for the plutonium from warheads. Thousands of plutonium pits, the essential chunk of material used to cause the nuclear explosion, were stored like so many boxes in a furniture warehouse. “The containers are sticking out of the windows!” he warned.14

No one was prepared for an arms race in reverse.

As he flew home, Nunn pondered what he had seen. He felt the United States had to help Russia and the other new states just emerging from the Soviet breakdown. “We could end up with several fingers on the nuclear trigger,” he thought. It was a nightmare of the nuclear age, yet concrete action was difficult to envisage. The dangers seemed pressing, but details were still scarce. One of the best-informed American experts about the Soviet system was Bruce Blair, the scholar at the Brookings Institution in Washington, who had asked many of the key questions about Soviet nuclear command and control during his research in Moscow. Although Blair felt the old Soviet system of rigid, central controls was reliable, he shared Nunn’s worry about what would happen if it broke apart.17Another informed expert was Ashton B. Carter, a physicist, professor and director of the Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard University. During the 1980s, Carter had served at the Pentagon, and understood the complexity of the American nuclear command and control systems.16 Carter recalled telling Nunn that keeping a lid on nuclear weapons was not purely a technical matter. “A nuclear custodial system is only as stable as the social system in which it is embedded,” he added. “And it’s really made up of people and institutions and standard operating procedures and so forth, not just gizmos. When all of that is in the middle of a social revolution, you’ve got big trouble.”

A social revolution was just what Nunn had seen on the streets of Moscow.

Soon after his return, Nunn walked across the Capitol to the office of Representative Les Aspin, a Wisconsin Democrat, who was chairman of the House Armed Services Committee. Aspin earned a reputation when he first came to Congress as a publicity hound and a maverick who delighted in exposing wasteful Pentagon spending. In later years, he moved to the center, and, like Nunn, became an influential voice on military and defense issues. Right after the coup, on August 28, Aspin proposed a dramatic shift of guns to butter: take $1 billion from the $290 billion Pentagon budget and spend it on humanitarian assistance for the Soviet people. Two weeks later, on September 12, Aspin issued a white paper, “A New Kind of Threat: Nuclear Weapons in an Uncertain Soviet Union.” The United States should make sure that “the first winter of freedom after 70 years of communism isn’t a disaster,” Aspin declared.

When Nunn and Aspin met, the conversation was respectful, and at first, tactful. Nunn hoped to coax Aspin to change his approach. In Russia, Nunn said, the most pressing need was helping the Soviet Union dismantle its arsenal. They agreed on one bill that would provide $1 billion for transport of medicine and humanitarian aid, which was Aspin’s idea, as well as money for demilitarization, destroying warheads and converting defense factories to civilian purposes, which were Nunn’s priorities.17

Nunn and Aspin, both experienced politicians, seriously miscalculated the public mood.18 A recession was setting in at home, and voters were tired of overseas commitments. In early November, Democrat Harris Wofford upset Republican Dick Thornburgh for a Senate seat from Pennsylvania with an angry populist campaign, saying “it’s time to take care of our own people.” The Nunn-Aspin bill came at just the wrong moment. Polls showed Americans were opposed to sending direct aid to the Soviet Union. Aspin recalled, “You could feel the wind shift.”19

“It was clearly a firestorm, it wasn’t like it was mild opposition,” Nunn recalled. He was deeply frustrated. With his own eyes he had seen the chaos on the streets of Moscow, and he knew of the potential for nuclear accidents and proliferation, but the politicians in Washington seemed oblivious to the dangers. Some senators told Nunn they could not explain in one-minute sound bites why they should support his legislation, so they would not vote for it. Nunn went to the Senate floor November 13 and tried to break through the mood of indifference with a powerful speech. He said that even after the strategic arms treaty signed earlier in the year, the rapidly disintegrating Soviet Union, including the republics outside of Russia, still had fifteen thousand nuclear warheads to destroy, and needed help. “Unfortunately, nuclear weapons do not just go away when they are no longer wanted,” he said. The Soviet Union was short of storage space, transportation, dismantlement plants and equipment for radioactive materials handling. Nunn had learned these details from Viktor Mikhailov, the deputy minister of atomic energy, who had visited Washington and pleaded for help.20

Gorbachev returns to Moscow on August 21, 1991, after the failed coup attempt during which he lost control of the nuclear command system. [TASS via Agence France-Presse]

Gorbachev concludes his resignation speech on December 25, 1991. [AP Photo/Liu Heung Shing]

Secretary of State James A. Baker III closely questioned Russian President Boris Yeltsin about who controlled the nuclear weapons as the Soviet Union neared collapse. [AP Photo/Liu Heung Shing]

Vladimir Pasechnik, the director of the Institute of Ultra-Pure Biological Preparations in Leningrad, defected to Britain in 1989 and revealed the true size and scope of the Soviet biological weapons program. [Photograph courtesy of Raymond Zilinskas at the Monterey Institute]

Pasechnik’s business card.

In this memo to Gorbachev about biological weapons on May 15, 1990, Politburo member Lev Zaikov wrote the word biological by hand, due to its sensitive nature. [Hoover Institution Archives]

Senators Sam Nunn, Democrat of Georgia (right), and Richard Lugar, Republican of Indiana, saw the dangers of loose nuclear materials and weapons in the former Soviet Union. [Ray Lustig/Washington Post]

Andy Weber, a U.S. diplomat, located 1,322 pounds of highly-enriched uranium in Kazakhstan. Here, an image of the uranium, which was airlifted out in Project Sapphire. [Andy Weber]

Loading the uranium onto cargo planes to be flown to the United States. [Andy Weber]

President George H. W. Bush raised questions about biological weapons in a private talk with Gorbachev at Camp David, June 2, 1990. [George Bush Presidential Library and Museum]

Christopher Davis, the senior biological warfare specialist on the British Defense Intelligence Staff, makes a video recording during a second visit to Pasechnik’s institute in November 1992. Yeltsin promised to end the biological weapons program, but it continued nonetheless. [Christopher Davis]

Ken Alibek was chief of the anthrax factory built at Stepnogorsk, and later served as deputy director of Biopreparat, the Soviet biological weapons system. [James A. Parcell/Washington Post]

The Stepnogorsk anthrax facility, with underground bunkers in the foreground. [Andy Weber]

Inside the Stepnogorsk complex, machines were ready to create tons of anthrax for weapons if the Kremlin had given the order. [Andy Weber]

Dry, deserted Vozrozhdeniye Island as seen by Weber and his team as their helicopter approached for the first time in 1995. The island held clues to years of biological weapons testing. [Andy Weber]

Searching for buried anthrax on Vozrozhdeniye Island. [Andy Weber]

Weber, who helped uncover the secrets of the Soviet biological weapons program, found rusting cages once used to hold primates for germ warfare testing on the island. [Andy Weber]

In a tin can of peas at a lightly guarded institute, Weber once found samples of plague agent. [Andy Weber]

The graves of the Sverdlovsk anthrax victims. [David E. Hoffman]

“Do we recognize the opportunity we have today during this period in history and the great danger we have of proliferation, or do we sit on our hands and cater to what we think people want to hear in this country?” Nunn asked.

“What are the consequences of doing nothing?”

Nunn wondered what kind of one-minute explanation his colleagues would need if the Soviet Union fell into civil war like Yugoslavia, with nuclear weapons all over. “If helping them destroy 15,000 weapons is not a reduction in the Soviet military threat, why have we been worrying about these 15,000 weapons for the last 30 years? I do not see any logic here at all,” he said. The United States had spent $4 trillion during the Cold War, so $1 billion to destroy weapons “would not be too high a price to pay to help destroy thousands and thousands of Soviet nuclear weapons,” Nunn insisted.

“We have the opportunity for an unprecedented destruction of the weapons of war,” Nunn declared. Yet he warned, “We are going to sleep—to sleep—about a country that is coming apart at the seams economically, that wants to destroy nuclear weapons at this juncture but may not in the months and years ahead.”

“Are we going to continue to sit on our hands?” Nunn then pulled back the legislation. 21

At this critical moment, the president was nowhere to be seen. Bush did not want to take political risks for the Nunn-Aspin legislation. But a handful of influential voices from Moscow made a difference in the Senate. Hours after Nunn pulled back the bill, Alexander Yakovlev, the architect of Gorbachev’s perestroika, spoke with senators in the Capitol at an early-evening reception, impressing on them the urgency of the crisis. Two days later, Nunn relaunched his efforts. Two top officials of the Institute for the Study of the United States and Canada—Andrei Kokoshin, who had met Nunn with his little white car in Moscow, and Sergei Rogov—were both at that moment in Washington. The institute had long been a meeting point between American and Soviet experts on defense and security issues. Nunn invited them to a small lunch, to which he also brought Senator Richard Lugar of Indiana, a leading Republican voice on foreign affairs. At the lunch, Kokoshin and Rogov warned that power was slipping away from Gorbachev by the minute, and that in a “worst-case scenario,” nuclear weapons could be caught up in the struggle for power among the Soviet republics. This was a volatile, dangerous situation, they said, urging America to “wake up.” Lugar told journalist Don Oberdorfer that the lunch with Kokoshin and Rogov was “a very alarming conversation.”22

On November 19, Ashton B. Carter, the Harvard physicist, came to Nunn’s office for a brainstorming session, along with Lugar; William J. Perry of Stanford University, who had been examining the Soviet military-industrial complex; David Hamburg of the Carnegie Corporation of New York; and John Steinbrunner of the Brookings Institution. Carter drove home the point that a Soviet collapse, now clearly visible from the daily news reports coming out of Moscow, was an immense security threat. “This is completely unprecedented,” Carter recalled saying. “Never before has a nuclear power disintegrated.” Carter had just completed a study of the potential dangers, Soviet Nuclear Fission: Control of the Nuclear Arsenal in a Disintegrating Soviet Union, and it was a snapshot of the frightening dilemma that Nunn and others confronted at the time. The study pointed out that nobody really knew what lurked behind the curtain of Soviet secrecy on nuclear weapons. But, the study warned, there were “three cardinal dangers”: the dispersal of control over nuclear weapons to different republics; the chance that weapons, components or fissile materials “will fall into unauthorized hands;” and the possibility that outside groups, including terrorists and other nations, might seek to obtain weapons, materials or knowledge from the chaotic Soviet complex, “through theft or sale.” While Nunn feared a rogue general grabbing control of the launch system, Carter responded that the threat was “all kinds of motives, all kinds of people, the wayward general to the wayward scientist to the wayward clerk, custodian and sergeant.” The next day, November 20, Lugar announced his support for immediate action on legislation in a floor speech. He decried the “quarrelsome” mood in Congress in the face of “strategic danger” to the country. “Nuclear weapons do not simply fade away; they must be disabled, dismantled and destroyed,” he said.

On November 21, at an 8 A.M. breakfast, Nunn brought sixteen senators from both parties to the Senate Armed Services committee room, where the trillions of defense spending had been authorized over the years. He told them what he had seen in Moscow and turned the floor over to Carter, who delivered a presentation without notes. Carter said command and control over nuclear weapons could not be isolated from the troubles of society. “It’s not something that you can take for granted, that it’s all wired up in some way, and it will be okay,” Carter recalled telling the senators.23 The clarity of his presentation had an instant impact. The addition of Lugar was critical. Within days, Nunn and Lugar had turned around the Senate and gathered the votes for new legislation to set aside $500 million to deal with the Soviet nuclear dangers. The outcome was a remarkable and rare example of foreign policy leadership by Congress. The Bush administration was indifferent. Ross, who was the State Department’s policy planning director, said he saw the need but recalled a sense of fatigue and exhaustion in the administration; they had just been through the Gulf War and the Middle East peace conference, and could not summon the energy for another major initiative. There was also a lingering Cold War mind-set, especially at the Defense Department under Secretary Dick Cheney. Carter recalled making a presentation of his concerns to Donald Atwood, deputy secretary of defense. “His position was very clear, which was that we had spent 50 years trying to impoverish these people, and we’d finally done it, and at this moment you want to assist?” Carter recalled. “In fact, Don had a phrase, which was freefall. He wanted them in freefall. And I felt that freefall was not safe. It was not a safe position given that they had nuclear weapons.”

Visiting Bush at the White House, Nunn and Lugar found him ambivalent. “I remember that he wasn’t saying no,” Nunn said. “He just was very cool to the whole idea. I think he was sensing the political dangers of it.” While Bush stood on the sidelines, Congress moved swiftly. The Senate approved the Nunn-Lugar bill by a vote of 86–8. Later, the total was reduced to $400 million, and it passed the House by a voice vote. To secure enough support, the legislation did not mandate that the United States spend the money, it only said the administration could. It did not require that it be new money, but rather funds shifted from other programs.

Bush’s cautious national security adviser, Brent Scowcroft, shrugged at the prospect that there would be more than one finger on the nuclear trigger. After all the years of the Soviet Union as the singular source of danger, he thought it wouldn’t hurt if the central command and control were broken up into several smaller nuclear powers.24 But Baker, the secretary of state, was more alarmed than others about the prospect of nuclear bedlam after a Soviet crackup. “I wanted to make sure we didn’t have a proliferation of nuclear weapons states,” he recalled. “The more nuclear weapons you have, the less stability you have. The more chance of accidental launches, and all the rest of it, or just having little countries that have nukes, like Pakistan, getting pissed at India and letting loose.”25

On December 1, voters in Ukraine approved a referendum on independence. Then, on December 8, at Belovezhskaya Pushcha, a hunting resort outside the city of Brest in Belarus, Yeltsin and the leaders of Ukraine and Belarus declared the Soviet Union dissolved and formed a new Commonwealth of Independent States without telling Gorbachev. The collapse of the center was accelerated by Yeltsin’s fierce determination to wrest power from Gorbachev. Back in Moscow, Yeltsin went to the Soviet defense ministry in a conspicuous effort to woo the military. Baker recalled, “These moves were the stuff of a geopolitical nightmare. Two Kremlin heavyweights, jockeying for political power, calling on the army to follow them, and raising the specter of civil war—with nuclear weapons thrown into the mix.” The situation was so unsettled that Baker, due to give a speech at Princeton on December 12, could not decide what to call the dying Soviet Union. In the end, he settled for the awkward phrase “Russia, Ukraine, the republics, and any common entities.” Baker said in the speech, “If, during the Cold War, we spent trillions of dollars on missiles and bombers to destroy Soviet nuclear weapons in time of war, surely now we can spend just millions of dollars to actually destroy and help control those same nuclear weapons in time of peace.”26 Bush signed the Nunn-Lugar bill the same day.

The worst fears of Nunn, Baker and others were that loose nukes, fast money and a weak state would all come together, perhaps in some kind of proliferation-for-profit syndicate. A glimpse of this possibility materialized at 15 Ulitsa Varvarka, a pleasant street near the old Central Committee offices in the heart of Moscow. There, the International Chetek Corporation opened a makeshift but bustling one-room office in 1991. The name of the company was derived from the Russian words for man, chelovek, technologies, tekhnologii, and capital, kapital. The capital came from several leading enterprises in the military-industrial complex, including Arzamas-16, the nuclear weapons design laboratory based in the closed city of Sarov, 233 miles east of Moscow, where the Soviet Union had first developed a nuclear weapon and Andrei Sakharov had worked on the hydrogen bomb. Chetek was offering to sell a special service: underground nuclear explosions to destroy chemical and toxic industrial wastes, munitions, nuclear reactors or anything else by incinerating it with thermonuclear blasts two thousand feet underground—for a fee.27

This was the first known case of Soviet weapons scientists seeking to privatize their knowledge. A frequent booster of the enterprise in 1991 was Viktor Mikhailov, the chain-smoking deputy atomic energy minister, who had visited Washington in October, warning of the need to build safe storage for nuclear warheads. Mikhailov had spent years in the Soviet nuclear-testing program. Peaceful nuclear explosions—using blasts for digging canals, mining or other purposes besides war—had been carried out by both the United States and Soviet Union, but eventually discarded, in part because of environmental hazards.28 The last Soviet explosion was in 1988. What was startling about Chetek was the idea that nuclear explosions were for sale from a weapons laboratory.

In December, a group of American experts on arms control and nuclear weapons arrived in Moscow for a joint workshop with Soviet specialists on warhead verification and dismantlement. On their first night, they were surprised to find that Chetek was hosting a banquet for them at a former Communist Party training school. The toastmaster was Alexei Leonov, a commander of the joint Apollo-Soyuz missions in the 1970s and the first Soviet cosmonaut to walk in space. Mikhailov was there, too, along with officials from Arzamas-16. On entering the banquet room, each member of the delegation was handed a plastic bag containing small souvenirs and a press release, at the top of which was printed both the name of the private company and the government ministry. Mikhailov signed as deputy atomic energy minister, along with Vladimir Dmitriev, president of Chetek. The press release was defensive in tone—responding to news reports about Chetek’s activities in recent months—but it also confirmed some of the worst fears of the Americans. It said that Chetek had signed a deal with Arzamas to use nuclear explosions for the destruction of highly toxic industrial wastes. And the nuclear devices? Just to be clear, Chetek “did not have, does not have, and can not have access to nuclear devices, their components or any knowledge about them.” The press release said that “practical work” in nuclear weapons would still be done by the government.29

When they entered the hall, the Americans saw right away what was happening. “Various elements of the national security establishment were maneuvering to privatize themselves and go into business,” recalled Christopher E. Paine, of the Natural Resources Defense Council, who attended. “The elements of the Soviet state that you would almost least expect to be rushing into business were in fact the ones that were doing it, and trying to earn a buck off whatever asset they had, including surplus nuclear weapons. A lot of the people we met from the weapons laboratories were kind of innocent in a strange way, innocent in the ways of the world. They lived in this bubble all of their lives, and they didn’t have an idea of business, they didn’t know what it was.”

One of the Soviet officials at the banquet was Alexander Tchernyshev, who had worked for many years with Mikhailov on Soviet nuclear tests. Tchernyshev headed an office at Arzamas-16, but also represented Chetek. It was hard to see where the government-operated nuclear weapons laboratory ended and the private company began. Tchernyshev presented the Americans with a Chetek business card that also carried his Arzamas affiliation.

When Fred Hiatt of the Washington Post went to the Chetek offices in Moscow a few weeks later, he interviewed Tchernyshev, who explained that the nuclear weapons establishment, long hidden behind barbed wire in closed cities, was falling on hard times with the collapse of the Soviet economy. “Representatives of our institute are running around the region looking for food, but everything is for barter,” he said. “Does it mean we will have to trade bombs for meat? It’s absurd.”30

According to its advertising literature, Chetek planned to bring in clients and finance the research for blasting the wastes, while the government would actually handle the explosions. The first demonstration was planned for 1992 at Novaya Zemlya, the Soviet nuclear weapons testing range in the Arctic. In the end, Chetek never carried out the demonstration because of a test ban that remained in place, but it was an early and ominous example of what could happen if desperate weapons scientists went into business. It was also a harbinger of a phenomenon that would spread like wildfire in Russia in the 1990s: the hijacking of state resources and expertise for private gain.

As the Soviet economy nose-dived in the autumn of 1991, Nunn and others wondered whether the gargantuan Soviet military-industrial complex could be transformed to serve the civilian economy. This idea was known as “defense conversion” and Gorbachev once harbored great hopes for it: retooling tank factories, shipyards and missile design bureaus to churn out refrigerators, washing machines and computers. Gorbachev had first begun to push for conversion in earnest after his United Nations speech in 1988, but it proved difficult to convert swords to plowshares. The military and its complex of factories stiffly resisted. Typical was Alexander Sarkisov, chief engine designer for Soviet fighter jets. “Look, in the world market, a kilo of a modern fighter plane costs over $2,000, and a kilo of saucepans, $1.” It didn’t make sense, he added, to switch from jet fighters to saucepans. Some defense factories made shoddy civilian goods; others simply atrophied.31

In the end, Gorbachev ran out of time. By late 1991, the radical reformers around Yeltsin were determined to make the leap toward free markets and destroy the Soviet state. In a landmark speech October 28, Yeltsin said he would set prices free, and pledged “deep conversion,” shutting down defense enterprises altogether and converting others totally to civilian purposes. The new market system, just taking shape, injected yet another wild card into the chaos of the reverse arms race. For decades, the sprawling military-industrial complex was dependent on the state, fed subsidies from the center and protected by the Communist Party. Factory bosses did not worry about prices, markets or efficiency. But now, they had to rethink everything: not only how to reengineer themselves to construct a washing machine, but how to accomplish it in an entirely different and unfamiliar economic system, without subsidies and without the godfathers of the party. The CIA produced a classified report in early October that captured all the doubts: “Soviet Defense Industry: Confronting Ruin.”32

On a freezing day in the remote industrial city of Perm, William F. Burns got a glimpse of the reality, and it was not promising. A retired army major general, Burns had served as an arms control negotiator, and later director of the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency at the State Department.33 In December 1991, the National Academy of Sciences sent him to examine Soviet defense factories and evaluate their potential for conversion. “The whole point was to see if this was an irreversible transition, or whether it was just sort of a sideline,” he said. Burns toured a decrepit former munitions factory in Perm where the managers were trying to manufacture bicycles. Inside the U-shaped building, low-wattage electric lightbulbs hung from the ceiling, the factory floor was cold, workers were dressed in winter clothes, wearing gloves with their fingers protruding, as bicycle parts moved about on a conveyor that used to hold 203-mm artillery projectiles.

As Burns recalled later, the factory manager didn’t have a clue what would happen to the bicycles. Rather plaintively, he asked Burns if they might sell in the United States. Burns thought to himself the primitive bicycles looked like his own bike when he was eight years old in 1940. “He was trying to be a western businessman,” Burns recalled of the manager, “but he didn’t know the language.”

Burns asked what price the manager would set for the bicycles. “Three hundred eighty rubles,” he replied.

“How did you arrive at the price?” Burns asked.

“Well, I did it the capitalist way,” the manager replied. “I added up the cost of production. I added up the wages and divided by the number of bicycles. It comes to 380 rubles.” He smiled, Burns recalled, pleased with himself.

“Well, how about investment?” Burns asked.

“Investment?” the manager replied. “What is investment?”

“What about profit?” Burns asked. “If you are trying to run a business the capitalist way, then profit is a very important thing.”

“How do you calculate the profit?” the manager asked.34

At Obolensk, Sergei Popov sat in his office, depressed. He had given the system years and years of his best efforts, but by 1991, government funding was running out. Salaries were paid late, or paid in kind with sugar, or eggs from a local poultry farm. Biopreparat was no longer isolated from the economic collapse in the rest of the country. The scientists were told by the government to convert to civilian research.

Popov felt fortunate that his laboratory could generate some ideas for projects beyond biological weapons, but he knew others who could not. “It was just impossible if you dealt with anthrax or plague weaponization,” he remembered. “What could you suggest would be the practical purpose?” Popov joined a cooperative, the pioneering, small private businesses created by Gorbachev’s reforms. They developed a microbial powder for veterinary use, using the facilities at Obolensk. Instead of growing plague or other pathogens, they cultivated intestinal bacteria and sold it as a supplement to cattle and chicken feed. They made a profit right away, since their overhead was free. Popov also created a new variety of interferon that could boost the immune system response against viruses. “We found it could be a good additive to chicken feed, because chickens suffered heavily from viral infections,” he said. They could even aerosolize the preparation to spray whole poultry houses, just as they had considered doing with biological weapons. Popov applied for a patent.

In the laboratories, the weapons research lapsed into a twilight zone. It wasn’t stopped, but as scientists struggled to survive, they spent less time creating agents for the military. Popov said he was “almost completely refocused” on trying to make ends meet. “We were still under serious restrictions. We could not tell anybody what we did before. We could not disclose our secrets. But the overall situation was that nobody cared very much about it anymore.” Popov and his wife planted potatoes and vegetables, picked forest mushrooms and ferns. One winter day, wolves attacked and killed rabbits being kept for biological weapons experiments at the laboratory. The wolves didn’t eat the rabbits, just killed them for sport, and left an awful scene, spattered with blood. Popov gathered them up, skinned them and put them in the freezer to feed his family.

Then the chicken feed business collapsed. “It ended very suddenly because these farms had no money to feed chickens at all,” he said. “There was no sense adding anything to the chicken feed, because there was no money. It was a time of financial crisis, cash was in short supply, nobody paid anybody. There was a bank crisis and no honest business had a chance to survive. The cooperatives and those poultry farms went bankrupt simply because there was no means to pay, and no means to get a profit.”

Popov and his wife, Taissia, were desperate. “I realized that all my efforts were fruitless,” he said, “and I saw no future for myself.” She feared for their daughters, then seven and seventeen. “I realized there was no money to support the children,” she said. “I was scared. I said to Sergei, we need to do something.”

Twelve years earlier, when he had spent six months in Cambridge, England, Popov worked in the laboratory of a microbiologist, Michael Gait. In the summer of 1991, Gait came to Moscow for an international scientific conference and was delighted to see Popov again. Popov had driven all the way into the city to see Gait, and invited him to visit his home and meet his family. They headed south, driving an hour to Obolensk in Popov’s white Zhiguli car. As they approached the restricted zone around the institute, Popov warned Gait to be absolutely silent as they drove through the checkpoints. No one stopped them. They didn’t go to the institute, but to Popov’s apartment, where Gait enjoyed a meal with the family, sampling homemade brandy and listening to the Beatles. Gait recalled that the Popovs told him their money was drying up. Taissia was in tears. They asked for help in getting a postdoctoral appointment for Sergei in the United Kingdom. Gait promised to do everything he could. In the autumn, he received a letter from Sergei saying they were down to their “last sack of potatoes.”35

Alibek finally got a chance to see America. At the last minute, he was added to the Soviet delegation making a reciprocal visit to the United States for the one in January to the Soviet Union by the British and American experts. (Davis and Kelly came, too, representing the United Kingdom.) For many years, the KGB had claimed there was a hidden U.S. germ warfare effort. Now Alibek could check for himself. The thirteen-member Soviet delegation arrived in Washington on December 11, 1991. The delegation also included Sandakhchiev, director of Koltsovo, and Urakov, director of Obolensk. They were two of the most important institute directors in the Soviet biological weapons program.

The first stop was Fort Detrick, Maryland, where biological weapons research had been halted in 1969 by Nixon’s decision. “We didn’t believe a word of Nixon’s announcement,” Alibek recalled. “We thought the Americans were only wrapping a thicker cloak around their activities.” In the first building the Soviet team wanted to see, white-coated technicians explained that they were working on antidotes to toxins from shellfish and animals. Alibek thought they were too friendly. “I despaired of ever penetrating beneath the surface,” he wrote in his memoirs. Next, the Soviets asked to inspect a large structure on the grounds at Fort Detrick, which looked like an upside-down ice cream cone. Their bus took them there, and through a pair of open bay doors, they saw a gray powder. They asked the Americans what it was.

“Salt,” they were told, for treating icy roads in the winter.

One member of the Soviet delegation went up to the pile, put his finger in it and put it to his mouth. He looked embarrassed. “It’s salt,” he said.

They went on to visit another laboratory, which they were told was developing vaccines against anthrax. “The small size of the operation made it clear that weapons production was out of the question there,” Alibek recalled. “The Americans had just two specialists in anthrax. We had two thousand.”

They flew to Salt Lake City, Utah, to see the Dugway Proving Grounds, where germ warfare experiments were halted in 1969. On the way, Alibek said, “I stared in wonderment at the well-paved highways, the well-stocked stores, and the luxurious homes where ordinary Americans lived.” While some of the buildings at Dugway seemed similar to those used in Soviet test sites, Alibek saw “there were no animals, no cages, not even the footprint of experimental weapons activity.”

Then they flew to Pine Bluff, Arkansas, where the United States once had a stockpile of pathogens, which were destroyed after Nixon’s decision. Alibek realized as he walked through the buildings that the facilities were now solely for civilian use. On the second day, the Soviet delegation was on a bus, passing various structures, when one of the military officers shouted, “Stop the bus! Stop the bus!” The officer pointed to a tall metal structure on a rise. “We have to check that out,” he insisted.

“Don’t be ridiculous,” Alibek replied. “It’s a water tower.”

“I don’t think so,” the officer said, running to the tower. He climbed it all the way to the top. Alibek could hear some of the Americans stifle a laugh. “At this point,” Alibek concluded, “the absurdity of our quest was clear to me.”

There was no American biological weapons program, as Alibek had believed for years. “It was a shock,” Alibek said. “When you spend 17 years doing something, you considered it important, and—suddenly you realize, you have been lied to for 17 years! I was really offended, and I started hating the system.” Alibek was instructed to write a report about the trip, saying he found evidence of biological weapons in the United States, the exact opposite of the truth. At this point, he decided to quit Biopreparat. He returned to Moscow on December 25. As he entered the hallway of his apartment, arms full of gifts from the United States, his wife told him some startling news about Gorbachev.36

Gorbachev fought to hold the Soviet Union together, but could not. Soon after Baker had arrived on December 16 for meetings with Gorbachev and Yeltsin, he learned that Yeltsin had already signed decrees effectively taking over the Soviet Foreign and Interior ministries. Yeltsin went out of his way to display his preeminence, making sure he met with Baker in Saint Catherine’s Hall in the Kremlin, the gilded chamber where Baker had often held talks with Gorbachev.37 Yevgeny Shaposhnikov, the defense minister for the new commonwealth, was at Yeltsin’s side. Baker saw the end was near for Gorbachev. “I was really saddened,” he recalled.38

Baker and Yeltsin were left alone at the end of their meeting to talk about nuclear command and control. Yeltsin gave Baker a description of how the system would work: in effect, only he and Shaposhnikov, commander of strategic forces with control over all the nuclear weapons, would possess the briefcases, the Cheget. The three other republics with nuclear weapons, Ukraine, Belarus and Kazakhstan, would get a “hot line,” a telephone, but not a nuclear briefcase. Gorbachev still had a briefcase, but his would be taken away by the end of December, Yeltsin said. The system was one of “consultation,” Yeltsin said, “not coordination.”

According to Baker’s notes of the conversation, Yeltsin told him the leaders of the other republics didn’t understand how nuclear command and control worked. “They’ll be satisfied with having telephones,” he said. And once Russia got all the nuclear weapons back on its soil, even the telephones would be removed. Baker wrote in his notes:

“5 tele.—2 briefcases for now

Only Pres. of Russia can launch—Def. Min. won’t be able to alone.”

Later, in a private meeting with Shaposhnikov, Baker asked him to go over, once again, the nuclear command and control arrangements. Shaposhnikov confirmed what Yeltsin had told Baker.

“Who gives you orders today?” Baker asked.

“Gorbachev,” Shaposhnikov replied. He would not speculate about the future.

But Baker was worried. He had written at the top of his notepad a question: “Who gives Shaposhnikov his orders?”39

About 5 P.M. on December 25, Gorbachev called Bush, who was at Camp David celebrating Christmas morning with his family. The Soviet president said he planned to resign, stepping down as commander in chief and transferring his authority to use nuclear weapons to Yeltsin. “I can assure you that everything is under strict control,” he said. “There will be no disconnection. You can have a very quiet Christmas evening.”40

At 6:55 P.M., Gorbachev entered the crowded Kremlin television studio, Room No. 4, crammed with network cameras and bright lights. He was carrying a briefcase with his departure speech, and a decree giving up his role as commander in chief of the armed forces. He put the decree on the small table and asked Andrei Grachev, his press secretary, for a pen. He tested it on a sheet of paper and asked for one with a smoother tip. The head of the CNN crew reached over Grachev’s shoulder and offered his own pen to Gorbachev. With a flourish, he signed the document just before he went on the air.

His short address reflected his long, remarkable journey. When he took office in 1985, Gorbachev said, he felt it was a shame that a nation so richly endowed, so brimming with natural resources and human talent endowed by God, was living so poorly compared with the developed countries of the world. He blamed the Soviet command system and ideology, and he blamed the “terrible burden of the arms race.” The Soviet people had “reached the limits of endurance,” he said. “All attempts at partial reform—and there were many—failed, one after another. The country was losing its future. We could not go on living like this. Everything had to be drastically changed.”

After the speech, Gorbachev went back to his office, where Shaposhnikov was waiting for him, along with the duty officers carrying the suitcase with the nuclear command codes and communications links. Yeltsin earlier agreed to come to Gorbachev’s office to get the Cheget. But Yeltsin was upset by something in Gorbachev’s speech and changed his mind, refusing to come, proposing instead they meet halfway, in Saint Catherine’s Hall. Gorbachev thought this was a stupid game, and brusquely decided to dispatch Shaposhnikov and the duty officers off with the suitcase without him. “They disappeared into the corridors in search of their new boss,” recalled Grachev.41

The Soviet hammer-and-sickle came down after the speech, and the Russian tricolor flag was hoisted over the Kremlin.

The collapse of the Soviet Union marked the end of seven decades of a failed ideology, hypermilitarization and rigid central controls. It left behind 6,623 nuclear warheads on land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles, 2,760 nuclear warheads on sea-based missiles, 822 nuclear bombs on planes and 150 warheads deployed on cruise missiles, as well as perhaps another 15,000 tactical nuclear warheads scattered in depots, trains and warehouses.42 It left behind at least 40,000 tons of chemical weapons, including millions of shells filled with nerve gas so deadly that one drop would kill a human being. It left behind tons of anthrax bacteria spores, buried on Vozrozhdeniye Island, and perhaps as much as 20 metric tons of smallpox in weapons, as well as pathogens the world had never known, stashed in the culture collections at Obolensk and Koltsovo. It left behind hundreds of thousands of workers who knew the secrets, and who were now embittered, dispirited, and, in some cases, down to their last sack of potatoes.

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