Wastes of War
In Search of Russia's Weapons Scientists
By David Hoffman
Vinogradov was among the elite who built the Soviet Union's antiballistic missile system over Moscow, a giant network of nuclear-armed rockets and radars. Their six-story headquarters at No. 80 Leningradsky Prospekt was ultra-secret and bore a simple name: The Scientific Research Institute of Radio Device Design.
A sign still hangs outside the institute, but in the new Russia, the scientists inside have barely survived. Today, their building is a beehive of another kind.
Dozens of Chinese men jostle huge yellow bales of goods on their backs, carrying them up and down the stairs. They are "shuttle traders," the hardy, cross-border merchants who lug cheap goods into Russia for meager wages. They have rented four floors of the institute and turned it into a warehouse for leather jackets and furs.
From his windows above them, Vinogradov, who spent 30 years in the highest ranks of Soviet and Russian defense industry, looks down with feelings of bitterness. "I feel humiliation," he said.
His despair goes to the heart of one of the least understood but most significant consequences of the end of the Cold War and collapse of the Soviet military-industrial complex. Tens of thousands of highly trained specialists who built Soviet weapons of mass destruction nuclear, chemical and biological weapons and the means to deliver them have been thrown onto the street in Russia's chaos of recent years.
Their research institutes have been turned into warehouses, or just abandoned. Their government paychecks stopped. Many have found other jobs in business. Still others have just disappeared. Despite Western efforts to offer some of them civilian work, no one knows where all the weapons scientists have gone.
It is certain, however, that some have been caught up in a dangerous global contest for their skills. According to well-informed Russian and Western officials, over the last seven years a steady stream of know-how and technology and, in some cases, the scientists themselves, have been plucked from Russia by nations hungry to build their own weapons of mass destruction.
Iraq and Iran, as well as China, India and North Korea, have benefited from Soviet and Russian weapons expertise. Russia hosted undercover groups and shady businessmen shopping for missile parts and technology. Export controls were practically unenforced. "I do not know of any major cases of prosecution of export control violations which put people in jail," said Vladimir Orlov, director of the Center for Policy Studies in Russia, a nonproliferation group that exposed how Iraq bought Russian missile-guidance systems.
When the Soviet Union fell apart in 1991, alarm bells sounded in the West about the fate of the core 2,500 to 3,000 nuclear scientists who had direct knowledge of bomb-building technology and were located in "secret" nuclear cities and laboratories.
But now it is clear that was only part of the problem. Just as vulnerable, if not more so, were tens of thousands of specialists who worked outside the weapons laboratories and beyond the barbed wire fences of the closed cities.
In the Soviet era, weapons scientists accepted a basic trade-off: They got better living standards and a chance to carry out their research but forfeited the right to travel abroad. The deal was ironclad: The Soviet police state enforced it. The scientists were tracked. But today, this compact between the government and the weapons builders is in tatters. "It doesn't exist," said Vinogradov. "The government no longer provides wages, much less a decent standard of living, so the scientists just drift away."
Moreover, some of the early assumptions about the Russian weapons scientists proved wrong. There was not a mass exodus from Russia, although some left. Instead, the proliferation of missile technology and nuclear know-how came from inside. Scientists could be approached for information, technology and designs without attracting attention.
They did not have to leave Russia. The buyers came to them.
Slow Death of an Elite
What could stop a nuclear warhead zooming through space? At the dawn of the ballistic missile era, Oleg Golubev was among the young Soviet scientists who puzzled over the idea in the summer of 1955. Golubev became designer of guidance systems for the interceptor rockets of a vast antiballistic missile system that Soviet leaders built over Moscow. The rockets, nicknamed Galosh and Gazelle, would try to kill incoming missiles.
Their headquarters was a prestigious link in the Soviet military-industrial complex. They built two generations of antiballistic missile systems, the second of which, known as A-135, was put into operation in the final years of the Soviet Union. The centerpiece was a pyramid-like, four-sided radar that watched over European Russia, and beyond. Ultimately, their solution to the problem of stopping incoming warheads was to hit them with nuclear charges on the interceptor rockets. The scientists won awards Golubev got the Lenin Prize and they had the highest top-secret clearances.
Today, Golubev, 75, a diminutive, soft-spoken veteran of a half-century at the institute, still comes to work three days a week. But the institute is in the throes of extinction.
Golubev earns the equivalent of $45 a month, and his last paycheck was in 1995. Vinogradov, the deputy director, has not been paid regularly in 32 months. His salary is $100 a month. These days, the only "Gazelle" in sight is a Russian light truck by the same name. They arrive in droves at the institute to unload leather and fur coats.
The collapse of the institute is a metaphor for the larger implosion of the Soviet military-industrial complex and thousands of weapons scientists who worked in it. The Russian government did not close them, nor did it give them work. They were left in limbo.
The anti-missile institute once had 10,000 workers, 20 buildings and 150 acres of land. But it could not adapt. Subsidies turned to a trickle. The chiefs of the institute tried to transform it into a private company and to rent out space. But there was a long, drawn-out legal wrangle. The work force dwindled to 2,500. Some of the younger and smarter engineers went to work for a successful Moscow cellular telephone company.
On the verge of being forced into bankruptcy, the institute was given a reprieve by President Boris Yeltsin, who decreed in November that it could not be forced to close. But the halls of its headquarters are silent. In the entrance, a kerosene heater roars loudly. Wires hang from ceilings, the linoleum floors buckle underfoot.
"Today I have to do my job here in the institute," Vinogradov said. "On the other hand, I am ready and willing to repair any electronic equipment, VCRs, tape recorders, automobiles, do construction. Though, by profession, I am a physicist, an engineer." In a vivid reminder of how far they had fallen, Vinogradov said the scientists got a special pass for people who haven't been paid allowing them to ride the buses and subway free.
In a twist that is deep with irony, the problem of ballistic missiles is gaining fresh attention around the world. The reason is that several nations aspiring to build or already building nuclear-armed missiles have been scouring the world for technology and expertise.
One of the first places they looked for help was post-Soviet Russia. "There is no danger that this information will be spreading to Iran, Iraq or North Korea through the walls of our institute," Vinogradov said. "Even when people who work in the institute are not being paid, I don't think that the danger exists. But the people who left the institute, and who lost connection with the institute, with them, this danger exists."
In 1994, a group of businessmen who identified themselves as Jordanians came to the Scientific Production Association Energomash, the giant Soviet, and later Russian, manufacturer of rocket engines.
Energomash, one of the leaders of Soviet defense industry, built about 60 types of rocket engines over a half-century, but in the early years after the Soviet collapse, work was scarce. Energomash was looking for contracts from abroad.
The visitors, neatly outfitted in suits and ties, presented their business cards. They said they were from the "Gharbiyeh Company." They also outlined the technical specifications of rocket engines they wanted to buy. They needed regenerative, liquid-fueled engines with 3.5 to 4 tons of thrust. They specified the type of fuel and the configuration of the pumps, and that the engines would operate for 150 seconds and weigh 132 pounds without fuel.
On Nov. 18, 1994, two of the visitors signed a "letter of intent" with three Energomash officials for procurement of the engines. In handwriting at the bottom of the document it was noted: "Energomash will give as contractual obligation a complete knowledge about the design calculation, technology, process and testing of the engine components and a complete engine" upon signing a contract.
The visitors were, in fact, not from Jordan. They were from Iraq, part of an undercover delegation then shopping for missile parts at a number of leading Russian defense firms, despite the fact that Iraq was under a U.N. arms embargo.
Victor Sigaev, deputy general director of Energomash, said a contract was not signed, the engines were never built, and the company learned only later that the visitors were not really Jordanian, as their business cards claimed, but Iraqi.
Another Energomash official said the visitors were not asked for further identification. Their passports were not checked, nor did Energomash attempt to find out who they really were. The official said the only check that was made was that Jordan was not on any prohibited list of countries to do business with. Iraq, however, was on such a list. Sigaev said Energomash had warned the visitors five times that government approval would be needed for the deal and the mysterious "Jordanians" never returned.
Sigaev insisted that Energomash, which now has a joint venture with Pratt & Whitney to produce the Russian-designed RD-180 rocket engine, never intended to break the law.
But the approach of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's agents shows how tempting it was for aspiring weapons states to send agents to Russia in hopes of exploiting the weakened archipelago of weapons science and industry.
Russian officials routinely deny that the state sponsored or approved of such deals. But the contacts did not cease. In the case of Weaam Gharbiyeh, the Palestinian middleman who bought and shipped more than 800 sophisticated missile gyroscopes for Iraq, a criminal case was opened in Russia, but closed without prosecution, according to Orlov, director of the nonproliferation center.
Iran also sent agents aggressively seeking missile and nuclear technology, and U.S. officials believe they still are sending them.
In 1997, Iran was discovered trying to make a liquid-fueled engine under the guise of gas turbine equipment at a Russian factory. Later that year, Russian police seized an Iranian diplomat while accepting missile-design documents. The diplomat was expelled. The Iranians also turned in 1996 to a prestigious Russian aerodynamics institute about possible wind-tunnel tests for a missile.
The Rumsfeld Commission mandated by the U.S. Congress found earlier this year that Iran's missile program "has benefited from broad, essential, long-term assistance from Russia" as well as China. Iran surprised the world last summer with a test of its Shahab-3 medium-range missile, which is expected to have a range of 807 miles, and a next generation longer-range missile is under development.
'A Desperate Time'
In the early 1990s, many Soviet weapons scientists saw their world disintegrate. But some seized a lifeline thrown by the West.
Sergei Shumsky grew up in the closed city of Chelyabinsk-70 in the Ural Mountains, one of the Soviet Union's two nuclear weapons laboratories, known today as Snezhinsk. His father was a weapons engineer. Shumsky studied nuclear physics in Moscow, but when the Soviet Union collapsed, his research dried up.
Shumsky, a physicist at the Lebedev Physics Institute, recalled that many colleagues were set adrift. Some went abroad, others went into business. Vague offers came from strange Middle Eastern companies.
"Indeed, we had contacts with some Eastern companies which tried to have informal collaboration for not very much money," he said. "When you haven't been paid a salary for several months, there is a high possibility of such kinds of cooperation."
Victor Vyshinsky is a department head at the Central Aerohydrodynamic Institute, which was a prestigious flight-research center in the Soviet era. But as the Soviet Union broke up, Vyshynsky was at a loss to market his skills as an expert on calculating fluid dynamics. In the Soviet years, he researched the aerodynamics of cruise missiles. "You know scientists work like miners in a mine," he recalled. "We felt that the air stopped coming into our hole, into our mine."
Vyshinsky said he tried to adapt, looking for commercial applications for his expertise, but nothing worked out. "It was a desperate time," he said, as many scientists felt abandoned by the state that had so long coddled them.
He recalled there was little to stop a weapons scientist from leaving Russia, despite official restrictions. "The only thing that stops you is scruples," he said. "But if someone takes it into their head to sell something, then I don't think there will be a problem."
Neither Shumsky, 40, nor Vyshinsky, 47, sold their skills, but instead they turned to an international effort trying to stanch the flow of weapons technology out of Russia.
The International Science and Technology Center, a joint program of the United States, European Union, Japan, South Korea, Norway and private firms, as well as Russia, has spent nearly $190 million for grants to persuade Russian weapons scientists to take up civilian work. Shumsky won a three-year grant to work on neural networks for computers, and Vyshinsky found aid for his research on vortex trails of commercial airliners.
But the Western effort has not plugged all the holes. The core of the Russian nuclear-weapons scientists is about 2,500 specialists, many at the two nuclear weapons laboratories. Beyond that, there are 5,000 more specialists in fabricating weapons and handling materials, and a third level of 12,000 to 15,000, possibly more, involved in uranium and plutonium production, delivery systems, and other aspects of weapons of mass destruction.
According to several different estimates, the Western effort may have reached 60 percent of the core scientists. But where the rest have gone is simply not known. Nor is it known how much technology and know-how slipped out of Russia.
"The closed cities are closed, but Moscow is open to international communications," said a European diplomat who has been deeply involved in the effort.
"When you talk about proliferation of knowledge, the main risk was not the emigration of scientists to the desert none of them really wanted to do this but using modern means of communication. It would be extremely easy to do this with the Internet and faxes."
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company