Russian authorities on Friday rejected as an overblown propaganda ploy the announcement this week that one of their citizens was arrested last year in Georgia while allegedly trying to sell a small amount of weapons-grade uranium.
Russian national Oleg Khintsagov was arrested Feb. 1 after he smuggled about 3.5 ounces of the uranium into Georgia from his homeland, expecting to receive $1 million for it, Shota Utiashvili, chief of the analytical department of the Georgian Interior Ministry, said Friday in a telephone interview from Tbilisi, the Georgian capital.
Khintsagov, who thought he was dealing with “an extremely wealthy customer” wanting to buy nuclear bomb-making material, claimed that he would be able to provide up to 6.6 pounds at the price of $1 million for each 3.5 ounces, Utiashvili said.
Khintsagov was convicted for the attempted sale and is serving a sentence of at least eight years in a Georgian prison.
Some experts say that as little as 4 pounds of weapons-grade uranium could be sufficient to construct a bomb, but more common estimates are that even a highly sophisticated weapon would need several times that amount. Estimates of how much enriched uranium a terrorist organization would need to make a relatively crude bomb typically range from 35 to 50 pounds.
Utiashvili charged that Russia had not cooperated in the investigation of the incident, which was first made public this week by Georgian and U.S. officials. These officials said the CIA, the FBI and the Energy Department had assisted in the case.
“We think it is extremely dangerous that such material can get into the hands of terrorists,” Utiashvili said. “We think it is in everybody’s interests, and especially in the interests of Russia, to get to the bottom of it and assist us in this investigation.”
Georgian-Russian relations have been strained since last year, and Russian authorities have blamed any lack of cooperation in the case on the Georgian side.
An official of the Russian Federal Atomic Energy Agency, who asked for anonymity because the agency was not yet issuing a formal statement on the case, said that shortly after the man’s arrest, Georgia had provided a tiny sample of the seized material for testing in Russia.
The sample was sufficient for Russian scientists to determine that it was weapons-grade uranium but was not large enough to determine the origin of the material or the method of production, he said.
The agency requested a larger sample but did not get one, he added. The official said the affair “seems to us to be very strange, to say the least.”
Russian officials and analysts said Friday that Georgia was using the incident to score propaganda points.
“It appears obvious that Georgian ‘hawks’ were consciously trying to deal a painful blow to the prestige of Russia in the international arena,” the state-run Rossiyskaya Gazeta newspaper declared in an unsigned commentary.
Georgia’s actions in the case were “a planned information provocation,” said Andrei Cherkasenko, board chairman of Atompromresursy, a manufacturer of nuclear power industry equipment, according to RIA Novosti, the state-run Russian news agency.
Ivan Safranchuk, director of the Moscow office of the Washington-based Center for Defense Information, expressed doubt that Khintsagov really had access to the quantity of nuclear material he claimed.
“It reminds one very much of similar FSB sting operations in the early 1990s, when FSB agents, in order to produce some successful operations, provoked various low-rank employees and guards at companies that possessed nuclear materials,” he said, referring to the main successor agency to the KGB.
“They would offer sums of money for stealing it and selling it to FSB agents posing as eager customers,” he explained. “I think genuine serious terrorists would rather go to Pakistan if they wanted to lay their hands on nuclear materials. They must know better than to try to fish for that stuff in the waters of the former Soviet Union, where they most likely will end up stiffed, cheated and robbed rather than get back with the real thing.
“I don’t think the international community should give much credit to this story and express serious concern about the situation,” Safranchuk said.
Utiashvili said Khintsagov had previously been known to Georgian authorities as “a small-time smuggler specializing mostly in foodstuffs.”
“When we received information that this man claimed to be in possession of some weapons-grade nuclear materials, we didn’t really believe it was true, given the trade habits of this person,” Utiashvili said. “But we decided to follow that trace anyway because we can’t leave any information like this without proper investigation. So we set up an operation in which one of our men posed as an extremely wealthy customer who was interested in obtaining that material.”
During the sting operation, Khintsagov was tracked from Russia through the Russian-backed Georgian separatist region of South Ossetia to the main part of Georgia controlled by the central government, Utiashvili said.
“We are completely convinced he brought the nuclear material from Russia,” he said. “When the man and his three Georgian accomplices were arrested and the material was analyzed by our experts, we were shocked to hear that the material in question was indeed weapons-grade uranium-235.”
Utiashvili said Georgia had requested help from the FSB, or Russian Federal Security Service, immediately after the arrests were made, but that the agency never responded.
“Unfortunately,” he said, “Khintsagov never either during the investigation or during the trial testified where he got the dangerous material and who helped him get that in Russia.”
Times staff writer Sergei L. Loiko contributed to this report.