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Toni Schönfelder
A lifetime of innovation

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Toni Schönfelder
A lifetime of innovation

A Good Nuclear Hoax

WASHINGTON -- It is easy to forget that once upon a time, the worlds third-largest nuclear arsenal belonged to little Ukraine.

Kiev made history when it renounced its mini-superpower status in a three-way deal brokered with Russia and the United States. In the summer of 1996, top military officials from those three nations marked the departure of the last warhead by planting sunflower seeds at a Ukrainian missile base. Overnight, the sunflower -- emblem of Ukraines willingness to give up the bomb -- became the leading symbol of global movements for nuclear disarmament.

Now comes Petro Symonenko, the Ukrainian Communist Party chief, insisting the sunflower photo-op was a farce. He says a parliamentary investigation a few years ago determined that 200 warheads Ukraine had pledged to deliver to Russia for dismantling never arrived -- at least according to the paperwork. "Two hundred Soviet Army nuclear warheads that were located in Ukraine are now located no-one-knows-where," Symonenko said at a Sept. 11 news conference.

The Ukrainian Defense Ministry has denied the allegation. U.S. and Ukrainian arms control experts have also expressed surprise.

"My initial reaction is one of skepticism," said Jon Wolfstahl, a former U.S. Energy Department official now with the Carnegie Endowments Nuclear Non-Proliferation Project. "The process by which nuclear weapons went from Ukraine to Russia was a very tightly controlled one, where the United States acted as an honest broker of sorts. All information that the U.S. government has ... says the weapons are accounted for."

Rose Gottemoeller, a top Clinton administration official who worked on the delivery of Ukrainian arms to Russian dismantling factories, noted that the Ukrainians had monitors follow the weapons through the process from start to finish. And Oleksandr Sushko, director of Ukraines Center for Peace, Conversion and Foreign Policy, dismissed Symonenkos bombshell as "political speculation."

The political context is certainly important to bear in mind. Thousands of street protesters have been demanding the resignation of Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma, who has been compellingly implicated in corruption and in the murder (and beheading) of an opposition journalist. (Kuchmas government has admitted that it is the presidents voice on a tape recording in which he seems to be ordering the journalists death, though it says the tape itself has been doctored.)

Investigators from the U.S. Justice Department are also investigating a tape in which Kuchma seems to be giving permission for Ukraine to sell four radar systems for detecting Stealth fighter jets to Saddam Hussein. Opposition figures in Ukraine say Kuchma himself has overseen the sale of other (as-yet-unspecified) military hardware to Iraq.

Some American observers ask if this means Saddam is armed with 200 Ukrainian nuclear warheads. Not likely. It is far more probable that Kuchmas opposition is angling for terrified and angry international headlines -- the kind designed to put the Ukrainian president squarely in the camp of the international villain of the hour.

So, dismiss Symonenkos missing warheads as a politically motivated hoax -- one less thing to worry about. But remember that the story of Ukraines missing 200 nuclear bombs is so sobering precisely because, like any good hoax, it is a plausible fit with some harsh realities: The world is awash in weapons-grade nuclear materials, more such material is being created by the hour and very little of effect is being done -- indeed, very little can be done, short of renouncing nuclear power and closing reactors worldwide -- to secure it all.

Matt Bivens, a former editor of The Moscow Times, is a Washington-based fellow of The Nation Institute [].

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