Caucasus nuclear smuggling case: Georgian “provocation”?

In the very first issue of WW4 REPORT, just two weeks after 9-11, we noted the terrifying plunder of post-Soviet nuclear materials by black-marketeers who could presumably sell them to the highest-bidding terrorist group. Just two weeks ago, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists moved the hands of the Doomsday Clock two minutes closer to midnight in response to (among other things) “the failure to adequately secure nuclear materials.” We’d like to believe Moscow’s claim that this latest incident is a set-up, a “provocation” by Georgia (presumably with some degree of CIA support) in the ongoing shadow struggle for strategic control of the Caucasus and its coveted pipeline routes. Anyway you slice it, it’s a very dangerous game. From AP, Jan. 27:

TBILISI — A Russian citizen who allegedly tried to sell highly enriched uranium to agents in ex-Soviet Georgia told investigators in initial questioning that the material came from the Russian city of Novosibirsk, a Georgian official said Saturday.

Georgia announced this week that it had arrested and jailed a Russian man, Oleg Khinsagov, last year for trying to sell a small amount of weapons-grade uranium to an agent posing as a rich foreign buyer.

The episode appeared to cast doubt on Russia’s ability to halt the black-market trade in nuclear materials and renewed concern about security at Russia’s array of nuclear facilities. But Russian experts and officials accused Georgia of trying to achieve political aims at a time of strained relations between the two countries.

“During one his first questionings, Oleg Khinsagov said that he had purchased the uranium in Novosibirsk. But he later took back his evidence and said that he acquired the substance from an unidentified person,” Georgian Interior Ministry official Shota Utiashvili told The Associated Press.

The official said Georgian authorities sent a letter of inquiry concerning the possible link to Novosibirsk to Russia’s Federal Security Service, or FSB. The agency declined to comment Saturday.

The Siberian city has a number of nuclear fuel producing and processing plants, including those that handle weapons-grade material.

Georgia has accused Russia of a lack of cooperation in the investigation, but Moscow countered that Georgian authorities provided Russian experts with only a tiny sample that was too small to establish its origin.

Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov on Friday called the announcement of the foiled nuclear smuggling a “provocation.”

The incident has aggravated already-high tensions between Russia and U.S.-allied Georgia. Both countries have been at odds for years over the status of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, two renegade regions of Georgia seeking either independence or absorption into Russia.

Georgian officials say their agent made contact with the man selling contraband uranium in South Ossetia, which is widely seen as a regional epicenter for smuggling.

Georgia’s Foreign Ministry said the uranium sting highlighted the need for international observer missions in both regions, a proposal that Tbilisi has been pushing in recent months. Russia has peacekeepers in both regions, which have been under the control of unrecognized separatist governments since fighting ended in the mid-1990s.

See our last posts on nuclear fear, Georgia and the struggle for the Caucasus.