Military history

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In a televised speech on December 29, 1991, Boris Yeltsin promised to rule an entirely new country. “We are abandoning mirages and illusions,” he declared. “We are ridding ourselves of the militarization of our life, we have stopped constantly preparing for war with the whole world, and much more besides.” Yeltsin described the grim inheritance from the Soviet Union: devastated farmlands, the economy “gravely ill,” and towering external debt.1

In a gamble with history, Yeltsin attempted to make a rapid leap from failed socialism to a market economy, setting prices free and putting the colossal stock of state property into private hands. Yeltsin believed it was the only route for Russia to become a normal country, tap into global markets, modernize aging factories and lift living standards. But there were stark, unsettling dislocations. A few tycoons, known as oligarchs, grew wealthy, while millions of workers got their wages months late, if at all, or were paid in barter goods, such as socks and jars of pickles. Even though the new capitalism featured stock markets, private banks, expensive restaurants, luxury cars and sparkling new office towers, the deeper transformation—creating a modern industrial base, building rule of law, civil society and a diversified economy—was excruciatingly difficult and did not come about at first. The sad reality of these years was that many people could not adapt to the new world, and were set adrift. The weapons scientists and workers of the sprawling Soviet defense complex were among them.

Yeltsin deliberately let the military-industrial complex atrophy. He viewed the old defense establishment as a relic of the hypermilitarization that had so doomed the Soviet Union, and had little faith the aging institutes and factories could ever be converted to peaceful purposes or be of much use in the new capitalism. Yeltsin and his team were determined to completely raze the Soviet system and build a new one. There were many reasons for this approach, not the least of which was that Yeltsin possessed a much stronger view of what he wanted to tear down than what he wanted to build. He sought to eliminate the overweening state that he knew at first hand, while he had no model, just instincts, for constructing a modern free-market democracy. It was an enormous task. As Yeltsin biographer Leon Aron pointed out, Yeltsin’s first revolutions were carried out against the party and the Soviet empire, both with a rising tide of popular support. This time, Yeltsin had only “the shallows and fetid waters of the ‘command economy,’ choked with decomposing and toxic debris.”2

On February 14, 1992, in a car speeding through the forests of western Siberia, James A. Baker III, the U.S. secretary of state, witnessed a breathtaking tableau: white snow, frozen lakes, birch stands and a storybook troika—a sleigh pulled by three horses—in the distance. Then he passed through several checkpoints and barbed-wire perimeter fences to arrive at the citadel of Soviet nuclear bomb builders, the All Union Scientific Research Institute of Technical Physics, Chelyabinsk-70, one of two Soviet nuclear weapons design laboratories, a facility so secret it was not on any Soviet map. Chelyabinsk-70 was established in 1955 as a competitor to the first Soviet nuclear weapon design bureau at Arzamas-16. The scientists at Chelyabinsk-70 had pioneered miniaturization of nuclear warheads for the Soviet Union, allowing many small explosives to be placed atop a giant intercontinental ballistic missile, or put inside shells so small they could be fired as artillery on the battlefields of Europe.3 The two labs were analogous to Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico and Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California.

As Baker pulled up to the main building at Chelyabinsk-70, about eight stories tall, hundreds of technicians and scientists pressed against every available window, shouting and waving. Their jubilation took Baker by surprise. “I felt a bit as though I had landed from Mars,” he recalled, “an alien curiosity that these men and women just had to see with their own eyes.” The facility itself was another shock, shabby and threadbare. Whereas Livermore and Los Alamos were champions of supercomputing, there were no computer monitors in sight. When Baker was escorted to a small lecture hall to meet with twenty-five of the institute’s senior scientists, he sat with his back to a dusty chalkboard. It reminded him of a Princeton undergraduate classroom in the 1950s. He told the scientists, seated in front of him, “This is every bit as remarkable for us as it is for you.” Later, he recalled in his memoir, “As we sat down, I thought, here are the men that designed the weapons that defined the Cold War, and we’re about to discuss how we in the West can help them secure their future.”

The scientists and engineers talked openly of their deteriorating living standards. This once-insular elite was in trouble, and reaching beyond the barbed wire for help. Yevgeny Avrorin, the scientific director, standing at the end of the table by the blackboard, said the laboratory faced a “difficult, trying situation” as government subsidies dwindled. The scientists didn’t want handouts, he said; they wanted productive and challenging work. They possessed an enormous storehouse of knowledge and equipment, and felt they had much they could give back to society. The deputy director, Vladislav Nikitin, said that salaries for top scientists were no more than fifteen hundred rubles a month, or $15 at the official exchange rate. Chelyabinsk-70 employed sixteen thousand people, about nine thousand technicians and about seven thousand scientists and engineers. “We have no shortage of ideas,” Avrorin said, presenting Baker with a long list of commercial products they could produce if they had Western investors: artificial diamonds, fiber optics, food irradiation, nuclear medicine. But they had no investors, and no way to reach any. Avrorin didn’t yet have e-mail. Avrorin then handed Baker the paper he had been reading from, apologizing for a hasty translation into English.4

Baker appealed to them not to lose hope. “We know that right now your options at home are limited and outlaw regimes and terrorists may try to exploit your situation and influence you to build new weapons of war.” As the physicists and engineers scribbled in tiny notebooks, Baker added, “Some talk about the brain drain problem. But I think we should talk about the brain gain solution, and that is a solution of putting you to the work of peace, to accelerate reform and build democracy here, to help your people live better lives for decades to come.” He described plans by the West to establish a new center, with international funding, to support their science and technology work.

Baker’s visit offered a hint of a crisis that was gathering force and would persist for years. If Chelyabinsk-70, located 1,118 miles east of Moscow, was at all emblematic of the Soviet military-industrial complex, then the potential for disaster was greater than anyone had imagined: scientists with knowledge to build weapons of mass destruction were wanting for food and medicines.5

Anne M. Harrington arrived in Moscow with her family just after the August 1991 coup attempt. Her husband was a foreign service officer in the political section of the U.S. Embassy, and the State Department was starting a new program to provide more opportunity to spouses, offering them positions as analysts. Harrington, eager to help, became the science and technology analyst in the Moscow embassy. Her office was dreadful, located in an underground, windowless annex. After a recent fire in the main embassy building, sacks of wet, burned documents were piled nearby. The odor of cinders lingered. Harrington worked on a desktop thrown over two wooden sawhorses. She volunteered to track the “brain drain” problem because no one else was interested. “I put up my hand and said, ‘I can do that,’” she recalled. In the first weeks after the Soviet Union collapsed, Harrington met with science counselors from other Western embassies, and sent a cable back to Washington. “Is brain drain good or bad?” she wrote, adding:

Should Western countries be concerned if Russia loses its best scientists? After all, we all spent 74 years fighting the Soviet system, why should we let them maintain the capability to rebuild a threat? It was largely agreed that stripping Russia of its scientific potential is not constructive if the country is ever to stabilize. It was also agreed that nonproliferation is the major concern and that no one really worried about departing botanists. Soviet science was highly compartmentalized and there was strict control over the relatively small number of scientists whose knowledge presents a real threat.6

But would that “strict control” hold? It was unimaginably difficult to estimate the scope of the problem, since there were thousands and thousands of individuals, only a vague understanding in the West of the jobs they held and the institutes where they worked, porous borders and unknown temptations. One small leakage of highly skilled bomb-builders could lead to disaster. Reports surfaced of Soviet nuclear scientists traveling to Libya and Iraq. President Saddam Hussein of Iraq, just a year after the Persian Gulf War, was still trying to hold on to nuclear weapons know-how, and the specter of even a single bomb-builder making his way to Baghdad caused real concern.7 Iran also had nuclear ambitions. Harrington said she was well aware that Russians could easily travel through Kazakhstan or Moldova, and perhaps far beyond, without being noticed. “You could go anywhere, leave, come back, and who would be the wiser? We were critically aware of the fact that people could move around without anyone knowing where they were going.” Moreover, leaving the country was not the only proliferation threat. Knowledge could be sold to outsiders who came to Russia. Bomb or missile designers could leak their knowledge from inside the country, perhaps under the cover of giving “lectures” to eager “students” from abroad, or through business transactions. The potential disguises were almost infinite, and the secret police were no longer watching everyone. All the major defense factories and design bureaus included a Soviet internal security office, known as “the regime,” but they, too, were desperate for survival and often eager to help the scientists make business deals. By one informed estimate, a core of sixty thousand people had developed and designed weapons of mass destruction and their delivery systems. About half learned their trade in the aerospace industry, twenty thousand in nuclear and ten thousand in chemical and biological warfare. Perhaps half of these minds were located in institutes around Moscow. No one knew for sure how many could become wayward weaponeers, nor which, nor how to reach them quickly, nor how to stop them.8

On February 17, 1992, after a three-hour meeting in the Kremlin, Baker and Yeltsin announced formation of the International Science and Technology Center to help weapons scientists shift to civilian projects. The United States pledged $25 million.9 Germany also proposed to enlist aid from the European Union. Given the desperate straits of the Russian scientists, the money might have had an immediate impact had it been distributed to those who were surviving on $15 a month. But the center proved far more difficult to organize and launch than anyone expected. Soviet laws were still on the books, Soviet-era bureaucrats still in their offices and the weapons scientists were still shrouded in the secrecy and mistrust of the Cold War. The U.S. government could hardly begin distributing cash to Russian bomb designers. The State Department needed a coordinator in the Moscow embassy to work through all the bureaucratic obstacles. Harrington got the job.

As Harrington visited institutes around the capital in 1992, searching for office space to set up the new science center, she found the corridors dark for lack of lightbulbs, and stepped gingerly around gaps in the flooring. She toured the nuclear institute at Troitsk, south of the city, where Velikhov had once done pioneering laser work. “I have lots of people,” the institute director lamented. “Just no money.” Eventually, the science center offices were opened at the Scientific Research Institute of Pulse Technique.10 The science center was not ready to offer grants in 1992, nor in 1993, but as Harrington struggled with logistics and paperwork hassles, she listened patiently to the laments of the weaponeers who came to see her. “People would come in and just pour their hearts out to you about conditions in the laboratories, and what it was like trying to support their families and not knowing what they were going to do,” she recalled. “I remember one scientist, a Russian scientist, a prominent physicist, he had come to discuss a project and had to break off the meeting early. He had been paid in vacuum cleaners for that month and he had to go out and figure out how to sell the vacuum cleaners in order to get food for his family. He’s there, in his suit and tie.” Another time, at an elite aerospace institute, Harrington and a group of Americans were taken on a tour from building to building, and then to a yard full of what looked like rusting metal scrap, huge pipes and disks. The engineers explained, excitedly, that during the Persian Gulf War they had seen the Kuwaiti oil fields ablaze, and invented a way to douse the fires. They built an enormous metal disk—like a Frisbee—that would be launched by an airplane into the sand and crimp the underground oil pipe. After many failed attempts, they had finally managed to make it work, and were very proud, but the war ended before they could market the idea. Harrington recalled she and her colleagues just looked at each other in amazement. “My God,” she thought, “these people just have no idea what to do with their intellect. They have no direction whatsoever. They spent thousands of hours trying to come up with this absolutely crazy scheme to crimp oil pipes.”11

By the time the International Science and Technology Center began funding projects in March 1994, the outlook for scientists was still bleak. The first wave of grants were aimed at those who could be the biggest proliferation risk: nuclear weapons and missile scientists and engineers.12Among them was Victor Vyshinsky, a specialist in fluid dynamics who worked at the Central Aerohydrodynamic Institute in Moscow, a world-renowned facility that carried out wind-tunnel tests on cruise missiles. Vyshinsky, head of a department at the institute, had been eager to make it in the new Russian economy. He searched for commercial applications for his team. “There was this feeling of huge freedom, sort of inspiration and searching. It was a wonderful time,” he recalled. They knew how to test a cruise missile in a wind tunnel, so they came up with an idea to use wind tunnels to dry timber. But they could not sell it. Then they proposed to use their mathematical models to predict the course of overflowing rivers. Again, a dead end. Soon they realized nothing was working. Vyshinsky turned to the science center, and his group of experts put together a proposal to study vortex wakes caused by airplanes at civilian airports, a project with widespread application that the science center supported. “I wanted to remain in Russia,” Vyshinsky said. But he knew others were tempted to leave, or to sell their knowledge to the highest bidder. He was aware of contracts with Iran inside his own institute. “The only thing that keeps you from doing things like that are scruples,” he said. “If someone takes it into their head to sell something, I don’t think there will be a problem.”13

Proliferation was a shady business. The vultures from abroad moved in to pick over the carcass of the dying military-industrial complex in the early 1990s.14 In one extraordinary case, North Korea attempted to recruit an entire missile design bureau: in 1993, the specialists at the V. P. Makeyev Design Bureau in the city of Miass, near Chelyabinsk, were invited to travel to Pyongyang. The bureau designed submarine-launched missiles, but military orders had dried up. Through a middleman, North Korea recruited the designers, who were told they would be building rockets to send civilian satellites into space. One of them, Yuri Bessarabov, told the newspaper Moscow News that he earned less than workers at a local dairy, while the Koreans were offering $1,200 a month. About twenty of the designers and their families were preparing to fly out of Moscow’s international airport in December when they were stopped by the Russian authorities and sent home. “That was the first case when we noticed the North Korean attempts to steal missile technology,” a retired federal security agent said years later in an interview. If you look at a missile, the security agent said, the North Koreans recruited a specialist to help them with every section, from nose cone to engine.15

Agents for Iran and Iraq, warring rivals in the Persian Gulf, also scoured the former Soviet Union for scientists and military technology. Iran was especially active. A special office was opened in Tehran’s embassy in Moscow to search for and acquire weapons technology. The Iranians approached the prestigious Moscow Aviation Institute, a school for missile and rocket technology. One of the professors at the school was Vadim Vorobei, a department head and an engineer, a teacher with big workingman’s arms, solid fists and balding hair, who coauthored a textbook on how to build liquid-fueled rocket engines. In his classrooms, graduate students from Iran started to appear. They enrolled to study rocket engineering. Then the students pressed Vorobei to come lecture in Tehran. It was the beginning of a larger underground railroad of Russian rocket scientists who went to Iran in the 1990s. Vorobei was among the first to go. Although the Iranians made a show of keeping the scientists apart, Vorobei said, they frequently bumped into each other at hotels and restaurants. One day, he would spot a leading Russian missile guidance specialist; the next, a well-known missile engineer from Ukraine. All had been brought to Tehran on the pretext of giving lectures on rocket technology. Vorobei did deliver the lectures, but was also often asked to examine missile blueprints and help Iran spot flaws in their plans. Vorobei eventually made ten all-expense-paid trips to Tehran starting in 1996. He was paid $50 a lecture, compared to the $100 a month he received at home. According to Vorobei, the underground railroad was a bit of a circus. The Iranians brought more scientists and engineers from the former Soviet Union than they knew what to do with. Tehran also suffered from a lack of critical raw materials and technology for rockets, which slowed their progress in building missiles. “It was a mess,” Vorobei recalled.16

Russia was a leaking sieve in these years. Iraq, seeking to build a more accurate long-range missile in defiance of the United Nations arms embargo, dispatched a thirty-two-year-old Palestinian-Jordanian hustler and middleman, Wiam Gharbiyeh, to Moscow.17 He managed to pass easily in and out of the secret military institutes, signing deals for a wide array of missile goods, technology and services. Gharbiyeh’s biggest triumph came in 1995 with the purchase of gyroscopes and missile guidance components extracted from SS-N-18 submarine-launched intercontinental ballistic missiles under the strategic arms control treaty. Gharbiyeh took ten of them as samples back to Baghdad, and had about eight hundred more packed up and delivered to Sheremetyevo, the main international airport in Moscow. The gyroscopes were then flown out of Russia on two Royal Jordanian flights to Amman. From there, at least half the gyroscopes made their way to Baghdad.18

On Wednesday evening, October 30, 1996, Vladimir Nechai returned to his office on the third floor at Chelyabinsk-70. He opened the door and locked it behind him. A square-jawed man who wore V-neck sweaters under his sport coat, Nechai was a theoretical physicist who arrived at the institute in 1959, just four years after it was founded, and became director three decades later. It had now been four years since Baker had visited the institute.

The mood inside was dark, and conditions were grim. Nechai kept notebooks on his desk with details of a desperate search for money to pay the nuclear weapons designers and keep the laboratory from falling apart. On September 9, 1996, Nechai wrote an appeal to Viktor Chernomyrdin, the Russian prime minister, saying, “At the present time, the state of the institute is catastrophic.” The government owed the facility the equivalent of $23 million for work it had already done, including $7 million for salaries, which had not been paid since May. The institute was saddled with $36 million in debts for utilities and other needs. The nuclear bomb-builders were unable to carry out orders for the government, or convert to projects for peaceful purposes, Nechai wrote. Long-Distance phone lines were cut off for failure to pay the bills. Parents could not buy basic school supplies for their children. “There isn’t even enough money to buy food,” he said. In some of the smaller departments, he added, “Lists are being put together for the distribution of bread on credit, and the enterprise isn’t in a condition to provide even this for everyone.”19

Nechai informed Chernomyrdin that he had taken matters into his own hands. He could not bear to see what was happening to a laboratory that had once been among the most prestigious in the country. In a gamble, he started borrowing money from private banks. The laboratory owed $4.6 million on these loans but could not pay them back. Boris Murashkin, a colleague who had known Nechai since they both arrived at Chelyabinsk-70, said that Nechai’s appeal for help was met with silence by Chernomyrdin. On October 3, Murashkin and other employees of the Russian nuclear complex joined a protest for back wages in Moscow outside the Ministry of Finance. “Pay the Nuclear Center of Russia!” said one of their placards. “Don’t Trifle with Nuclear Weapons!” said another. The ministry agreed to pay some of the back wages later in the month, but by the end of October, far less than promised had trickled out. Nechai told Murashkin he was sympathetic, although as director he could not join the workers in street protests.

On that Wednesday night, Nechai went to a small study off to the side of his office, with chairs, a tea table and television. He wrote that he could no longer look his people in the eye, that he could no longer bear the strain. The last thing that Nechai wrote in his notes was that he wanted to be buried on Friday.

Then he shot himself with a pistol.

Nechai was remembered at a subdued funeral service two days later. Grigory Yavlinsky, leader of the Yabloko Party, one of the pioneers of Russian democracy whose bloc included many scientists and professionals, recalled the mourners had gathered in a cafeteria that looked more like a railroad station waiting room. Not a single official of the government came, not one sent telegrams or wreaths for a man who led the designers of the nuclear shield. On the tables were boiled potatoes, blini, as well as kutiya, a traditional funeral dish of raisins and nuts, and a half-glass of vodka for each person. The scientists spoke softly, in bitterness at the hardships and the loss. “Someone else might take another way,” Yavlinsky recalled the scientists saying. “Everyone knew what that meant. It was clear to everyone what ‘another way’ could be. They were nuclear scientists, after all. Didn’t Moscow understand, they asked, how dangerous it is to drive people who hold the nuclear arsenal in their hands to this state?”

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