The view from the ground.

Black Hole on the Black Sea

Inside Georgia's nuclear bazaar.


Last fall, I boarded a ramshackle bus winding through the villages and vineyards on the Georgian side of the demarcation line with the breakaway region of South Ossetia. I was there to see what I could learn about the dangers of nuclear smuggling.

Last fall, I boarded a ramshackle bus winding through the villages and vineyards on the Georgian side of the demarcation line with the breakaway region of South Ossetia. I was there to see what I could learn about the dangers of nuclear smuggling.

Even before Georgia’s disastrous war with Russia in August 2008, South Ossetia was something of a no-man’s land. Controlled by a self-declared government and militia of irregulars, it had become a smuggling haven for the illegal trade in alcohol, cigarettes, and drugs that supported the local economy. "It’s hugely problematic," a senior Western diplomat in Tbilisi told me of the breakaway regions. "They provide havens for human trafficking and nuclear smuggling."

South Ossetia is precisely the kind of jurisdictional "black hole" that experts say poses such a great risk to nuclear proliferation. In fact, in an announcement that was largely ignored during the recent Nuclear Security Summit in Washington. President Mikheil Saakashvili revealed that in March, Georgia had once again intercepted smugglers with weapons-grade uranium, the country’s eighth such bust in the last decade.

Although the Georgian government has not elaborated on the case, the country’s smuggling problems have long been linked to the two breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia (a third breakaway region, Ajaria, has since been brought back under Georgian control). The territories, which are recognized as independent states only by Russia, Nicaragua, Venezuela, and the tiny Pacific island of Nauru, have presented a strategic conundrum when it comes to border security.

Georgia does not recognize them as separate regions, so there are no formal border checkpoints. Yet without access to the regions’ external borders, Georgia also cannot police what comes in and out. Seizures of weapons-grade material are still rare enough — and dangerous enough — that such news would normally capture headlines. But overshadowed by the events of the summit, the Georgian president’s announcement was initially picked up by only a handful of outlets. Saakashvili wasn’t even able to get a personal meeting with U.S. President Barack Obama on the summit’s sidelines.

What was surprising about the U.S. president’s ill-advised snub of one of its most loyal allies is that Georgia, in so many ways, is at the heart of nuclear bazaar. Situated between Russia, and its vast stores of nuclear material, and Turkey, which U.S. and Georgian law enforcement officials say has an active black market with eager buyers of nuclear materials, Georgia should be at the forefront of any discussion about nuclear security.

Most people think of the nuclear black market as a sinister world full of cunning, Bond-like villains, but the reality is much more mundane and even comical, as I learned during my trip to Georgia. Oleg Khintsagov, the Russian smuggler who was caught in 2006 trying to smuggle weapons-grade uranium, was found toting the uranium in plastic baggies, and Garik Dadayan, an Armenian citizen arrested in Georgia in 2003, was caught because he double-crossed his partners.

In Tbilisi, I met with Archil Pavlenishvili, Georgia’s chief nuclear investigator, who in 2006 led his six-member team on the dramatic sting operation that led to the arrest of Khintsagov, a Russian citizen who was trying to sell about 100 grams of weapons-grade uranium to what he thought was a Turkish buyer, but turned out be a Georgian agent.

Indeed, from the portrait Pavlenishvili painted, at times the smugglers seem to be stealing their playbook from Austin Powers rather than al Qaeda. "They have no idea about price," Pavlenishvili said, laughing. "Everything starts with millions, and then finally it’s possible to negotiate for 50 or 60 thousand dollars, especially if you’re dealing with cesium". (Cesium-137, an isotope used in medicine and industry, can be used to make a dirty bomb.)

In fact, though there are the rare cases of highly enriched uranium (HEU) for sale, according to Pavlenishvili, scammers are frequently just hawking "red mercury" — a fictional substance, supposedly used for nuclear weapons, that became famous in the mid-1990s as the hoax du jour.

(In fact, speaking at a briefing at the conclusion of the nuclear summit, John Brennan, the U.S. president’s advisor on counterterrorism and homeland security, said that most of the known instances of criminals attempting to peddle nuclear materials to buyers, including al Qaeda, have turned out to be scams.)

In Georgia, the actual materials used in red mercury range from simple red food coloring to the somewhat more exotic, but equally useless for weapons, mercuric-stybic heptoxide (Hg2Sb2O7), a catalyzer sold on the Internet that has a red-brown color. "Once in 2006, we had a case when a Turkish citizen tried to smuggle real cesium-137," Pavlenishvili told me. "He placed the cesium inside red liquid and tried to sell it as red mercury; it has very strong radiation." The red-mercury smuggler was caught and arrested.

Sometimes the schemes are pure comedy. "Among the smugglers, there is a rumor about how you identify real red mercury," Pavlenishvili said. "You take it to a working TV, and if instead of picture you see only lines there, it means it’s strong enough and a really good mixture." One smuggler went so far with the urban myth that he prepared a red liquid and altered his television so that it could be manipulated with a remote control in his pocket. With the press of a button, he could switch the TV to wavy lines instead of picture.

If the nuclear bazaar is full of amateurs and bunglers, then why worry about Georgia? The simple answer, as Saakashvili’s announcement last month makes clear, is that for all the fraudsters hawking red mercury, there are a number of cases of real nuclear materials being smuggled through Georgia, from yellowcake to cesium. "Traditionally we are capturing two or three groups per year, since 2006," Pavlenishvili told me.

Those cases include such items as "piglets," shielded containers used to store radioactive materials. There have been at least two attempts to smuggle them from Abkhazia, according to Pavlenishvili. In November 2007, for example, a Georgian working as a "courier" for an Abkhazian organized crime group was arrested while trying to smuggle a piglet containing cesium-137 into Georgia. The container was found hidden amid a shipment of nuts.

The why may be unknown, but the where is clear: The sellers are heading to Turkey. "For our smugglers, the paradise — I don’t why — is Turkey," Pavlenishvili said, a claim that was backed up by a U.S. law enforcement official I spoke with who had worked with the Georgians on this issue.

That doesn’t necessarily mean the market is seller-driven; Pavlenishvili acknowledges that the Russian and Caucasian smugglers could just be naively speculating that a Muslim country is a gateway to terrorists willing to pay high prices. "Sometimes they are looking for Arabs, but in Turkey it’s easier to find Turks than Arabs," he said.

Trying to get definitive answers on exactly where the nuclear material is coming from, and where it’s going to, has so far proved elusive. The smuggler at the heart of the 2003 HEU incident, Dadayan, was never prosecuted in Georgia. Rather, he was returned to his home country of Armenia for prosecution. Khintsagov, who remains in jail in Georgia, has declined to cooperate with Georgian investigators.

Although originally sentenced to eight years in prison, Khintsagov — perhaps the world’s most infamous nuclear smuggler — is scheduled to be released early for "good behavior," according to Shota Utiashvili, a senior official in Georgia’s Interior Ministry.

In the meantime, the smuggling haven of South Ossetia is now nominally independent and backed by Russian troops. Along the main road to Tskhinvali, the would-be state’s capital, the dividing line between Georgia and South Ossetia is demarcated by a concrete fort bolstered with sandbags, from which Georgian soldiers keep watch. Less than 100 meters away, Russian soldiers stand on the other side. Three flags fly above the makeshift border: Georgia, South Ossetia, and Russia.

Today, with Russian troops along the demarcation line, the mass movement of black market goods through Georgian territory has ended, but Georgia contends the area still poses a nuclear smuggling threat. What, after all, were the Russian soldiers doing there? Perhaps "picking mushrooms," Saakashvili caustically joked in Washington last month. If the Russians are, in fact, occupying South Ossetia, then they are responsible for controlling proliferation, he insisted.

Although Saakashvili has publicly linked Russia’s support for the breakaway regions to nuclear smuggling, the Georgian government, so far, has released few details about this latest seizure that would substantiate this claim. Further complicating the situation is that Georgian and U.S. officials acknowledge that since the August 2008 war, smuggling has actually fallen precipitiously since Russian troops have essentially cut off most transit over the border. The government in Moscow, for its part, has vehemently denied Saakashvili’s attempts to pin any blame for nuclear smuggling on Russia. "It’s not serious to make such unsubstantiated statements," Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Igor Lyakin-Frolov told the Associated Press. Saakashvili need to say "where and when it happened, instead of using it for political purposes and propaganda."

In the grape-growing Georgian village of Kveshi, a simple bus ride demonstrated to me that Saakashvili’s concerns might be, in some respects, well founded. The Russians weren’t picking mushrooms, but neither did they seem to be interested in ensuring the border was secure. At Georgia’s legal crossings with Azerbaijan, Turkey, Armenia, and Russia, the borders are controlled by trained police who operate U.S.-supplied radiation detectors. But as our bus stopped at the makeshift — and arguably illegal — checkpoint at the border crossing with South Ossetia, we saw nothing more than a few Russian soldiers sitting in a jeep. One Russian soldier approached the bus, while another sat in the vehicle drinking a can of beer.

Georgian police in the town had told us that both sides turn a blind eye to women from South Ossetia who cross over into Georgia proper to buy basic goods in the nearby town of Gori.

The Russian soldiers did not inspect the bus or the goods carried by the passengers, but rather removed me from the vehicle after I tried to take a picture of the makeshift border crossing. We chatted calmly as the soldier examined my passport and asked what I was doing in the area ("Visiting friends," I told him).

When asked where the border between Georgia and South Ossetia was located — because the Russians appeared to be encamped on the Georgian side — the soldier replied simply: "I have no idea."

Sharon Weinberger was executive editor for news at Foreign Policy from 2017-2018.

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