Fighters of Wagner private mercenary group pull out of the headquarters of the Southern Military District to return to base, in the city of Rostov-on-Don, Russia, June 24, 2023. REUTERS/Alexander Ermochenko

By Jonathan Landay

 – The Wagner mercenary group’s march on Moscow has revived an old fear in Washington: what happens to Russia‘s nuclear stockpile in the event of domestic upheaval.

An agreement on Saturday by Wagner’s boss, Yevgeny Prigozhin, to order his fighters back to their camps quelled immediate worries of major conflict inside Russia. But the episode signaled that Russian President Vladimir Putin’s grasp on power is weakening.

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Images of tanks on Russian streets brought to mind the failed 1991 coup by communist hardliners that raised concerns about the security of the Soviet nuclear arsenal and the possibility of a rogue commander stealing a warhead, said former U.S. intelligence officials.

“The IC (intelligence community) will be super-focused on the (Russian) nuclear stockpile,” said Marc Polymeropoulos, a former senior CIA officer who oversaw the agency’s clandestine operations in Europe and Eurasia.

“You want to know who has control of the nuclear weapons because you’re worried that terrorists or bad guys like (Chechen leader Ramzan) Kadyrov might come after them for the leverage they can get,” said Daniel Hoffman, a former senior CIA officer who served as the agency’s Moscow station chief.

Kadyrov dispatched thousands of his own militiamen to Rostov-on-Don, the southern city seized and then abandoned by Prigozhin’s fighters, vowing to help put down the revolt.

To be sure, U.S. officials say they do not see an immediate threat to the security of Russia‘s strategic and tactical weapons. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said the deal that sent Wagner fighters back to their camps was aimed at avoiding confrontation and bloodshed.

“We have not seen any changes in the disposition of Russian nuclear forces,” said a National Security Council spokesperson in response to questions from Reuters. “Russia has a special responsibility to maintain command, control, and custody of its nuclear forces and to ensure that no actions are taken that imperil strategic stability.”

But the safety of these weapons is a persistent worry for Washington. U.S. intelligence agencies said in their 2023 Annual Threat assessment that “Russia‘s nuclear material security … remains a concern despite improvements to material protection, control, and accounting at Russia‘s nuclear sites since the 1990s.”

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A congressional aide noted that the Kremlin has pumped extra resources into modernizing its arsenal in recent years, adding that, “Russia’s strategic forces have generally been in ship-shape.”

The scenario worrying planners now may be the possibility of a rogue military faction gaining decision-making ability over some of the weapons should divisions over the war in Ukraine exposed by Prigozhin’s mutiny erupt anew.

The United States and its allies would be left to wonder how any new authority would use the weapons, said Hoffman.

“It’s the ability to extort the West for whatever you want. And they might not play by the same sort of rules that Putin has,” he said, noting how the Russian leader has not acted on nuclear threats he has made in response to the West’s support for Ukraine’s fight against Russian occupation forces.

Russia’s nuclear arsenal is the world’s largest, estimated in 2022 at 5,977 warheads by the Federation of American scientists, compared to an estimated 5,428 held by the U.S.

Collecting information on Russia’s strategic forces command structure and the security and other aspects of the stockpile long has been among U.S. spy agencies’ highest priorities, the former CIA officers said.

That work became harder with Putin’s August 2022 decision to halt U.S. inspections of Russia‘s nuclear sites under the New START treaty, which allowed the sides to inspect and monitor each other’s strategic nuclear forces.

That decision left Washington highly dependent on spy satellites to assess the security of nuclear weapons sites and movements of warheads, and communications intercepts to monitor the loyalty of Russian commanders, said Polymeropoulos.

“This has always been a super-high (U.S.) intelligence collection priority and the command and control of nuclear weapons in Russia,” said Hoffman. “We all know it’s dangerous, which is why we had all these treaties, where we had a lot of transparency, which is now gone.”

(Reporting by Jonathan Landay; Editing by Don Durfee and Daniel Wallis)

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