By Michael Bronner, an investigative journalist and filmmaker (THE NEW YORK TIMES, 16/08/08):
Even as Russia and Georgia continue their on-again, off-again struggle over South Ossetia and Abkhazia, a frenzied tea-leaf reading about the war’s global political ramifications has broken out across airwaves and think-tank forums. But as the situation on the ground recedes inevitably to some new form of the pernicious “frozen conflict” that has plagued the region since Georgia’s civil wars of the early 1990s, few are paying attention to a less portentous but equally critical international threat: an increase in the longstanding, rampant criminality in the conflict zones that is likely to further destabilize the entire Caucasus region and at worst provide terrorist groups with the nuclear material they have long craved.
While the Russian “peacekeepers” who entrenched themselves in the conflict zones in the 1990s (and who will now likely resume their posts anew) have proved ineffectual and uninterested in maintaining stability, they’ve been highly successful in protecting an array of sophisticated criminal networks stretching from Russia through Georgian territory. South Ossetia, in particular, is a nest of organized crime. It is a marketplace for a variety of contraband, from fuel to cigarettes, wheat flour, hard drugs, weapons, people and, recently, counterfeit United States $100 bills “minted” at a press inside the conflict zone.
“It’s a pretty sophisticated counterfeiting piece,” the American ambassador to Georgia, John Tefft, told me when I was in Georgia last year. He added that the fake bills appear so authentic that, if you weren’t specifically looking for a forgery, you’d easily miss it. More than $20 million worth have been found up and down the East Coast of the United States as well as in Israel, Russia and Georgia.
“We know where the printing press is,” Shota Utiashvili, a chief intelligence analyst at Georgia’s Interior Ministry, told me last year, when I was researching a study on smuggling that was published by Harvard’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. “We know the channels of distribution. And we know who is running the business. But the problem is neither we nor the Americans can do anything because the place is under the protection of the Russian military.” I found this sentiment echoed in my discussions at the American Embassy.
Far more dangerous contraband than fake bills is bartered in the conflict zones. On a bleak winter day last year, I hitched a ride from Tbilisi, the capital, to the “administrative border” — the semiporous line of control that swoops deep into Georgian territory from the Russian border demarking the contours of South Ossetia. I was investigating one of the most serious nuclear smuggling incidents in years — an offer of up to 3 kilograms of bomb-grade highly enriched uranium.
Because South Ossetia is within Georgia’s internationally recognized borders, Georgia doesn’t recognize the South Ossetian periphery as a legitimate frontier, and has thus refused to post border guards or impose any normal controls at the administrative line. At the grim little checkpoint, I had to navigate through dozens of armed young men, clad in seemingly random combinations of camouflage, none bearing the insignia of a national force (the scariest kind of border to cross, as there’s no way of telling who’s who).
Aside from demanding bribes from journalists, these South Ossetian irregulars, backed by the Russian peacekeepers, have long prevented Georgian forces from getting anywhere near the actual border — a two-lane hole called the Roki Tunnel that plunges into a mountainside on the Russian side of the border, cuts through two miles of bedrock beneath the Caucasus Mountains and pops out in South Ossetia, smack in the war zone.
Three years ago, Georgian intelligence officials began receiving reports from South Ossetian criminal contacts that a Russian smuggler — a North Ossetian calling himself Oleg — was circulating in Tskhinvali, the South Ossetian capital. He was reportedly looking for a buyer for what he claimed was high-quality enriched uranium pilfered from the Russian military. The price was $1 million for the initial shipment: 100 grams at $10,000 per gram. If the deal went well, a mother lode of up to 3 kilograms would be made available. One hundred grams of highly enriched uranium is not enough to build a nuclear bomb — it’s thought that even a top-tier terrorist group would require at least 15 kilograms — but it would be a step in the right direction.
Huge international efforts sponsored by the United States State, Energy and Defense Departments have sought to counter such nuclear smuggling (since 1994, the Energy Department has spent upwards of $420 million installing nuclear detection equipment at international border crossings, most of that effort concentrated on Russia’s frontiers), but conflict zones like South Ossetia have been an Achilles’ heel.
In this case, we got lucky. A haphazard sting operation run by Georgian paramilitaries and Interior Ministry agents recovered the 100 grams of highly enriched uranium and captured Oleg Khinsagov, the Russian smuggler, and three Georgian associates. Testing of the material proved it to be nearly 90 percent pure — bomb-grade uranium indeed — sending secure telephone lines ringing from Washington to Langley, Va.
The Russian government refused to acknowledge the obvious — that the uranium had originated in Russia — so a quickly assembled team of American experts from the Energy Department and the F.B.I. loaded an unmarked jet and quietly raced to Tbilisi to secure the material.
Good police work is vital, but we simply cannot depend on dramatic interventions like the Georgian raid to combat the broad security threats posed by anarchy on Russia’s borders. There are some great examples of cooperation between Washington and Moscow — the setting up of nuclear detection programs at borders is clearly one of them. Somehow, however, the full spirit of cooperation has yet to reach to the top of Russia’s government — the same men, unfortunately, who seem more inclined to pouring fuel on the fire in Georgia.