Dangerous Nuclear Security Failures in Russia's Backyard

Armenia is gambling with nuclear safety.

Nuclear security is seemingly at the forefront of global attention, but the large framework of international safeguards is increasingly perceived as a toothless tiger. In the contemporary age, where asymmetric threats to security are among the most dangerous, the time is nigh to mitigate the risk of rogue actors having potential access to materials that are necessary to develop nuclear weapons.

Nowhere is this urgency more pivotal than in already turbulent areas, such as the South Caucasus. With many geopolitical instabilities, lasting for decades with no completely bulletproof conflict resolution process in place, adding the threat of potential nuclear weapons means creating a house of cards that can cause a complete collapse of regional peace and stability. That is precisely why Armenia’s recently uncovered recurring actions toward the goal of building its own nuclear capacity must be addressed more seriously. They should also attract a bolder response to ensure safety of the region is sustained.

According to a report by the Vienna-based nuclear watchdog the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Armenia has established a record of illegal trafficking in nuclear and other radioactive materials. There have been several serious incidents spanning from 1999 onward. A large number of reported incidents has occurred on the country’s border with Georgia, leading the IAEA to conclude there is high probability that a so-called Armenian route does in fact exist. There is a further evidence to support this assertion. An unusually high number of Armenians have been caught in nuclear trafficking activities. Additionally, some of the incidents that made their way into the official reports suggest that the main focus of trafficking activities is the smuggling of materials that could be used for nuclear weapons. There were also reports suggesting the trafficking of other radioactive materials that could be used for alternate purposes, such as building a so-called dirty bomb. Since the stakes are always high with nuclear weapons, this threat must not be underrated and dismissed too easily.

Only days after the latest illegal activities were uncovered by border control in April 2016, former Armenian Prime Minister Bagratyan shocked the international public with the claim that Armenia indeed has nuclear capabilities and the ability to further develop them. The main reason for Armenia to possess nuclear weapons is to deter neighbors such as Turkey and Azerbaijan. More specifically, to discourage them from resorting to aggressive foreign policy measures, and to mitigate potential threats to Armenian territorial integrity, especially in the disputed regions. Even though Turkey and its intelligence network were quick to dismiss these claims and labeled them as a failed attempt to increase Armenia’s geopolitical importance, as well as to deter its much more militarily capable neighbors, such claims should not be taken lightly, either. Thus, there is no cause for immediate alarm.

However, there should be increased interest in the international community to investigate these serious claims. If documented, they would pose a grave threat of destabilization to an already turbulent region. They would also trigger deepening of hostilities and mistrust in the extremely delicate regional peace framework.

The prospects and danger of rogue actors potentially acquiring a dirty bomb are rising on the international agenda. The recently detected activities in South Caucasus showed that substantial efforts have been made to smuggle and illegally sell uranium-238, which is highly radioactive. At the beginning of 2016, a different group was trying to smuggle a highly radioactive cesium isotope that usually forms as a waste product in nuclear reactors. What is also worrying is that the majority of the activities are occurring in highly unstable and unmonitored territories of Azerbaijan and Georgia that are under the control of separatists, such as Nagorno-Karabakh and South Ossetia. The mere existence of the Armenian route goes to show that illegal activities can flourish in the region’s security “blind spots.”

There is also the Iranian connection. Armenia borders this Middle Eastern country that found itself at the center of global attention until the ratification of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action in 2015. The international agreement supposedly effectively mitigated the risk of Tehran developing its own nuclear capabilities and established a proper international regime to monitor compliance with the provisions that were put in place. However, fears remain over future developments on this issue. The unusually large amount of truck traffic between Armenia and Iran further fuels suspicion on what exactly takes place under the cloak of darkness.

Iran is not the only powerful Armenian ally that holds knowledge on all things nuclear. Yerevan has been extremely close with Russia since the breakup of the former Soviet Union, and fully relies on Moscow when it comes to upholding its security, territorial integrity and political autonomy. Russia is, of course, a member of the elite nuclear club, and holds one of the largest stockpiles of nuclear capabilities in the world (outside the United States). This is, of course, a leftover of the Cold War era and fears of the Eastern or the Western devil, depending on which side of the wall the threat was perceived.

It is worrying that some of the nuclear material that was trying to find its way into Armenia through South Ossetia has been, at least according to some reports, traced back to Russian nuclear facilities. This is of course no small wonder, since Russia is the official supplier of nuclear fuel for the only nuclear power plant in Armenia—the Metsamor nuclear plant, which supplies roughly 40 percent of the country’s electricity.

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