Richard Lugar’s Farewell to Arms

For much of the 20th century, the Soviets’ weapons of mass destruction were our nation’s biggest threat. New, unforeseen enemies now have our attention. But for 15 years, two U.S. statesmen have focused on tracking and destroying that arsenal of the past.

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Editor’s Note, Feb. 28, 2014: In light of Richard Lugar and Sam Nunn’s conversation with NPR’s Steve Inskeep this week, titled “Diplomacy in a Dangerous World” and presented by WFYI (video above), we look back at our trip to Russia with him, published in December 2007.

“We don’t have your passport.”

Standing in a Soviet-era lobby of the Yekaterinburg Airport, in southern Russia, these are perhaps the last words a freelance Hoosier journalist wants to hear. I’m traveling with a delegation of seasoned pros—U.S. Senator Richard Lugar, former Senator Sam Nunn, and their staffs—so a certain level of comfort is assumed, but at the moment, most of my party is preparing to board the unmarked U.S. Navy jet out on the tarmac.

It will be on its way to Odessa, Ukraine, in the next few minutes. And then a mere 12 hours after that stop, they will take off for Albania. I’m trying to keep my cool, but a series of thoughts is flickering through my mind. If I miss this flight, how will I get to Albania on Saturday? Can’t be many commercial options. And Lugar and Nunn, it should be said, keep a schedule with almost religious fervor. I’m just along for the ride, a Midwestern writer looking for adventure, and I am about to be left behind.

“You’re kidding?” I ask the Russian attendant in the passport office, and glance at U.S. Navy Chief Floyd Logan, who for the entire week in Russia has carried everyone’s passport close to his vest. Logan shakes his head. No, this young woman, austere and professional, is not kidding.

My heart accelerates. This is a city controlled by the Uralmash mob, the city where Czar Nicholas II and his royal family were murdered by Lenin’s henchmen; the city that, back in April 1979, experienced the worst anthrax disaster in the history of the world, an accident that killed an estimated 1,000 civilians. It is a city surrounded by toxic lakes and rivers tainted by the Soviet nuclear program. It is a city, like much of Russia, where Americans are suspect and in which they do not want to remain for long.

Even as Russian President Vladimir Putin was continuing to rattle his saber, sending jets to graze Okinawa airspace and comparing the Americans to Nazis, Lugar and Nunn had spent this August week in Moscow, Western Siberia, and the Southern Urals monitoring the destruction of the enormous Soviet-era nuclear- and chemical-weapons arsenal. Both statesmen have made more than a dozen trips here, following up on the Nunn-Lugar Act they passed 15 years ago this fall. Their names are familiar in this country, and they traverse the region mostly without hassle. But me? At the moment, it’s clear I’m not going anywhere.

Logan and Captain Gene Moran, the U.S. Navy–Senate liaison, are now working their phones and BlackBerries. I look out the window and see Lugar and Nunn making progress toward the plane.

“Where could it be?” I ask Moran. He arches his eyebrows. Nobody knows. Could the FSB—the successor to the KGB—want a trophy Yankee journalist? Are they making a copy? I take a deep breath. “I’ve learned not to freak out,” I tell Moran, “unless I have absolute reason to do so.” But the reasons are adding up.

It’s been quite a day already. Just hours prior to my missing-passport incident, Lugar and Nunn had led us around one of the most sensitive places on Earth—the Mayak Fissile Material Storage Facility near Ozersk, a Soviet-era nuclear city that, during the Cold War, did not even appear on maps. There, in a warehouse bigger than several American football fields, reside tons of entombed Russian plutonium extracted from SS-24 and SS-25 missiles once aimed at U.S. cities. Wearing protective white gowns, the statesmen had been given a monitoring device, as Lugar tells me, to measure “how much radiation we might pick up.”

Their efforts do not regularly make headlines, but over the past 15 years the Indiana Republican and the Georgia Democrat have proposed, passed through Congress, and implemented (with considerable cajoling of two American and two Russian presidential administrations) the Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction Program, one of the most quietly significant pieces of legislation ever drafted. With American funds, it has deactivated 7,191 Soviet strategic nuclear warheads and destroyed 662 intercontinental ballistic missiles, 485 ICBM silos, 110 ICBM mobile launchers, 615 submarine-launched ballistic missiles, 30 nuclear submarines, 155 bombers, and 906 air-to-surface missiles. Nunn-Lugar has upgraded security at 12 nuclear-weapons facilities and built nine biological-monitoring stations. It has safely transported 363 nuclear weapons. “Perhaps most importantly,” Lugar notes, “Ukraine, Belarus, and Kazakhstan are nuclear weapons–free” as a result of the program.

I am beginning to resign myself to a day or two in Yekaterinburg when I hear the young Russian attendant: “I found it.” Just minutes later, the flight lifts off from Mother Russia. Kenneth A. Myers III, who serves with Lugar on the Senate Foreign Relations staff, laughs on the plane: “She had big plans for you tonight, Brian.”

While in the past decade much of the nation’s attention has turned toward fighting terrorism cells and wars of ideology, Nunn and Lugar have been the old lions, focusing on what, for the five decades previous, had been the biggest threat to our way of life: the nuclear-, chemical-, and biological-weapon stockpiles of the former Soviet Union. In the face of collapsed empires and the rise of wolves like Osama bin Laden, this material is arguably more dangerous than ever.

An example: In 1995, American diplomat Andy Weber got access to the old Soviet anthrax-production plant at Stepnogorsk, Kazakhstan, where, in Building 221—the length of two football fields—he found himself staring at 10
20-ton fermentation vats, each four stories tall. The vats could brew 300 tons of anthrax spores in 220 days, enough to fill many ICBMs and wipe out the entire American population.

That afternoon, in the enormous Ozersk warehouse, as far away from Indiana as we were, it still somehow hit home for me: The stuff that Lugar and Nunn were standing on top of was once aimed at Grissom Air Force Base near Peru, my hometown. Growing up, I would lie in my backyard five miles from the main runway and watch B-58 Hustler bombers make their low approaches, preparing for a nightmare war that, for a time, held the attention of the entire nation. We may have collectively turned our gaze away from the threats of those days, but these two senior statesmen have not. To them, the end of the Cold War may have made things a whole lot more dangerous.

Most of us were shocked in 1991 when the crimson hammer-and-sickle was lowered from the Kremlin—when the “Evil Empire,” as President Reagan once described it, imploded under its own weight. But Lugar and Nunn had seen signs that it was coming; they had been building relationships with Soviet scholars and military men since the mid-1980s. Lugar remembers a visit to a countryside dacha, where acquaintances spoke freely about what they saw on the horizon. “What these Russians were saying to us was that they were in transition,” Lugar says during one of our numerous bus transfers. “There could be individual soldiers who might be in states of desperation, hoping to save their families. Iran was in search of these weapons. We had spent $6 trillion trying to contain the Soviet Union, and now it was all going to come loose.”

Nunn himself, attending a conference in Hungary when a coup d’etat captured Gorbachev, was a witness to the collapse. He received a call from a friend who told him to come not to the Soviet Union, but to “Russia.” Nunn spent half a day milling around the Russian White House, where Boris Yeltsin had made his stand atop a tank. He sat for two days in the Russian Federation Duma and watched the Soviet Union dissolve with a whimper instead of a Big Bang. Even in the midst of the tumult, numerous Russian military people expressed to Nunn “very grave concerns” about the corroding nukes and abandoned chemical- and biological-weapons labs, some of which were secured by nothing more than rusty padlocks.

In the autumn of 1991, it was Nunn who sought U.S. funding to help secure the Soviet arsenals from rogue states like Iran, Iraq, Libya, and North Korea. That led him to Lugar. “I went to see him in his office and I said, ‘We’ve got to do this,
this year, and I need a Republican partner,’” Nunn remembers. “‘I need the one who has the most credibility, and you’ve got it.’”

Lugar’s assessment of Nunn is similar: “He has attained a level of credibility and respect that few Americans in our history have ever matched,” the Hoosier tells me—and it is clear, on our first day in Moscow, that the admiration is widespread. Our group meets with retired Russian General Evgeny Petrovich Maslin. This bear of a man with bushy eyebrows is an advocate of the Nunn-Lugar program, which was passed in December 1991. “The threat of theft of nuclear munitions, radioactive material … this has always existed. Could Russia have resolved this issue by itself?” Maslin asks, rhetorically. “Yes, Russia is capable of resolving any situation. But it would have happened much slower. This would have been done in a much more dangerous manner.”

Our first two days in Moscow are spent mostly at receptions and seminars, including a full day at a Moscow Carnegie Center symposium on weapons of mass destruction—an event that could take place almost anywhere. One evening, the author John Shaw and I head to Red Square and the Kremlin. Shaw is on the trip to research his second book on Lugar. There are pizza joints, neon signs, prostitutes, and, on the threshold of Lenin’s tomb, scores of young people. There’s a McDonald’s about a block away. But we don’t see any baby carriages. Russia is in such a drastic demographic decline—losing 700,000 people a year—that the Ulyanovsk Oblast (Lenin’s home region on the Volga River) this past September gave workers a day off to procreate. With its citizenry beset by AIDS, alcoholism, and smoking, the Russian Federation’s own estimates have the population falling from 144 million today to 102 million by 2050. On this balmy evening in Moscow, though, we sit in an open-air garden just off a Red Square full of people, drinking Warsteiner beer and listening to The Clash.

As much as things look different on the face of Moscow, some things are eerily unchanged. When I return to my room at the Moscow Grand Marriott, my papers are visibly askew. The KGB no longer exists. But its successor, the FSB—a key stepping-stone to power for President Putin—is thriving. Many Americans might think of Russia as an emerging democracy. It is anything but. It is a corporate state run by the intelligence community. At various points on the trip, the FSB recognized reporters from The Washington Post, The New York Times, and Associated Press in the Nunn-Lugar delegation. They have no idea what to make of the guy working for Indianapolis Monthly—hence, I suppose, my uninvited visit. On past Lugar trips, they sometimes posted spooks outside the hotel doors of reporters. This time they just wanted to take a look and made no effort to cover their tracks.

The pitch and tenor of the roar grows, then finally fades away with the rainbow. For the first time in history, Americans have destroyed a Soviet-era missile on Russian soil.

On our third day in Moscow, our group piles into three big Chevrolet passenger vans idling outside the Grand Marriott, several blocks away from Red Square. Within minutes, the Chevys are tailgating each other through the pandemonium of paralyzing Muscovite traffic, lurching from lane to lane as commuters weave their Ducati motorcycles through the tiniest openings. Our destination is the Luch Rosatom storage center at Podolsk, 35 kilometers south of Moscow. Once the site of significant Soviet scientific breakthroughs in ceramics, metallurgy, and space reactors, it now processes nuclear materials. When the first of $25 million in Nunn-Lugar funds reached Luch, the sprawling grounds, which look like a cross between an American high school and some sort of maintenance depot, were surrounded by a wooden fence. In 1992, a Luch worker stole 1.5 kilograms of enriched uranium and sought out the black market. Luckily, he was busted before linking with any rogues and spent time in jail.

At a long table under a mirrored ceiling, each member of the delegation sits facing a Russian counterpart. It’s the kind of setting you wouldn’t want to play poker in, but today, there are many smiles and a lot of small talk. Dr. Ivan Fedik tells the Americans, “We face a very difficult time for Russian scientists. We are grateful that you came to our assistance.” Podolsk Deputy Mayor Vera Sviridova adds, “We are not only trying to build a better city, but we are helping to protect the entire world.” Lugar and Nunn embark on an hour-long tour of the center, where up to 50 nuclear-material storage sites have been condensed into five, and workers with access to the materials have been pared from 1,600 to 300. American funds have provided for locking and monitoring systems. Luch Rosatom has converted more than 8 metric tons of high-enriched uranium to low-enriched uranium that can be used to fuel nuclear power plants.

From Podolsk, the vans roll out to the Geodeziya Motor Burn Facility, about 20 miles north of Moscow near the city of Krasnoarmeysk. It is a decrepit, weed-infested compound. FSB security officials tell us to leave our cameras and recorders on the bus and not to pick anything up off the ground. No one even considers breaching the rules. A gentle rain begins to fall on the delegations of Americans and Russians as they head into the crude three-sided cement and cinderblock chamber, or the “burn stand.” Before them rests an SS-25 missile motor, prepared for demise. It’s almost hard to believe, but as the group leaves the area, the rain stops and a brilliant rainbow appears in the sky.

Lugar, Nunn, and U.S. Ambassador William Burns, along with Sergey Nikolayovich Shevchenko, who heads the Geodeziya facility, travel to a building about a mile away, from which the demolition is directed. In a nondescript room painted pea green, two television monitors sit on a table at the front of the room as about 50 people gather. On the long table where the Americans sit rest three small boxes with red knobs. “Have there ever been three button-pushers?” Lugar asks, and then, shortly after 5:30 p.m., a translator from the U.S. Department of Defense says: “Please prepare to put your fingers on the buttons.” A few minutes later, the trio does just that, and almost immediately there is a loud roar outside, akin to an airliner taking off. The walls rumble. Inside the burn chamber a mile away, the temperature soars to 1,000 degrees centigrade as the SS-25’s propellants burn, destroying the missile motor. The Americans sit, transfixed. The pitch and tenor of the roar grows, begins to fade, grows once more, and then finally fades away with the rainbow. It lasts about two and a half minutes. For the first time in history, Americans have destroyed a Soviet-era missile on Russian soil.

About 20 minutes later, the cinder-and-cement walls of the burn stand are still warm. There is the stench of fuel exhaust. All that is left is the hollow shell of a motor that could have transported a nuclear warhead into an American city. One would think that after 15 years of work, Lugar might be jubilant—or at least express some satisfaction. But he is low-key. I ask what he is feeling, and he answers with little emotion. “This used to be carried by rail,” Lugar explains. “It could not be pinpointed by our bombers like an ICBM. This is true progress.”

Nunn notes that the fissile material removed from the SS-25 and other missiles is processed into a lower-grade uranium and converted to electric power.  “Ten percent of the electricity in America comes from warheads,” he says.

We retreat to a nearby building for a spread of smoked salmon, caviar, ham, and fruit. Even the FSB guys appear to lighten up a bit. There are about a dozen toasts as bottles of locally made vodka are opened (another element of Russian life that is not much changed). Lugar takes a small sip of water. I participate in the first couple of toasts with the vodka, though I notice that the other American journalists refrain. On the next toast, I fill my cup with water, but when I clink glasses with the Russian next to me, he admonishes me, in accented English: “That’s not how we do it. That’s not right.” After the party, I tell The New York Times’ C.J. Chivers that I hope he doesn’t think I’m a lush, but he’s sympathetic. Chivers won a Pulitzer Prize for his war reporting in Afghanistan and has been in the Moscow bureau since 2004. After years of toasting with Russians, he’s now a teetotaler.

Lugar and Nunn go about even the social activities in a businesslike manner. The work seems to them necessary, so they perform it. “The Old Testament talks of converting swords to ploughshares,” Nunn says. “And that’s what we’re doing.”

Sam Nunn entered the U.S. Senate in 1972 as a 34-year-old Democratic prodigy from Georgia. Lugar wouldn’t arrive until his second attempt in 1976. Both eventually leaned toward the presidency but never quite got traction. The two didn’t team up on any major initiatives until Nunn-Lugar. “We were always building bridges,” Nunn says of the pair’s relationship. “When he took a position on a matter, I always listened carefully. If I was inclined the other way, I always went back and did a double-take to see if I was right because I always had enormous respect for his views.” If they disagree, Nunn says, “I talk about it in advance so at least he knows. We’ve had a bond of not only trust, but friendship. We’ve had an unusual set of goals, but we’ve stuck to them over many years.”

The sentiments may seem a bit stilted—the stuff of book jackets—when they talk of each other. But both men are of the ilk that lets their determination speak for itself. “I have never considered Nunn-Lugar to be merely a program, or a source of funding, or a set of agreements.

Rather, it is a concept through which we as leaders who are responsible for the welfare of our children attempt to take control of a global threat of our own making,” Lugar says—on message, but also animated. “It is an engine of nonproliferation cooperation and expertise that can be applied to situations around the world.”

“Chemical weapons were first discussed five years ago in Senator Lugar’s office in Washington,” says Russian Atomic Energy Minister Sergei Kiriyenko, who served as President Yeltsin’s prime minister during Russia’s 1998 bankruptcy and today works in a Moscow building with a plaque that describes it as the “Ministry of Medium Machines.” “Nobody believed that Russians would be willing to destroy their chemical weapons, but it happened. Five years later nobody has any doubts that Russia has submitted to the convention. These two men came up with the initiative to remove these weapons and have worked hard every day for 15 years.”

The Soviets made enormous amounts of these agents [nerve gas] and kept absolutely no inventory. Finding them would have been a dream come true for terrorists of any sort.

In August 2005, Lugar took up-and-coming Democratic Senator Barack Obama along on the tour. When their plane landed at Perm, a city of 1.2 million in the Urals between Europe and Asia, the local officials saw a jet with “United States of America” decaled on the side and wanted to take a closer look inside. Lugar and Obama declared the jet covered under diplomatic rules. That set off a three-hour standoff that resulted in international press coverage and was resolved after a flurry of phone calls to Washington and Moscow. On this trip, Senate Foreign Relations staffer Kenneth A. Myers Jr. opted for a plane without the “USA” decals.

The trips are never without some sort of misadventure. Lugar spokesman Andy Fisher remembers one flight where the senator landed and watched as military equipment moved toward the aircraft. Suddenly, the pilot was heard over the intercom: “Ravens, deploy.” Seconds later, the team of eight naval security specialists was brandishing big weapons, creating a secure perimeter. When we land at the small airport in Chelyabinsk, in Western Siberia—a side trip Myers describes as a “goat rope,” meaning the local officials were not forewarned—they take up positions 360 degrees around the plane.

We’re heading for Shchuch’ye, which sits behind the Ural Mountains where Stalin moved his tank factories as the Nazis bore down on Moscow. On the two-hour bus ride from the airport, I get a chance to talk with Paul McNelly, program manager for the chemical-weapons destruction at the Shchuch’ye facility. McNelly oversees the building of a facility that will destroy 2 million 85 mm Soviet-era shells filled with nerve gas. “All it would take is one of these small shells put in a backpack strapped with C4 plastic explosives going into a stadium,” he says. “Depending which way the plume went, you could kill 10,000 to 20,000 people. And there are 2 million of these things out here.” Someone produces a photo of Senator Lugar posing with one of the 85mm shells, which had been placed in a briefcase. “That was a live round,” McNelly notes, which brings a smattering of laughter on the bus.

When this stockpile was discovered following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, it wasn’t a laughing matter. The Soviets made enormous amounts of these deadly agents and kept absolutely no inventory. Finding them would have been a dream come true for terrorists of any sort. McNelly says the vast stockpiles of Soviet-era nerve agents—sarin, VX—were stored in decrepit buildings where you “could see light coming through the walls and ceilings.” Wooden fences guarding the places were falling down. Nunn says that when he and Lugar first saw the Soviet storage facilities, the shells were stacked at two to three times the height of our bus. “Taking inventory would have been extremely difficult,” Nunn says. “It would be very hard for them to know one was missing if there was a clever inside job.”

When the converted Shchuch’ye facility gets up and running in 2008 and 2009, it will destroy 1,600 metric tons of these shells a year for the following four years. A hole will be drilled into the munition; the nerve agent drained; the shell decontaminated, deformed, and scrapped. The agent will be drained into a reaction tank, neutralized and mixed with a bituminous material, and, McNelly says, “stored for eternity.” For now, funds from the Nunn-Lugar Act have provided the facility with double and triple fences, breach monitors, guard towers, and cameras. What is contained inside, Lugar notes in his remarks here, is “highly portable and attractive to terrorists the world over.”

Until September 11, 2001, Lugar says, the idea of Islamic Jihadists getting their hands on Soviet-era aircraft, submarines, chemical weapons, and nuclear warheads was just “an interesting footnote.” The idea that someone like Osama bin Laden would seek highly enriched uranium or weaponized anthrax was the stuff of spy magazines. Even when the U.S. became aware of the huge Soviet pathogen-production facilities, had there not been moments of alarm? “There should have been,” Lugar says. “But this was seen as interesting, not life-threatening. The preoccupation was with how cities could be blown up and the fear that New York might be obliterated.”

The fragility even of successful efforts like Nunn-Lugar is well demonstrated by the still-evolving situation in Mayak, a
nuclear-fuel reprocessing plant located outside Yekaterinburg. From 1949 to 1953, the facility here dumped waste in lakes and into one infamous field where it spontaneously combusted. When Nunn first visited the operation, “they were storing that plutonium in buckets, and there was only one lock on the door,” he says. “You could pick up the buckets, it was that bad.”

Nunn next visited Mayak in 2002, and found a warehouse that could have fit a couple of football fields. But it was empty; the program had yet to begin its weapons destruction. Today, Mayak is the burial site for at least 25 tons of the 100 tons of plutonium extracted from warheads like the SS-25s. No one is quite sure where the rest of the plutonium is being stored.

When the senators visit Mayak again on this trip, an official named Igor Konyshev is grilled by reporters. “Can you please tell us why Mayak has continued to refuse Americans access for three years?” asks Washington Post foreign editor David E. Hoffman. “Where is the uranium being stored?” And, asks Doug Birch of the Associated Press, “isn’t 97 percent of the world’s polonium supply kept at Mayak?”

The subtext of the question is clear: Polonium-210 was the cause of death in the apparent murder in November 2006 of Alexander Litvinenko, a lieutenant colonel in the FSB who was a pronounced critic of Russian President Putin. If polonium-210 could be smuggled out of Mayak, might that happen with plutonium? Konyshev repeatedly dodges the question, in old-school Soviet style, until a frustrated Hoffman sums it up: “Your statement at the beginning of the press conference was that you seek international cooperation, but then you can’t even tell us about protection issues such as the polonium case, so it raises the question of whether you really are interested in international cooperation.”

“That’s a one-sided declaration,” Konyshev responds. Issues of transparency, he adds, would be “developing.”

Odessa is the Black Sea port that links Russia and Ukraine to the Mediterranean, a potential transit point of WMD. It is a beautiful city, featuring French and Italianate architecture along pleasant tree-lined boulevards. Its famed Potemkin Stairs, located above the harbor, were made famous by Sergei Eisenstein in his movie The Battleship Potemkin. As we disembark from the Navy jet, I check with Chief Logan: “You’ve still got my passport, right?” Logan nods.

Lugar came here to survey security operations covering the port. Nunn-Lugar funds now allow the Ukrainian government to scan ships with radiation sensors. A trip to the nearby Moldovan border features a demonstration of similar sensors monitoring traffic coming in from the lawless Transdriestria smuggling routes.

Traveling with the Lugar congressional delegation means working long days with only four to five hours of sleep a night. Often the senator dines with his staff late in the evening, and tonight, during a late supper in an Odessa restaurant, Lugar not only talks of the day’s activities, but he quizzes those at the table about the mayoral race in Fort Wayne and the unification of Indiana’s two United Methodist conferences. After a late walk the senator retires, and a few of us decamp to the bar at the nearby Londonskaya Hotel.

Odessa is said to be rife with spooks. In the bar this night, there are professional ladies seeking men, trying to make eye contact. I sit with author John Shaw, and we order a couple of bourbons. Two guys in the corner speak fairly decent English and want to know what we are up to. “Just here on business,” Shaw says. “We’re going to London tomorrow.”

“There aren’t any flights from Odessa to London,” the man responds.

“Well, we’re going to Albania first,” Shaw continues. There’s no need for my urgent attempts at eye contact with my fellow reporter—Shaw gets it. We decide to mind our own business.

Think of the world of WMD and its sources, and Albania probably doesn’t immediately come to mind. Twenty years ago, Albania was a pariah nation, aligned with Red China and fearful of a Soviet invasion. Today, after decades of despotic rule by Enver Hoxha, Albania has transitioned to an elected democratic government, and is the first nation to voluntarily cede all of its chemical weapons. Visionary though that may make the nation, it is still under considerable strain. Its capital Tirana is parched and, due to a reliance on hydropower, subject to blackouts.

On the road from the airport into Tirana, we can see the bizarre bunkers that Hoxha constructed throughout the land. They contained 16 metric tons of Lewisite and Adamsite, blistering agents that, when breathed, destroy the human lungs. As was the case at Shchuch’ye, the communist regimes kept no inventory. The Nunn-Lugar program has also found 79 MANPADs here, shoulder-held missiles capable of bringing down civilian airliners. This is the type of weapon al-Qaeda dreams of obtaining.

As we prepare to leave Tirana for London, I have one last conversation with Kenneth B. Handelman of the Pentagon. “Have we dodged a bullet?” I ask. “Has the Nunn-Lugar program destroyed the potential loose nukes or sarin backpack bombs? Did al-Qaeda miss a chance to gas the RCA Dome?” His answer is less assuring than I might have hoped. “We don’t know what we don’t know,” Handelman says. He is leaving the delegation here in order to inspect some weapon-destruction facilities far up in the mountains. Some of the weapons were cached in terrain so forbidding that destroying them was possible only by building the facility on-site. On his last visit, Lugar had his vehicle’s tires get blown out. “So did we dodge a bullet?” Handelman repeats the question as he gazes out a bus window. “Yeah. Any time we take something off the market, it’s money well-spent. But we’ve got to go where we aren’t now. For Nunn-Lugar to address the non-state entities—the terrorists—that’s the next challenge.”

When we first arrived in Moscow, Nunn and Lugar celebrated 200 years of U.S.-Russian relations at the ambassador’s residence. At the gathering, Lugar spoke of the man who had held his Indiana Senate seat a century ago—Albert J. Beveridge, who traveled across Russia himself. “He was an insightful observer of his times,” Lugar said, “but he could not have predicted the twists and turns of the 20th century, any more than we can predict what will happen 100 years from now.”

Whether Nunn-Lugar represents an enduring foundation will be a story left for another era. It’s hard to know for sure whether the program is forward- or backward-looking. But certainly it makes for some extraordinary moments. In my mind now resides the unforgettable image of Lugar in Mayak, a white-haired American senator standing atop a facility with thousands of tons of plutonium underfoot.

Two days later, I am standing beside Lugar at Heathrow Airport outside of London. His luggage has caught the attention of a stern woman working security just beyond the X-ray machine. She grabs Lugar’s bag and starts sweeping it with a wand.

Lugar stands there with a tired but calm expression on his face. In 48 hours, he will be back in D.C., grilling U.S. General David Petraeus about the war on terror in Iraq. As we wait, I ponder the adventure—the rumble of an incinerating SS-25 motor; the wild ride through a capital that had thwarted the sieges of Napoleon and Hitler and now plays host to Americans intent on destroying their weaponry. Just two decades ago, if I had described the scenarios I have just witnessed, I would have been judged unbalanced. Now I patiently wait as Lugar’s carry-on bag is searched.

I hear Lugar softly say, “There’s a bottled water ….”

Sure enough, the woman pulls out a bottled water from Lugar’s bag. It’s contraband, even for him. And, for security reasons, it gets thrown away.

Illustration by Emiliano Ponzi.

This article originally appeared in the December 2007 issue.

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