Alexander I. Lebed, the former Russian general and presidential hopeful, has been broadcasting his claim over the past week that Russia has lost track of 100 nuclear bombs the size of suitcases.
"A very thorough investigation is necessary," Lebed reiterated to reporters Monday. "The state of nuclear security in Russia poses a danger to the whole world." The general's allegations are roundly denied by Russian officials, who contend that all of Russia's nuclear weapons are safely under control.
In his previous post as President Boris N. Yeltsin's top security advisor, Lebed might have been in a position to know about such secrets. But the president fired him nearly a year ago.
Now Lebed--who negotiated last year's peace accord with Chechnya--is a political outsider who is trying to revive his career and build a base for a potential run for the presidency in 2000, when Yeltsin must step down.
"How can a serious politician make such a sensational statement without checking the facts first?" asked Vladimir F. Uvatenko, chief spokesman for the Defense Ministry. "This scandalous statement was clearly made by Alexander Lebed to get the attention of the press and boost his waning political image and declining popularity."
Despite the official denials, Lebed is pursuing his allegations undeterred. In an interview on CBS-TV's "60 Minutes" aired Sunday, Lebed said the suitcase bombs were ideal weapons for terrorists because they could be armed and detonated by a single person within half an hour. One of the 1-kiloton bombs could kill 100,000 people, he said. Of 250 suitcase devices made by the former Soviet Union, he said, 100 are unaccounted for.
On Monday, Lebed told the Interfax news agency in Moscow that he had learned of the existence of the bombs 11 months ago when he was Yeltsin's security advisor. Since that time, he said, he has been able to prove to his own satisfaction that the weapons were real.
"I started to look into the matter and managed to find out that such cases do exist," he said. However, he added, he "did not have time to find out how many such nuclear charges there were."
According to Lebed, the suitcase bombs, measuring about 23 by 16 by 8 inches, were deployed by the Soviet Union in special brigades in some of the empire's remote regions. After the breakup of the Soviet state, many of the suitcases vanished in what became independent republics, where they could fall into the hands of terrorists, he said.
"We should realize that a moron with such a device in New York is 'great fun' for all humankind," he said.
In Washington, U.S. officials said they had no information that any of Russia's nuclear weapons, whatever their size, have been offered for sale on the world's black markets.
Lebed's U.S. broadcast brought denunciations from a host of officials, including Prime Minister Viktor S. Chernomyrdin, who called his contention "absolutely impossible."