U.S. spy satellites have located the exact position of Russian tactical nuclear weapons in the Baltic enclave of Kaliningrad, contradicting Moscow’s contention that it had not transferred the battlefield arms.
Satellite photographs first revealed the transfers June 3 when the weapons were spotted aboard a Russian military train at a seaport near St. Petersburg, according to U.S. intelligence officials.
A second intelligence breakthrough took place June 6 when spy satellites detected the arrival of the nuclear arms in Kaliningrad, said officials familiar with intelligence reports who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
The weapons were moved by ship from the Russian port to a special nuclear storage bunker near a military airfield in Kaliningrad, a small Russian enclave between Poland and Lithuania on the Baltic Sea.
The satellite photographs have refuted Russian government denials about the transfer or deployment of nuclear arms in Kaliningrad. The transfers were first reported by The Washington Times on Jan. 3.
“The Russians are denying it, but we know better,” said one defense official. Debate within the U.S. government has ceased on the nuclear transfers.
The disclosure of the tactical nuclear arms transfers prompted statements of concern by the governments of Poland, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia. Moscow has refused inspections of all military facilities in Kaliningrad by those governments.
Polish Defense Minister Bronislaw Komorowski called for inspections of Kaliningrad to determine whether the nuclear arms were deployed there. The State Department did not support the call for inspections, even though Poland is now a member of the NATO alliance.
Under an informal agreement reached between the United States and Russia in 1992, Moscow was to remove all tactical nuclear weapons from forward-deployed areas and said they had done so.
Russian President Vladimir Putin last month dismissed reports of the nuclear arms in Kaliningrad as “rubbish.”
U.S. intelligence is still trying to determine the exact type of the nuclear arms. They were described in reports as either nuclear naval, ground forces or air-delivered weapons.
The weapons in Kaliningrad are based in what the Pentagon calls a nuclear storage site, a special facility used to house nuclear arms.
The intelligence photographs, gathered by the Pentagon’s array of reconnaissance satellites, confirmed suspicions dating back to 1998 about the deployment of tactical nuclear arms in Kaliningrad, the officials said.
Russia has between 4,000 and 15,000 tactical nuclear weapons, none of which is covered by formal U.S.-Russian arms control agreements. They include short-range missile warheads, nuclear-armed torpedoes and air-dropped nuclear bombs.
A Pentagon spokesman told The Washington Times last month that the deployment of tactical nuclear arms to Kaliningrad violates Moscow’s pledge to keep the Baltic region a “nuclear-free” zone.
The nuclear transfers were not reported in formal Pentagon intelligence reports until December, fueling speculation among some officials that the information was withheld from U.S. government policy-makers for diplomatic reasons. Intelligence officials denied the information was withheld.
After the disclosures last month, the State Department sent a formal diplomatic note to the Russians asking for an explanation of the deployment.
The Russian government replied by repeating Moscow’s public denials insisting that there were no nuclear arms in Kaliningrad, U.S. officials said.
Zbigniew Brzezinski, national security adviser during the Carter administration, said the nuclear arms in Kaliningrad are a political problem more than a serious strategic worry.
“It tells us something about the dogged attitudes of the Russian military and political leaders,” Mr. Brzezinski said in an interview.
“It’s conduct you would not expect from a responsible government that generally wants to be part of the partnership of the European community, as Putin has indicated,” Mr. Brzezinski said.
“No one likes to be sitting next to nuclear weapons, stored or unstored,” he said.
But efforts by Polish and Baltic-nation governments to seek nuclear inspections will be difficult because there are no formal agreements allowing such reviews, Mr. Brzezinski said.
As for Russian government denials, Mr. Brzezinski said: “The fact that the Russian government denies it … is probably an affirmation that it is true.”
Richard Perle, a senior defense official in the Reagan administration, said the movement of the weapons would be a concern if it is part of a Russian strategy against NATO.
Moscow said in 1998 that it would deploy nuclear weapons into forward areas of Europe in response to the expansion of the NATO alliance. The 1999 expansion brought in Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic. Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia have expressed an interest in joining the alliance.
As for the weapons themselves, Mr. Perle said, they are “not a deep concern.”
“The movement of nuclear weapons from one location to another might have troubled me in the Cold War, but not now,” said Mr. Perle, an adviser to George W. Bush during the presidential campaign.