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Former White House Coordinator for Arms Control and WMD Terrorism
Russia Holds Nuclear Terror Drills
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Gabrielle Kohlmeier

In August, NATO officials had their first up-close look at Russia’s efforts to defend its nuclear arsenal against terrorist attacks.

On Aug. 3-5, “Avaria 2004” (Accident 2004) exercises involving more than 1,000 army troops and various law enforcement personnel were held in the northern Murmansk region of Russia. The exercises, held under the auspices of the Russia-NATO Council work program, focused on defending Russia’s nuclear facilities and nuclear weapons in transit and the consequences of potential nuclear accidents. The exercises were put together by the 12th Main Directorate, a division of the Defense Ministry in charge of the security of Russia’s nuclear weapons storage facilities.

Though similar exercises are held in Russia annually, this year’s exercises marked the first time invitations were extended to outsiders, including 49 military specialists and observers from 17 NATO countries. Russian participants ranged from the Defense Ministry, the Leningrad and Moscow military districts, emergencies and interior ministries, and the Federal Atomic Energy Agency. The exercises took place at a testing ground near Olenegorsk, which houses one of Russia’s nuclear weapons storage facilities.

“We are the first to show foreigners combat readiness in what used to be one of the most secret areas of weaponry,” said Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov in an Aug. 3 interview with Russian Channel One TV. He said that he expected comparable exercises to be held in NATO nuclear-weapon states by next year.

In the first part of the exercise, an international terrorist attack was said to have been carried out on a road convoy transporting nuclear weapons in special containers. The contingent protecting the convoy, which was not given details of the time, place, or weaponry that would be used in the hypothetical attack, managed to corner and “destroy” the terrorists while keeping the nuclear weapons protected. To test the super containers housing the mock nuclear weapons, transport vehicles were under fire from anti-tank mines, grenade launchers, and automatic weapons. The exercises also featured a second scenario, in which a vehicle carrying a mock nuclear weapon went off the road into a lake. Radiological reconnaissance crews, including divers, recovered the submerged vehicle.

Ivanov presented the success of the exercises as proof that Russia’s nuclear arsenal is well guarded, asserting that outside criticism to the contrary was unfairly maligning Russian efforts. “In certain parts of the world there is a myth, that is sometimes deliberately fanned even, that says that Russia’s nuclear weapons are not reliably or well protected by qualified personnel. This is really a myth.”

At the same time, the defense minister used the opportunity to point out that, although concerns over the safety of Russia’s nuclear facility are often voiced, only a small amount of the aid promised by Western countries to help Russia secure and dismantle its weapons of mass destruction has been received by Russia, particularly in the nuclear arena. (See ACT, July/August 2004.)

At an Aug. 14 meeting in St. Petersberg, Ivanov briefed his U.S. counterpart, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, on the details of the exercises. The Avaria 2004 exercises were merely one of a growing number of special exercises, according to Ivanov. “This year, many more exercises are still to be held, involving the navy, the air force, the Ground Troops, and the Strategic Missile Troops,” he said.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has recently granted Ivanov, a political ally, greater authority over the armed forces, lessening the authority of the service chiefs in military decisions. As part of that decision, Putin announced Aug. 9 that the country’s nuclear defense complex would henceforth be placed under control of the Defense Ministry. This further enhances Ivanov’s authority, which was already amplified in late June, when Russia’s parliament passed amendments transferring powers over operational leadership of the armed forces and over coordination of all national security structures to the defense minister.

The former Russian Ministry of Atomic Energy (Minatom) had been in charge of the country’s nuclear defense complex until March, when Putin announced a major government restructuring. (See ACT, April 2004.)