In the late 1990s, a shocking story involving so-called suitcase nuclear weapons came to light. A former Russian military official declared in a CBS 60 Minutes segment in 1997 that tactical “atomic demolition munitions” of one kiloton – powerful enough to kill 50,000 to 100,000 people – were produced by the Soviet Union. These were to be deployed by the Spetsnaz special forces brigades of the Main Intelligence Directorate (GRU) of the USSR General Staff. The official claimed at least 80 to 100 of the suitcase nukes were produced and assigned to the Spetsnaz.
Former Russian Security Council Secretary Aleksandr Lebed originally told Members of Congress about his account of the suitcase nukes in 1997. Lebed said the atomic demolition munitions (sometimes considered atomic land mines) were not accounted for by Russia. He repeated his claims to 60 Minutes and to Interfax. Lebed said some of these suitcase nuclear devices were stored in former Soviet Republics and had not been accounted for after the Cold War. Lebed explained that they did not have the safety devices normally associated with larger nuclear weapons and could be triggered by terror groups if they fell into the wrong hands. It would only take one person to activate the nuclear device.
There Was Some Corroboration
Lebed claimed that he tried to investigate their whereabouts, but he was fired by Russian President Boris Yeltsin before he consummated his research. Lebed’s charges were backed up by another government worker, presidential advisor and ecologist Alexei Yablokov, who was interviewed by PBS Frontline that same year.
“Yes, small atomic charges exist. They are very small. Several dozen kilos, thirty kilos, forty kilos. I spoke with people that made them, I saw them…and I believe these people, these people knew what they were talking about. And there was data published about it. Some was published in the newspaper of a town in the south of the Urals in a little paper, and it said there that the prominent achievement is that they have manufactured a miniature atomic charge,” Yablokov said.
Yablokov believed that the atomic demolition munitions were not previously inventoried by Russian manifests of nuclear weapons after the Cold War. Yablokov also told Congress his beliefs.
The Russian Government At the Time Said No Way
Russian officialdom recoiled at the accusations and vehemently denied the suitcase nukes were real. Russian Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin called Lebed’s allegations “absolute absurdity.” A presidential spokesman for Yeltsin said, “such super-fantasies can only be the product of a diseased imagination.”
Were They Even Technically Possible?
Some Russian nuclear scientists believed that suitcase nuclear weapons were not even technically feasible to make and that they would have been too costly to assemble. Others said Lebed was spreading falsehoods and just trying to seek media attention to further his political career. The Russians concluded that even if they did exist the weapons would have been surely locked up and accounted for.
Difficult to Discern Which Side Was Telling the Truth
Scott Parrish and John Lepingwell, writing in the Middlebury Institute of International Studies of Monterey, concluded that “Lebed’s charges have therefore not been adequately dismissed by his critics, nor fully substantiated by his supporters. The claims that the Soviet Union never built ADMs ring hollow, but neither is there any solid evidence indicating the loss or diversion of such weapons.”
Their Existence Hasn’t Been In the News
Since 1997, there have been no other reports of these types of nuclear weapons in Russia and none have come into the hands of terrorists. Lebed and Yablokov may have just been operating on rumors and innuendo. Or the Russians who denied their existence were lying and they do indeed exist but are just hidden in some location only known to a few who have already died or who are not talking.
The New START nuclear weapons treaty between Russia and the United States allows for 18 on-site nuclear weapons inspections a year by both sides. But these inspections are for deployed and non-deployed strategic weapons. Tactical nuclear weapons are not included in the treaty.
So, it is plausible there could still be a secret site with the suitcase nukes – just nothing has come to light since the allegations from 1997.
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Expert Biography: Serving as 1945’s Defense and National Security Editor, Dr. Brent M. Eastwood is the author of Humans, Machines, and Data: Future Trends in Warfare. He is an Emerging Threats expert and former U.S. Army Infantry officer. You can follow him on Twitter @BMEastwood. He holds a Ph.D. in Political Science and Foreign Policy/ International Relations.