Georgia and the United States revealed in January that in early 2006 they had arrested a Russian man attempting to sell 100 grams of weapons-grade uranium. The seizure was one of the largest of its kind and raised questions about the security of nuclear stockpiles in the region.
A joint Georgian-CIA operation nabbed Oleg Khinsagov in Tbilisi along with several Georgian accomplices. The sting was set up after Georgian authorities discovered extensive smuggling operations in the breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
“When we sent buyers, the channels through Abkhazia and South Ossetia began to expand, and we started seeing a huge flow of materials…. Sometimes it was low-grade enriched materials, but this was the first instance of highly enriched material,” Georgian Interior Minister Vano Merabishvili told the Associated Press.
Khinsagov was carrying a plastic bag full of highly enriched uranium (HEU) in his jacket pocket. “He was offering this as the first stage in a deal and said he had other pieces,” Merabishvili said. “We don’t know if that was true,” he added. Georgian authorities sentenced Khinsagov to eight to 10 years in prison.
Efforts to discover the origin of the HEU have been hampered by squabbling between Russia and Georgia. Georgia gave a sample of the smuggled material to Russia for analysis but Russia’s Scientific Research Institute of Non-Organic Materials called the quantity of the sample “insignificant.” Only a few grams of HEU are needed to perform a full forensic analysis, however.
The Russian prosecutor-general is considering an inquiry.
Georgian and Russian officials blame each other for not being fully forthcoming. Tensions have been high since President Mikheil Saakashvili was elected in 2004 on a pro-U.S. platform. His election exacerbated disagreements over the stationing of Russian troops in border regions. (See ACT, January/February 2007. )
In a related development, the United States and Georgia signed a deal in February 2007 to increase cooperation in preventing nuclear smuggling. The agreement will facilitate information sharing between U.S. and Georgian offices, train Georgian experts, adequately store discovered radioactive substances, and increase border patrols.The United States has already provided similar assistance to Russia to prevent nuclear smuggling.