should never be seen as a reliable ally, even against Islamic State or China
Between Tuesday and Friday, Russia nightly flew warplanes, including a pair of nuclear-capableTu-95 Bear bombers, into the U.S. air defense identification zone (ADIZ). On Wednesday night, Russia flew two IL-38 anti-submarine planes into the U.S. ADIZ. On the other three nights, Russia flew the bombers. In response, U.S. and Canadian fighters intercepted the bombers on two of those nights. Russia is likely trying to intimidate President Trump and the American people on a number of issues.
In this U.S. Navy handout, a F/A-18 Hornet strike fighter intercepts one of two Russian Tu-95 Bear long rang bomber aircraft as it approached the U.S. Navy aircraft carrier USS Nimitz February 9, 2008 south of Japan. Credit: U.S. Navy via Getty Images
The Carl Vinson Carrier Strike Group, including an aircraft carrier, two destroyers and a guided missile cruiser, is currently past Indonesia and moving toward the Korean Peninsula. Some experts think Trump could launch an attack on the North’s nuclear and missile development sites if North Korea fails to make dramatic moves toward denuclearization.
Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) shakes hands with his Syrian counterpart Bashar al-Assad (L) during their meeting at the Kremlin in Moscow on October 20, 2015. Syria’s embattled President Bashar al-Assad made a surprise visit to Moscow on October 20 for talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin, his first foreign trip since the conflict erupted in 2011. Credit: ALEXEY DRUZHININ/AFP/Getty Images
The White House and Russia’s embassy in Washington sought to downplay the Russian flights. Nevertheless, they act as rare veiled nuclear threats, a form of nuclear brinkmanship last utilized by Russia against the U.S. in 2015.
Any nuclear threat must be taken seriously. The Russian flights are, above all, indicators of Russian intentions. That Russia would threaten the U.S. with nuclear weapons is a tragedy. That Russia would do so to prop up authoritarian leaders as morally bankrupt as Assad or Kim Jong Un is telling. The flights prove a lack of coordination between President Putin of Russia, and President Trump. Any hope that President Trump might have been warming to Russia to better deter China is now dashed.
Russia sends world’s largest submarine – Typhoon-class Dmitry Donskoy – to the BalticAnd Russian economists reckon it could hold the key to the Kremlin unearthing almost £24 TRILLION of oil and gas buried deep beneath the snow, The Times reports.
Moscow yesterday released the first pictures of the giant Arctic Trefoil complex on the Arctic island of Alexandra Land – where temperature can drop to -50°C.
More than 150 troops will be based at the clover-shaped compound – which is decked out in the red, white and blue of the Russian flag.
Beyond mines in Kazakhstan that are among the most lucrative in the world, the sale gave the Russians control of one-fifth of all uranium production capacity in the United States. Since uranium is considered a strategic asset, with implications for national security, the deal had to be approved by a committee composed of representatives from a number of United States government agencies. Among the agencies that eventually signed off was the State Department, then headed by Mr. Clinton’s wife, Hillary Rodham Clinton.
As the Russians gradually assumed control of Uranium One in three separate transactions from 2009 to 2013, Canadian records show, a flow of cash made its way to the Clinton Foundation. Uranium One’s chairman used his family foundation to make four donations totaling $2.35 million. Those contributions were not publicly disclosed by the Clintons, despite an agreement Mrs. Clinton had struck with the Obama White House to publicly identify all donors. Other people with ties to the company made donations as well.
And shortly after the Russians announced their intention to acquire a majority stake in Uranium One, Mr. Clinton received $500,000 for a Moscow speech from a Russian investment bank with links to the Kremlin that was promoting Uranium One stock.
At the time, both Rosatom and the United States government made promises intended to ease concerns about ceding control of the company’s assets to the Russians. Those promises have been repeatedly broken, records show.
The New York Times’s examination of the Uranium One deal is based on dozens of interviews, as well as a review of public records and securities filings in Canada, Russia and the United States. Some of the connections between Uranium One and the Clinton Foundation were unearthed by Peter Schweizer, a former fellow at the right-leaning Hoover Institution and author of the forthcoming book “Clinton Cash.” Mr. Schweizer provided a preview of material in the book to The Times, which scrutinized his information and built upon it with its own reporting.
Whether the donations played any role in the approval of the uranium deal is unknown. But the episode underscores the special ethical challenges presented by the Clinton Foundation, headed by a former president who relied heavily on foreign cash to accumulate $250 million in assets even as his wife helped steer American foreign policy as secretary of state, presiding over decisions with the potential to benefit the foundation’s donors.
In a statement, Brian Fallon, a spokesman for Mrs. Clinton’s presidential campaign, said no one “has ever produced a shred of evidence supporting the theory that Hillary Clinton ever took action as secretary of state to support the interests of donors to the Clinton Foundation.” He emphasized that multiple United States agencies, as well as the Canadian government, had signed off on the deal and that, in general, such matters were handled at a level below the secretary. “To suggest the State Department, under then-Secretary Clinton, exerted undue influence in the U.S. government’s review of the sale of Uranium One is utterly baseless,” he added.
American political campaigns are barred from accepting foreign donations. But foreigners may give to foundations in the United States. In the days since Mrs. Clinton announced her candidacy for president, the Clinton Foundation has announced changes meant to quell longstanding concerns about potential conflicts of interest in such donations; it has limited donations from foreign governments, with many, like Russia’s, barred from giving to all but its health care initiatives. That policy stops short of a more stringent agreement between Mrs. Clinton and the Obama administration that was in effect while she was secretary of state.
Either way, the Uranium One deal highlights the limits of such prohibitions. The foundation will continue to accept contributions from foreign sources whose interests, like Uranium One’s, may overlap with those of foreign governments, some of which may be at odds with the United States.
When the Uranium One deal was approved, the geopolitical backdrop was far different from today’s. The Obama administration was seeking to “reset” strained relations with Russia. The deal was strategically important to Mr. Putin, who shortly after the Americans gave their blessing sat down for a staged interview with Rosatom’s chief executive, Sergei Kiriyenko. “Few could have imagined in the past that we would own 20 percent of U.S. reserves,” Mr. Kiriyenko told Mr. Putin.
Now, after Russia’s annexation of Crimea and aggression in Ukraine, the Moscow-Washington relationship is devolving toward Cold War levels, a point several experts made in evaluating a deal so beneficial to Mr. Putin, a man known to use energy resources to project power around the world.
“Should we be concerned? Absolutely,” said Michael McFaul, who served under Mrs. Clinton as the American ambassador to Russia but said he had been unaware of the Uranium One deal until asked about it. “Do we want Putin to have a monopoly on this? Of course we don’t. We don’t want to be dependent on Putin for anything in this climate.”
The two men had flown aboard Mr. Giustra’s private jet to Almaty, Kazakhstan, where they dined with the authoritarian president, Nursultan A. Nazarbayev. Mr. Clinton handed the Kazakh president a propaganda coup when he expressed support for Mr. Nazarbayev’s bid to head an international elections monitoring group, undercutting American foreign policy and criticism of Kazakhstan’s poor human rights record by, among others, his wife, then a senator.
Within days of the visit, Mr. Giustra’s fledgling company, UrAsia Energy Ltd., signed a preliminary deal giving it stakes in three uranium mines controlled by the state-run uranium agency Kazatomprom.
If the Kazakh deal was a major victory, UrAsia did not wait long before resuming the hunt. In 2007, it merged with Uranium One, a South African company with assets in Africa and Australia, in what was described as a $3.5 billion transaction. The new company, which kept the Uranium One name, was controlled by UrAsia investors including Ian Telfer, a Canadian who became chairman. Through a spokeswoman, Mr. Giustra, whose personal stake in the deal was estimated at about $45 million, said he sold his stake in 2007.
Still, the company’s story was hardly front-page news in the United States — until early 2008, in the midst of Mrs. Clinton’s failed presidential campaign, when The Times published an article revealing the 2005 trip’s link to Mr. Giustra’s Kazakhstan mining deal. It also reported that several months later, Mr. Giustra had donated $31.3 million to Mr. Clinton’s foundation.
(In a statement issued after this article appeared online, Mr. Giustra said he was “extremely proud” of his charitable work with Mr. Clinton, and he urged the media to focus on poverty, health care and “the real challenges of the world.”)
Though the 2008 article quoted the former head of Kazatomprom, Moukhtar Dzhakishev, as saying that the deal required government approval and was discussed at a dinner with the president, Mr. Giustra insisted that it was a private transaction, with no need for Mr. Clinton’s influence with Kazakh officials. He described his relationship with Mr. Clinton as motivated solely by a shared interest in philanthropy.
As if to underscore the point, five months later Mr. Giustra held a fund-raiser for the Clinton Giustra Sustainable Growth Initiative, a project aimed at fostering progressive environmental and labor practices in the natural resources industry, to which he had pledged $100 million. The star-studded gala, at a conference center in Toronto, featured performances by Elton John and Shakira and celebrities like Tom Cruise, John Travolta and Robin Williams encouraging contributions from the many so-called F.O.F.s — Friends of Frank — in attendance, among them Mr. Telfer. In all, the evening generated $16 million in pledges, according to an article in The Globe and Mail.
“None of this would have been possible if Frank Giustra didn’t have a remarkable combination of caring and modesty, of vision and energy and iron determination,” Mr. Clinton told those gathered, adding: “I love this guy, and you should, too.”
But what had been a string of successes was about to hit a speed bump.
Arrest and Progress
By June 2009, a little over a year after the star-studded evening in Toronto, Uranium One’s stock was in free-fall, down 40 percent. Mr. Dzhakishev, the head of Kazatomprom, had just been arrested on charges that he illegally sold uranium deposits to foreign companies, including at least some of those won by Mr. Giustra’s UrAsia and now owned by Uranium One.
Publicly, the company tried to reassure shareholders. Its chief executive, Jean Nortier, issued a confident statement calling the situation a “complete misunderstanding.” He also contradicted Mr. Giustra’s contention that the uranium deal had not required government blessing. “When you do a transaction in Kazakhstan, you need the government’s approval,” he said, adding that UrAsia had indeed received that approval.
But privately, Uranium One officials were worried they could lose their joint mining ventures. American diplomatic cables made public by WikiLeaks also reflect concerns that Mr. Dzhakishev’s arrest was part of a Russian power play for control of Kazakh uranium assets.
At the time, Russia was already eying a stake in Uranium One, Rosatom company documents show. Rosatom officials say they were seeking to acquire mines around the world because Russia lacks sufficient domestic reserves to meet its own industry needs.
It was against this backdrop that the Vancouver-based Uranium One pressed the American Embassy in Kazakhstan, as well as Canadian diplomats, to take up its cause with Kazakh officials, according to the American cables.
“We want more than a statement to the press,” Paul Clarke, a Uranium One executive vice president, told the embassy’s energy officer on June 10, the officer reported in a cable. “That is simply chitchat.” What the company needed, Mr. Clarke said, was official written confirmation that the licenses were valid.
The American Embassy ultimately reported to the secretary of state, Mrs. Clinton. Though the Clarke cable was copied to her, it was given wide circulation, and it is unclear if she would have read it; the Clinton campaign did not address questions about the cable.
What is clear is that the embassy acted, with the cables showing that the energy officer met with Kazakh officials to discuss the issue on June 10 and 11.
Three days later, a wholly owned subsidiary of Rosatom completed a deal for 17 percent of Uranium One. And within a year, the Russian government substantially upped the ante, with a generous offer to shareholders that would give it a 51 percent controlling stake. But first, Uranium One had to get the American government to sign off on the deal.
Among the Donors to the Clinton Foundation
The Power to Say No
When a company controlled by the Chinese government sought a 51 percent stake in a tiny Nevada gold mining operation in 2009, it set off a secretive review process in Washington, where officials raised concerns primarily about the mine’s proximity to a military installation, but also about the potential for minerals at the site, including uranium, to come under Chinese control. The officials killed the deal.
Such is the power of the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States. The committee comprises some of the most powerful members of the cabinet, including the attorney general, the secretaries of the Treasury, Defense, Homeland Security, Commerce and Energy, and the secretary of state. They are charged with reviewing any deal that could result in foreign control of an American business or asset deemed important to national security.
The national security issue at stake in the Uranium One deal was not primarily about nuclear weapons proliferation; the United States and Russia had for years cooperated on that front, with Russia sending enriched fuel from decommissioned warheads to be used in American nuclear power plants in return for raw uranium.
Instead, it concerned American dependence on foreign uranium sources. While the United States gets one-fifth of its electrical power from nuclear plants, it produces only around 20 percent of the uranium it needs, and most plants have only 18 to 36 months of reserves, according to Marin Katusa, author of “The Colder War: How the Global Energy Trade Slipped From America’s Grasp.”
When ARMZ, an arm of Rosatom, took its first 17 percent stake in Uranium One in 2009, the two parties signed an agreement, found in securities filings, to seek the foreign investment committee’s review. But it was the 2010 deal, giving the Russians a controlling 51 percent stake, that set off alarm bells. Four members of the House of Representatives signed a letter expressing concern. Two more began pushing legislation to kill the deal.
Senator John Barrasso, a Republican from Wyoming, where Uranium One’s largest American operation was, wrote to President Obama, saying the deal “would give the Russian government control over a sizable portion of America’s uranium production capacity.”
“Equally alarming,” Mr. Barrasso added, “this sale gives ARMZ a significant stake in uranium mines in Kazakhstan.”
Uranium One’s shareholders were also alarmed, and were “afraid of Rosatom as a Russian state giant,” Sergei Novikov, a company spokesman, recalled in an interview. He said Rosatom’s chief, Mr. Kiriyenko, sought to reassure Uranium One investors, promising that Rosatom would not break up the company and would keep the same management, including Mr. Telfer, the chairman. Another Rosatom official said publicly that it did not intend to increase its investment beyond 51 percent, and that it envisioned keeping Uranium One a public company
American nuclear officials, too, seemed eager to assuage fears. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission wrote to Mr. Barrasso assuring him that American uranium would be preserved for domestic use, regardless of who owned it.
“In order to export uranium from the United States, Uranium One Inc. or ARMZ would need to apply for and obtain a specific NRC license authorizing the export of uranium for use as reactor fuel,” the letter said.
Still, the ultimate authority to approve or reject the Russian acquisition rested with the cabinet officials on the foreign investment committee, including Mrs. Clinton — whose husband was collecting millions in donations from people associated with Uranium One.
Before Mrs. Clinton could assume her post as secretary of state, the White House demanded that she sign a memorandum of understanding placing limits on the activities of her husband’s foundation. To avoid the perception of conflicts of interest, beyond the ban on foreign government donations, the foundation was required to publicly disclose all contributors.
To judge from those disclosures — which list the contributions in ranges rather than precise amounts — the only Uranium One official to give to the Clinton Foundation was Mr. Telfer, the chairman, and the amount was relatively small: no more than $250,000, and that was in 2007, before talk of a Rosatom deal began percolating.
But a review of tax records in Canada, where Mr. Telfer has a family charity called the Fernwood Foundation, shows that he donated millions of dollars more, during and after the critical time when the foreign investment committee was reviewing his deal with the Russians. With the Russians offering a special dividend, shareholders like Mr. Telfer stood to profit.
His donations through the Fernwood Foundation included $1 million reported in 2009, the year his company appealed to the American Embassy to help it keep its mines in Kazakhstan; $250,000 in 2010, the year the Russians sought majority control; as well as $600,000 in 2011 and $500,000 in 2012. Mr. Telfer said that his donations had nothing to do with his business dealings, and that he had never discussed Uranium One with Mr. or Mrs. Clinton. He said he had given the money because he wanted to support Mr. Giustra’s charitable endeavors with Mr. Clinton. “Frank and I have been friends and business partners for almost 20 years,” he said.
The Clinton campaign left it to the foundation to reply to questions about the Fernwood donations; the foundation did not provide a response.
Amid this influx of Uranium One-connected money, Mr. Clinton was invited to speak in Moscow in June 2010, the same month Rosatom struck its deal for a majority stake in Uranium One.
The $500,000 fee — among Mr. Clinton’s highest — was paid by Renaissance Capital, a Russian investment bank with ties to the Kremlin that has invited world leaders, including Tony Blair, the former British prime minister, to speak at its investor conferences.
Renaissance Capital analysts talked up Uranium One’s stock, assigning it a “buy” rating and saying in a July 2010 research report that it was “the best play” in the uranium markets. In addition, Renaissance Capital turned up that same year as a major donor, along with Mr. Giustra and several companies linked to Uranium One or UrAsia, to a small medical charity in Colorado run by a friend of Mr. Giustra’s. In a newsletter to supporters, the friend credited Mr. Giustra with helping get donations from “businesses around the world.”
Renaissance Capital would not comment on the genesis of Mr. Clinton’s speech to an audience that included leading Russian officials, or on whether it was connected to the Rosatom deal. According to a Russian government news service, Mr. Putin personally thanked Mr. Clinton for speaking.
A person with knowledge of the Clinton Foundation’s fund-raising operation, who requested anonymity to speak candidly about it, said that for many people, the hope is that money will in fact buy influence: “Why do you think they are doing it — because they love them?” But whether it actually does is another question. And in this case, there were broader geopolitical pressures that likely came into play as the United States considered whether to approve the Rosatom-Uranium One deal.
If doing business with Rosatom was good for those in the Uranium One deal, engaging with Russia was also a priority of the incoming Obama administration, which was hoping for a new era of cooperation as Mr. Putin relinquished the presidency — if only for a term — to Dmitri A. Medvedev.
“The assumption was we could engage Russia to further core U.S. national security interests,” said Mr. McFaul, the former ambassador.
It started out well. The two countries made progress on nuclear proliferation issues, and expanded use of Russian territory to resupply American forces in Afghanistan. Keeping Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon was among the United States’ top priorities, and in June 2010 Russia signed off on a United Nations resolution imposing tough new sanctions on that country.
Two months later, the deal giving ARMZ a controlling stake in Uranium One was submitted to the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States for review. Because of the secrecy surrounding the process, it is hard to know whether the participants weighed the desire to improve bilateral relations against the potential risks of allowing the Russian government control over the biggest uranium producer in the United States. The deal was ultimately approved in October, following what two people involved in securing the approval said had been a relatively smooth process.
Not all of the committee’s decisions are personally debated by the agency heads themselves; in less controversial cases, deputy or assistant secretaries may sign off. But experts and former committee members say Russia’s interest in Uranium One and its American uranium reserves seemed to warrant attention at the highest levels.
“This deal had generated press, it had captured the attention of Congress and it was strategically important,” said Richard Russell, who served on the committee during the George W. Bush administration. “When I was there invariably any one of those conditions would cause this to get pushed way up the chain, and here you had all three.”
And Mrs. Clinton brought a reputation for hawkishness to the process; as a senator, she was a vocal critic of the committee’s approval of a deal that would have transferred the management of major American seaports to a company based in the United Arab Emirates, and as a presidential candidate she had advocated legislation to strengthen the process.
The Clinton campaign spokesman, Mr. Fallon, said that in general, these matters did not rise to the secretary’s level. He would not comment on whether Mrs. Clinton had been briefed on the matter, but he gave The Times a statement from the former assistant secretary assigned to the foreign investment committee at the time, Jose Fernandez. While not addressing the specifics of the Uranium One deal, Mr. Fernandez said, “Mrs. Clinton never intervened with me on any C.F.I.U.S. matter.”
Mr. Fallon also noted that if any agency had raised national security concerns about the Uranium One deal, it could have taken them directly to the president.
Anne-Marie Slaughter, the State Department’s director of policy planning at the time, said she was unaware of the transaction — or the extent to which it made Russia a dominant uranium supplier. But speaking generally, she urged caution in evaluating its wisdom in hindsight.
“Russia was not a country we took lightly at the time or thought was cuddly,” she said. “But it wasn’t the adversary it is today.”
That renewed adversarial relationship has raised concerns about European dependency on Russian energy resources, including nuclear fuel. The unease reaches beyond diplomatic circles. In Wyoming, where Uranium One equipment is scattered across his 35,000-acre ranch, John Christensen is frustrated that repeated changes in corporate ownership over the years led to French, South African, Canadian and, finally, Russian control over mining rights on his property.
“I hate to see a foreign government own mining rights here in the United States,” he said. “I don’t think that should happen.”
Mr. Christensen, 65, noted that despite assurances by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission that uranium could not leave the country without Uranium One or ARMZ obtaining an export license — which they do not have — yellowcake from his property was routinely packed into drums and trucked off to a processing plant in Canada.
Asked about that, the commission confirmed that Uranium One has, in fact, shipped yellowcake to Canada even though it does not have an export license. Instead, the transport company doing the shipping, RSB Logistic Services, has the license. A commission spokesman said that “to the best of our knowledge” most of the uranium sent to Canada for processing was returned for use in the United States. A Uranium One spokeswoman, Donna Wichers, said 25 percent had gone to Western Europe and Japan. At the moment, with the uranium market in a downturn, nothing is being shipped from the Wyoming mines.
The “no export” assurance given at the time of the Rosatom deal is not the only one that turned out to be less than it seemed. Despite pledges to the contrary, Uranium One was delisted from the Toronto Stock Exchange and taken private. As of 2013, Rosatom’s subsidiary, ARMZ, owned 100 percent of it.
Correction: April 23, 2015 An earlier version of this article misstated, in one instance, the surname of a fellow at the Hoover Institution. He is Peter Schweizer, not Schweitzer.
An earlier version also incorrectly described the Clinton Foundation’s agreement with the Obama administration regarding foreign-government donations while Hillary Rodham Clinton was secretary of state. Under the agreement, the foundation would not accept new donations from foreign governments, though it could seek State Department waivers in specific cases. It was not barred from accepting all foreign-government donations.
Correction: April 30, 2015
An article on Friday about contributions to the Clinton Foundation from people associated with a Canadian uranium-mining company described incorrectly the foundation’s agreement with the Obama administration regarding foreign-government donations while Hillary Clinton was secretary of state. Under the agreement, the foundation would not accept new donations from foreign governments, though it could seek State Department waivers in specific cases. The foundation was not barred from accepting all foreign-government donations.
Russia in considering upgrading future T-14 main battle tnks to use the 2A83 152 mm gun instead of its current 2A82 125 mm gun. The 2A83 gun has a high-speed APFSDS shell with a 1,980 m/s muzzle velocity, only dropping to 1,900 m/s at 2 km.
However, Russian engineers have so far kept the 125 mm-size gun, assessing that improvements in ammunition could be enough to increase effectiveness, while concluding that a larger bore weapon would offer few practical advantage.
The 152 mm tank gun could penetrate 1 meter of armor.
For 11 years, China has been testing a 140mm gun on one its Type 98 tanks. The 140mm gun could fire an armor piercing round with twice the penetrating power of one fired from a 120mm gun (about 22 mega joules of energy, versus 11), the amount of ammunition carried was reduced by about a third (to 20-30 rounds, depending on the tank). The 140mm shell was about fifty percent larger than the 120mm one, and could probably knock out an M-1 tank with a frontal shot.
Iranian and Russian forces working together in Syria on behalf of embattled leader Bashar al-Assad issued a stern warning to the United States and threatened to take their own action against American military forces.
“We will respond to any aggression powerfully, as Russia and Iran would never allow the U.S. to dominate the world,” read a statement issued by the Syria-Iran-Russia Joint Operations Room, a combination of forces operating on behalf of Assad in Syria. The statement was first published in Iran’s state-controlled media.
While the Trump administration has not ruled out further military intervention in Syria, it remains unclear how willing the White House will be to isolate further Iranian and Russian forces operating together inside Syria. U.S. coalition forces in nearby Iraq also remain vulnerable to reprisal attacks by the thousands of Iranian forces operating in that country alongside local militias.
The joint Russian-Iranian group in Syria hinted that it believes the United States may be behind the chemical attack that prompted military action.
“We believe that the events [chemical weapons use] in [Syria] have been plotted by certain states and bodies to be used as a pretext to attack Syria,” according to the statement, which suggests the United States may have orchestrated the attack in order to justify military intervention.
Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei also condemned the U.S. strike on Sunday, warning the Trump administration about further military action.
“What Americans did was a strategic mistake, and they are repeating the same mistakes done by their predecessors,” Khamenei was quoted as saying during a meeting with senior Iranian armed forces commanders in Tehran.
A delegation of more than 220 Iranian lawmakers also moved to condemn the U.S. attack over the weekend and demanded an independent investigation into the measures.
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, in a phone conversation Sunday with Assad, vowed to continue Iranian support for the Syrian president.
“The Iranian people are still standing by the Syrian nation,” Rouhani was quoted as telling Assad.
Behnam Ben Taleblu, a senior Iran analyst at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, said the latest strike by the United States could serve to push Russia and Iran closer in their alliance, which has grown since the landmark Iran nuclear deal.
“In the aftermath of the recent Tomahawk cruise missiles strikes by the U.S., Iranian officials have voiced their condemnation of the U.S. as was expected, but will also seek to capitalize on a recent highly public trip by Iranian President Hassan Rouhani to Moscow,” Ben Taleblu said.
“While not a formal alliance, the Syrian theater is one area where Russian and Iranian interests overlap,” he explained. “With the expiration of a United Nations mandated arms ban in 2020, we can expect to see this Russo-Iranian relationship deepen significantly. U.S. policymakers would be wise to exploit whatever cleavages exist in the relationship until then.”
One night last spring, Amiran Chaduneli, a flea-market trader in the ex-Soviet Republic of Georgia, met with two strangers on a bridge at the edge of Kobuleti, a small town on the country’s Black Sea coast.
Over the phone, the men had introduced themselves as foreigners—one Turkish, the other Russian—and they were looking for an item so rare on the black market that it tends to be worth more, ounce for ounce, than gold. Chaduneli knew where to get it. He didn’t know that his clients were undercover cops.
From the bridge, he took them to inspect the merchandise at a nearby apartment where his acquaintance had been storing it: a lead box about the size of a smartphone, containing a few pounds of radioactive uranium, including small amounts of the weapons-grade material known as uranium-235. The stash wasn’t nearly enough to make a nuclear weapon. But if packed together with high explosives, these metallic lumps could produce what’s known as a dirty bomb—one that could poison the area around the blast zone with toxic levels of radiation.
In the popular culture, the dealers who traffic in such cargo are usually cast as lords of war with tailored suits and access to submarines. The reality is much less cinematic. According to police records reviewed by TIME in Tbilisi, the Georgian capital, Chaduneli’s associates in the attempted uranium sale last spring included construction workers and scrap-metal traders. Looking at the sunken cheeks and lazy left eye in his mug shot, it seems improbable that lousy capers like this one could rise to the level of a national-security threat. But the ease of acquiring ingredients for a dirty bomb is precisely what makes them so worrying.
The danger from dirty bombs is spreading even faster. For starters, they pose none of the technical challenges of splitting an atom. Chaduneli’s type of uranium was particularly hard to come by, but many hospitals and other industries use highly radioactive materials for medical imaging and other purposes. If these toxic substances are packed around conventional explosives, a device no bigger than a suitcase could contaminate several city blocks—and potentially much more if the wind helps the fallout to spread. The force of the initial blast would be only as deadly as that of a regular bomb, but those nearby could be stricken with radiation poisoning if they rushed to help the injured or breathed in tainted dust. Entire neighborhoods, airports or subway stations might need to be sealed off for months after such an attack.
The lasting effects of a dirty bomb make this weapon especially attractive to terrorists. Fear of contamination would drive away tourists and customers, and cleanup would be costly: the economic impact could be worse than that of the attacks of 9/11, according to a study conducted in 2004 by the National Defense University. “It would change our world,” President Obama said of a potential dirty bomb in April 2016. “Wecannot be complacent.”
Obama’s successor is certainly alive to the nuclear threat. In a Republican primary debate in December 2015, Donald Trump said the risk of “some maniac” getting a nuclear weapon is “the single biggest problem” the country faces. But he suggested that the world would be safer if more countries acquired nukes. His Administration has yet to set out a policy for countering the danger of a dirty bomb; the position Trump takes could be crucial. By training and equipping foreign governments to stop nuclear traffickers, the U.S. has played a central role in fragile or unstable areas of the world where highly dangerous materials can fall into the wrong hands. The goal, according to Simon Limage, who led the State Department’s nonproliferation efforts during the last five years of the Obama Administration, is “to push the threat away from U.S. shores.”
Georgia is one of the best examples of how these efforts have worked on the ground. Over the past 12 years, the U.S. government has provided more than $50 million in aid to help the former Soviet republic, a nation of only 3.7 million people, in combatting the trade in nuclear materials. Though it possesses no nuclear fuel of its own, Georgia sits in the middle of what atomic-energy experts sometimes refer to as the “nuclear highway”—a smuggling route that runs from Russia down through the Caucasus Mountains to Iran, Turkey and, from there, to the territory that ISIS still controls in Syria and Iraq.
All along that route, the U.S. has helped install nuclear detectors at borders, trained police units to intercept traffickers and provided intelligence and equipment to local regulators of nuclear material. “The Americans brought all the technology,” says Vasil Gedevanishvili, director of Georgia’s Agency of Nuclear and Radiation Safety. “They secured every border around Georgia.”
At the end of that month, Chaduneli and four of his associates were arrested in Kobuleti by a team devoted to countering nuclear trafficking that has received training, equipment and intelligence from various arms of the U.S. government. “So in some sense this was a success story,” says Limage, who met the team during a visit to Georgia in December, less than two months before he resigned from his post as Deputy Assistant Secretary of State. “But none of the gains we’ve made with these partnerships are permanent. They’re all reversible.”
And they’re becoming even more essential to international security. Over roughly the past three years, as the U.S.-led coalition has advanced against ISIS in Syria and Iraq, the terrorist group has been shifting tactics. Rather than urging its followers to come join the fight in Syria, ISIS recruiters now call for attacks against the West using whatever weapons are available. The continued erosion of the group’s territory may not make it any less dangerous. “It may make them more desperate,” says Andrew Bieniawski, vice president of the Nuclear Threat Initiative, a U.S. nonprofit that works to reduce the risk of nuclear weapons and materials. “And they may try to raise the stakes.”
There have already been plenty of signs that ISIS would like to go nuclear. After the series of ISIS-linked bombings in Brussels killed at least 32 people in March 2016, Belgian authorities revealed that a suspected member of a terrorist cell had surveillance footage of a Belgian nuclear official with access to radioactive materials. The country’s nuclear-safety agency then said there were “concrete indications” that the cell intended “to do something involving one of our four nuclear sites.” About a year earlier, in May 2015, ISIS suggested in an issue of its propaganda magazine that it was wealthy enough to purchase a nuclear device on the black market—and to “pull off something truly epic.”
Though the group is unlikely to possess the technical skill to build an actual nuclear weapon, there are indications it could already possess nuclear materials. After the group’s fighters took control of the Iraqi city of Mosul in 2014, they seized about 40 kg of uranium compounds that were stored at a university, according to a letter an Iraqi diplomat sent to the U.N. in July of that year. But the U.N.’s nuclear agency said the material was likely “low grade” and not potentially harmful. “In a sense we’ve been lucky so far,” says Sharon Squassoni, who heads the program to stop nuclear proliferation at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. “I honestly think it is only a matter of time before we see one of these dirty-bomb attacks.”
Obtaining ingredients for such a weapon is not, it turns out, the hard part. According to Chaduneli’s lawyer, Tamila Kutateladze, his associates found the box of uranium in one of the scrapyards where he would find old bric-a-brac to sell. His co-defendant in the case, Mikheil Jincharadze, told police that “unknown persons” had delivered the box inside a sack of scrap iron, according to interrogation records and other court documents obtained by TIME in Georgia.
That version of the story did not convince investigators, and even Chaduneli’s lawyer wondered how such a thing could turn up in a pile of trash. “A mere mortal cannot just get his hands on this stuff,” Kutateladze told TIME in her office in Tbilisi. “You have to have a source.”
File photo shows Russian citizen Oleg Khintsagov who was arrested on charges of smuggling weapons grade uranium in Tbilisi
But the Georgian authorities have so far been unable to determine that source with any certainty. Similar investigations in the past, most recently in 2010 and 2011, have traced the nuclear material back to reactors in Russia. Among the most famous cases involved a small-time Russian smuggler named Oleg Khintsagov, who tried to sell a sample of highly enriched uranium in 2006 to a Georgian police officer posing as a wealthy Turkish trafficker. “He said he could get much larger quantities from his sources in Siberia,” recalls Shota Utiashvili, who oversaw that case as Georgia’s Deputy Interior Minister at the time. “We think it’s from an old stockpile of this stuff that’s been laying around and periodically looking for a buyer.”
During the chaos that followed the Soviet collapse in the early 1990s, radioactive material was frequently stolen from poorly guarded reactors and nuclear facilities in Russia and its former satellite states. Police intercepted shipments of it transiting through cities as faraway as Munich and Prague in those years, and nuclear experts believe that large batches of Soviet nuclear fuel are still unaccounted for and most likely accessible for well-connected traders on the black market.
The potential source that most concerns investigators in Georgia is the region of Abkhazia, a Russian protectorate that broke away from Georgian control in the early 1990s. It is one of several unrecognized pseudo states—often referred to as frozen conflict zones—that Russia has helped maintain in the former Soviet space. With no internationally acknowledged borders, these regions often function as way stations for smugglers, allowing everything from guns and cigarettes to contraband caviar to be trafficked under the radar of international law. “These spaces are ungoverned,” says Squassoni of CSIS. “So what we risk when we look at these conflict-torn regions is that people will try to make a living any way they can, and they may not have any scruples about what they’re smuggling across these borders.”
On the border between Moldova and Ukraine is the pro-Russian enclave of Trans-Dniestr, where Moscow has stationed about a thousand troops since the region’s violent split from Moldova in the early 1990s. This sliver of land along the Dniestr River was a base for one of the world’s most notorious nuclear smugglers, Alexandr Agheenco, a dual Russian-Ukrainian citizen nicknamed the Colonel, who is wanted by U.S. and Moldovan authorities for attempting to sell weapons-grade uranium to Islamist terrorist groups in 2011. One of his middlemen was caught that year in a Moldovan sting operation; police reportedly found the blueprints for a dirty bomb in his home. But the Colonel remains at large.
More recently, Russia has carved a fresh pair of conflict zones out of eastern Ukraine, where separatist rebels used weapons and fighters from Russia in 2014 to seize territory around the cities of Luhansk and Donetsk. According to research compiled by CSIS, the war has destroyed 29 of the radiation detectors that would normally monitor the movement of nuclear material along the border between Russia and Ukraine.
But Abkhazia is the only one of these conflict zones that has ever possessed its own nuclear facilities. Physicists recruited from Germany after World War II set up the first Soviet centrifuges at the Sukhumi Institute of Physics and Technology, which remained a key pillar in the Soviet nuclear program through the Cold War. After the fall of Soviet Union, the newly independent Georgian government fought separatists who wanted to keep Abkhazia within Moscow’s orbit.
When the civil war reached Sukhumi in 1992, its scientists set up patrols to protect their stores of radioactive material from looters and paramilitaries. The war ended the following year with Abkhazia’s de facto secession from the rest of Georgia, and the fate of its nuclear stockpiles has been something of a mystery for international observers ever since.
Officials in Russia say there is no longer any nuclear material in Abkhazia. But Georgia disputes this. Gedevanishvili, the head of the country’s nuclear-safety agency, says the Sukhumi Institute still conducts experiments using radioactive sources. “We don’t know what security measures they take. We know nothing about their work.”
Russia has its own reasons to worry about dirty bombs. The explosion that killed at least 14 people and wounded dozens of others in the St. Petersburg metro on April 3 was just the latest of dozens of terrorist attacks since the early 1990s. Over that time, Moscow has worked to secure nuclear stockpiles throughout the former Soviet Union, often with help and funding from the U.S. But as relations with Washington have eroded, Moscow has cut off cooperation, insisting it no longer needs American assistance.
Whether he wants to or not, President Trump will play a key role in determining the danger from dirty bombs in coming years. Since his election, Trump has denounced the work of the U.N. as a “waste of time and money,” even though U.N. organizations like the International Atomic Energy Agency are responsible for monitoring nuclear stockpiles and advising countries on keeping them safe. Trump’s pick to lead the Department of Energy, former Texas governor Rick Perry, previously called for its dissolution, but defended its mission during nomination hearings; the department oversees the U.S. nuclear arsenal and safety at nuclear sites.
Trump’s new budget proposal, which the White House published on March 16 under the title “America First,” would slash programs that contribute to U.S. security in ways subtler than guns and walls. It would cut foreign aid, diplomacy and development programs—all of which have helped the U.S. forge a global network of alliances against nuclear trafficking. “This isn’t rocket science,” says Limage, the former State Department official. “A lot of the nonproliferation progress that has been made around the world has been through patient, careful diplomacy.” Countries that would otherwise not have the means or the motivation to target smugglers of nuclear material have received regular encouragement, training and aid from the U.S. in these efforts.
The Trump Administration says it takes the threat “extremely seriously,” a White House official tells TIME. “We have active programs within the U.S. government and with international partners to reduce the risks of such an attack and to mitigate the effects if one should occur. The prospect of terrorists using WMD is one of many reasons we need to remain vigilant in pursuing our counterterrorism strategy around the globe,” the official says.
In Georgia, there are obvious risks to letting partnerships lapse. From the bridge where Chaduneli went to meet his buyers, it would take just a couple hours for a dirty bomb’s ingredients to reach Turkey by car or boat, and only days more to reach Syria or Iraq. His family home stands within view of the border with Azerbaijan, a notoriously corrupt dictatorship with links to Iran. Local kids often ride their bikes next to the border crossing, a barbed-wire fence guarded by a few lethargic soldiers.
They are a thin line of defense in an era when nuclear threats emerge not only from military and rogue regimes, but from the hard economic reality of some of the world’s most forgotten places. An honest job in this region brings in a few hundred dollars per month. So the lure of trafficking across these borders is constant, says Chaduneli’s mother Tamila.
The undercover agents who arrested him offered to pay $3 million for that box of uranium. At the end of their trial in December, all of the suspects in Chaduneli’s case took a plea deal in exchange for lighter sentences; Chaduneli got three years in prison. In his one-story home, which has an outdoor kitchen with a wood-burning stove and gets intermittent electricity, his mother says she has no idea how his friends got their hands on a batch of nuclear material—or why her son joined a plot to sell it. “The money,” she says, “might have clouded his eyes.”
Hillary and Putin RussiaWhile then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton decided whether to allow the sale of a company holding 20 percent of America’s uranium capacity to the Russian government, tens of millions of uranium investor dollars were received by the Clinton Foundation – not to mention a $500,000 speaking fee received by Bill Clinton from a Kremlin-affiliated bank.
“Why isn’t the House Intelligence Committee looking into the Bill & Hillary deal that allowed big Uranium to go to Russia, Russian speech,” Trump tweeted. “… money to Bill, the Hillary Russian ‘reset,’ praise of Russia by Hillary, or Podesta Russian Company. Trump Russia story is a hoax. #MAGA!”
“The 2010 deal for a majority stake of Canadian-based Uranium One – which required approval from Clinton’s State Department and eight other federal agencies – and its plausible connection to major donations to the Clinton Foundation was exposed by author Peter Schweizer in his book Clinton Cash and confirmed in a 3,000 word, front-page story by the New York Times,” WND reported. “Former Uranium One chairman Ian Telfer was among several individuals connected to the deal who made donations to the Clinton Foundation.”
“The donations flowed as the Russians gradually assumed control of Uranium One in three separate transactions from 2009 to 2013,” WND’s Art Moore explained. “Snopes and other ‘fact checkers’ who insist there was no quid pro quo have argued that most of the donations were made in 2008 – before Hillary Clinton became secretary of state. But she was running for president at that time.”
The covert dealings reportedly began more than a decade ago and continued on for years afterward.
“The origin of the deal traced back to 2005, when mining financier Frank Giustra traveled with Bill Clinton to work out an agreement with the government of Kazakhstan for mining rights,” Moore added. “Giustra has donated $31.3 million to the Clinton Foundation. [Then,} in June 2010, shortly after the Russians announced their intention to acquire a majority stake in Uranium One, Bill Clinton personally received a speaking fee of $500,000 from a Kremlin-tied Russian investment bank connected to the uranium deal.”
It was also noted by the Times that contributions given to the Clinton Foundation were not made public, according to Canadian tax records. This was a direct violation of an agreement that Clinton signed with the Obama administration when she assumed the role as secretary of state – which stated that she must disclose all donations made from abroad.
Furthermore, it was disclosed last week by the Daily Caller News Foundation Investigative Group that John Podesta – the campaign chairman for Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign – likely opened himself up to a Russian “influence campaign” – an arrangement that was devised to modify his views to coincide with those held by the Kremlin.
“Podesta possibly violated federal law when he failed to fully disclose his membership on the executive board of an energy company that accepted millions from a Vladimir Putin-connected Russian government fund,” WND reported.
Giving Russia the edge
Hillary Clinton’s maneuverings while secretary of state reportedly turned the axis of nuclear power to Russia’s advantage.
“After Rosatom finally secured 100 percent of Uranium One in 2013, the Russian-government news website Pravda declared: ‘Russian Nuclear Energy Conquers the World,’” Moore pointed out. “The acquisition of uranium-mining stakes stretching from Central Asia to the American West made Rosatom one of the world’s largest uranium producers and brought Putin closer to his goal of controlling much of the global uranium supply chain, the New York Times said.”
Once approval from the U.S. government was secured, Putin was recorded in a staged interview with Rosatom Chief Executive Sergei Kiriyenko, who expressed the sheer magnitude of the deal.
“Few could have imagined in the past that we would own 20 percent of U.S. reserves,” Kiriyenko told Putin, according to WND.
This coincided with the famous boast uttered by the former first lady regarding U.S. relations with Russia.
“The agreement came as the Obama administration – led by Hillary Clinton’s State Department – famously was seeking to ‘reset’ strained relations with Russia,” Moore recounted. “Because uranium is considered a strategic asset that has implications for national security, the agreement had to be approved by a panel of representatives from a number of United States government agencies, including the State Department.”
The U.S. government and Rosatom made vows to each other in order to lessen tensions regarding ceding control of the company’s assets to the Russians – yet the Times reports that the promises were broken numerous times.
“[Even though it cannot be proven that the donations had a direct impact on the uranium deal’s approval,] the episode underscores the special ethical challenges presented by the Clinton Foundation, headed by a former president who relied heavily on foreign cash to accumulate $250 million in assets – even as his wife helped steer American foreign policy as secretary of state, presiding over decisions with the potential to benefit the foundation’s donors,” the Times noted.
Brian Fallon, the spokesman for Clinton’s 2016 campaign, defended the questionable negotiations.
“[No one] has ever produced a shred of evidence supporting the theory that Hillary Clinton ever took action as secretary of state to support the interests of donors to the Clinton Foundation,” Fallon expressed during the campaign season last year – according to the Times – insisting the Canadian government and other U.S. agencies were also required to sign off on the problematic deal. “To suggest the State Department, under then-Secretary Clinton, exerted undue influence in the U.S. government’s review of the sale of Uranium One is utterly baseless.”
Feeling uneasy about leaked reports, the Clintons were forced to change their tone.
“The appearance of undue influence, however, prompted the Clinton Foundation to announce changes – including limiting donations from foreign governments and barring Russia from giving to all but its health care initiatives,” Moore indicated.
This, however, did not line up with the Clinton Foundations future dealings.
“[The Clinton Foundation continued to] accept contributions from foreign sources whose interests – like Uranium One’s – may overlap with those of foreign governments, some of which may be at odds with the United States,” reported the Times, which received information about the significance of the deal from Clinton’s U.S. ambassador to Russia at the time, Michael McFaul.
“Should we be concerned?” McFaul asked before answering his own question, according to the Times. “Absolutely. Do we want Putin to have a monopoly on this? Of course we don’t. We don’t want to be dependent on Putin for anything in this climate.”
Bill Clinton behind the scenes
Canadian mining financier Giustra had former President Bill Clinton strategically at his side to orchestrate his first major uranium deal – an arrangement that began Russia’s acquisition of American uranium deposits in Kazakhstan back in 2005, the Times reported.
Schweitzer stressed why Clinton’s role in the deal was so important, noting that Giustra wanted to have a large uranium concession in Kazakhstan, yet the Canadian could not get it from Nursultan Nazarbayev – the nation’s repressive dictator.
“Bill Clinton shows up, declares at a press conference that Nazarbayev is a wonderful leader, should actually lead an international human rights organization,” Schweizer explained. “And lo and behold, a couple of days later, Nazarbayev gives Frank Giustra this uranium concession. A few weeks after that, Bill Clinton’s Clinton Foundation gets more than $30 million from Frank Giustra.”
Bill and Hilary Clinton’s underhanded dealings to cash in were then clarified.
“[Bill Clinton undercut] American foreign policy and criticism of Kazakhstan’s poor human rights record by, among others, his wife, then a senator,” the Times stated.
A series of arrangements then took place that highlight the problematic negotiations between the U.S. and Russia.
“Giustra’s fledgling company, UrAsia Energy Ltd., signed a preliminary deal with Kazakhstan giving the company stakes in three uranium mines controlled by the state-run uranium agency Kazatomprom,” Moore informed. ”UrAsia merged in 2007 with Uranium One, a South African company with assets in Africa and Australia, which soon began purchasing companies with assets in the United States. By June 2009, Uranium One’s stock had dropped 40 percent, but Russia, lacking domestic uranium reserves, was eyeing a stake in the company. That’s when Uranium One pressed the U.S. Embassy in Kazakhstan, which was under Hillary Clinton’s authority, to talk with Kazakh officials about clearing the way for a deal. American cables show the U.S. Embassy energy officer met with Kazakh officials, and three days later, a wholly owned subsidiary of Rosatom completed a deal for 17 percent of Uranium One. Within a year, Russia sought a 51 percent controlling stake. The only obstacle to the deal was that the U.S. government, namely the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States, had to sign off on it.”
It was further noted by the Times that when a Chinese government-owned company pursued a 51-percent stake in a small gold mining operation in Nevada back in 2009, the attempted acquisition triggered a covert Washington probe. Officials were reportedly concerned that the proximity of the mine to a U.S. military installation, which likely contained minerals, including uranium – might come under Chinese control.
According to Schweizer, a potential deal killer soon set in.
“When the Uranium One deal was under way,] a spontaneous outbreak of philanthropy among eight shareholders in Uranium One [took place], Schweizer noted. “These Canadian mining magnates decide now would be a great time to donate tens of millions of dollars to the Clinton Foundation.”
The reasoning behind the negotiations was then clarified.
“The national security issue at stake in the Uranium One deal was not primarily about nuclear weapons proliferation, but about American dependence on foreign uranium sources,” Moore emphasized.
Marin Katusa, who authored The Colder War: How the Global Energy Trade Slipped from America’s Grasp, said that even though America receives 20 percent of its electricity from nuclear plants, it generates only about a fifth of the uranium that it needs.
“The Russians are easily winning the uranium war, and nobody’s talking about it,” Katusa told the Times. “It’s not just a domestic issue, but a foreign policy issue, too,” Katusa explained.
Ceding control to the Russians
A letter showing fears about the U.S. losing power to the Russians via the Uranium One deal was written by four members of the House of Representatives.
Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wy.) and two other House members started pushing legislation to kill the deal.
“[The Uranium One deal] would give the Russian government control over a sizable portion of America’s uranium production capacity,” Barraso expressed to Obama.
It was noted that a major decision-maker in the deal was Obama’s former secretary of state.
“Still, the ultimate authority to approve or reject the Russian acquisition rested with the cabinet officials on the foreign investment committee, including Mrs. Clinton – whose husband was collecting millions in donations from people associated with Uranium One,” the Times stated.
The Times was told by an insider who had information about the Clinton Foundation’s fundraising operation – on condition of anonymity – that money was used to buy influence.
“Why do you think they are doing it – because they love them?” the informant sarcastically posed.
The Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States started its review two months afterward, but it was disclosed that a massive coverup soon ensued.
“Did the committee weigh the U.S. desire to improve bilateral relations with Russia against the potential risks of allowing the Russian government control over the biggest uranium producer in the United States?” Moore pondered. “That information has never been disclosed, but the deal was approved in October after, the Times said, citing two people involved, ‘a relatively smooth process.’”
“In the most critical areas of nuclear deterrence and defense, it’s time to square the circle between Russia’s actions and America’s response,” Trachtenberg concluded in his Defense News piece. “Bolstering our nuclear offensive and defensive capabilities is long overdue. Let’s get on with it.”
The Trump administration’s ties to Russia have regularly come into question. The U.S. intelligence community determined that the country worked to help Trump get elected over Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton through a hack of the Democratic National Committee and an “influence campaign.”
Trump’s former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn stepped down after he misrepresented a conversation with a Russian ambassador to Vice President Mike Pence. Attorney General Jeff Sessions, meanwhile, recused himself this month from an ongoing investigation of ties between Trump’s campaign and Russia after it was revealed that he did not disclose his meeting with the Russian ambassador to the United States during the run-up to the election.
Russia must “enhance the combat capability of strategic nuclear forces, primarily by strengthening missile complexes that will be guaranteed to penetrate existing and future missile defense systems,” Putin said in December.
Trump tweeted around that time, the U.S. “must greatly strengthen and expand its nuclear capability.”
The Barguzin “railroad combat complex,” or BZhRK, will be armed with six RS-24 Yars ICBMs, a fifty-five-ton missile that reportedly carries up to ten nuclear warheads, and is already deployed in fixed silos and mobile truck-mounted launchers. There will be five railroad missile regiments, each consisting of one train and six ballistic missiles. Operational deployment is slated for 2020.
Barguzin is not a new concept. It is actually a revival of train-launched ICBMs, fielded by the Soviet Union beginning in the 1960s. The twelve trains, equipped with three RT-23 Scalpel missiles each, were phased out by 2005.
The new trains will carry six missiles instead of three. A Russian defense industry official told Sputnik News in 2015 that the missile trains “will not need any specific big cars. They will completely coincide with the existing parameters of railcars and will therefore be completely hidden from a foe’s reconnaissance and surveillance. Moreover, the system will enable launches virtually everywhere on the railway bed in contrast with the previous system that required special launch conditions.”
A 2016 Russian media article, translated by the U.S. Army’s Foreign Military Studies Office, stated that Barguzin “will restore the ground triad of the RSVN [Strategic Missile Troops] of the Soviet era, augmenting the silo-based and mobile ground-based intercontinental ballistic missile systems that are in the inventory.”
The United States itself once toyed with train-based ICBMs. In the 1980s, the Reagan administration approved a plan to base MX (Peacekeeper) missiles on railroad cars that, upon command, would disperse throughout the continental U.S. rail network. The program was later terminated.
Train-based ICBMs do offer some advantages over missiles in fixed silos, namely that the enemy can never be sure where they are—or, more accurately, where all of them are at any given moment. But as a 2014 RAND study pointed out, rail and truck launchers have their drawbacks. Maintaining a missile on a train is more difficult than in a silo, while rail lines and roads can be blocked by snow, which tends to restrict railroad ICBMs to warmer climates. In addition, because there are only a limited number of rail lines and highways in an area (think Siberia), enemy surveillance can focus on a few areas. And, once located, mobile missiles are more vulnerable than ICBMs in hardened silos.
Michael Peck is a contributing writer for the National Interest. He can be found on Twitter and Facebook.
Image: Topol-M in Russian service. Wikimedia Commons/Creative Commons/Vitaly V. Kuzmin