Could Russia's economic meltdown lead to loose nukes?

Senior lawmakers alarmed by Russia's collapsing economy fear some of the nuclear power's atomic arsenal could fall into the wrong hands.

While officials say there's no immediate reason to think Russia's weapons could be sold off to the highest bidder or stolen, Sen. John McCainJohn Sidney McCainTrump's dangerous Guantánamo fixation will fuel fire for terrorists Tech beefs up lobbying amid Russia scrutiny Ad encourages GOP senator to vote 'no' on tax bill MORE (R-Ariz.) intends to hold hearings next year on what Moscow is doing to keep its nukes safe.

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“We’re going to be taking on that whole issue in Armed Services Committee and we’ll be figuring out what needs to be done,” McCain, who will chair the panel in the next Congress, told The Hill.  “Particularly, the state of the nuclear inventory.”

Fellow Armed Services Sen. Jim InhofeJames (Jim) Mountain InhofeSenators tear into controversial Trump environment nominee McCain backs Pentagon nominee despite concerns over defense industry ties GOP senators ask Trump for meeting on biofuels mandate MORE (R-Okla.) called the arsenal — estimated in the thousands of warheads — “a source of revenue” for the Russian government, as well as negotiating leverage.

He said President Vladimir Putin “is getting pretty aggressive because he has problems at home and maybe if you go back to the old system” of being more confrontational about nuclear weapons, pressure would ease.

On Tuesday, the White House announced President Obama would sign a bill imposing additional sanctions on Moscow. The legislation comes as the value of the country’s currency, the ruble, has tanked in recent weeks along with a dramatic fall in the price of oil, Russia’s No. 1 export.

Russia’s current economic freefall is somewhat reminiscent of the early 1990s after the fall of Communism, when lawmakers in Washington labored to develop initiatives to prevent the spread of weapons of mass destruction, most notably with the Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction Program, which was designed to lock down and eliminate unconventional arms.

However, that joint U.S.-Russia program expired two years ago after Moscow declared it would not extend the agreement. Since then, the Kremlin has grown increasingly uncooperative on nuclear security.

Diplomats in Vienna last month said Russian envoys skipped an initial planning meeting for the 2016 Nuclear Security Summit and that Moscow may boycott the biannual meeting, a cornerstone of the president’s nonproliferation agenda.

The International Atomic Energy Agency's trafficking database has documented 2,477 incidents from the beginning of 1993 to the end of 2013 of "unauthorized activities and events involving nuclear and other radioactive material outside of regulatory control." As recently as last week, authorities in Moldova accused seven people of smuggling uranium on a a train from Russia.

Collaboration between the Washington and Moscow on nuclear security is “in the process of unraveling as a result of the decisions the Russians have made,” said Ken Luongo, president of the Partnership for Global Security.

But Russia’s nuclear assets are not nearly as vulnerable as during the breakup of the Soviet Union, he said.

Luongo said it would be “politically unthinkable” for Russia to sell atomic weapons, and that the global community would likely view it as the “ultimate crime against humanity.”

But, “it doesn’t take much of this stuff to become a problem,” he noted.

Russia has around 8,000 warheads, according to a recent estimate by Hans Kristensen and Robert Norris from the Federation of American Scientists.

For now, lawmakers are keeping a close watch on Moscow and how it reacts to the economic meltdown.

“I would think that Russia’s economic challenges could be turned around by Russian leadership if it chartered a different course,” said Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), outgoing chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

“There’s still time for them to do that, but in the interim I think that there’s enough command and control to guarantee the security of the weapons,” he added.

Retiring Armed Services Chairman Carl LevinCarl LevinA lesson on abuse of power by Obama and his Senate allies President Trump, listen to candidate Trump and keep Volcker Rule Republicans can learn from John McCain’s heroism MORE (D-Mich.) said he has seen no indication of a return to a black market mentality in Russia.

“I haven’t seen any evidence, doesn’t mean there isn’t any evidence,” he told The Hill.

Levin said the Russians “would be very much afraid of any loose nukes, as to whose hands they might fall in, as to whether they might be the first victims of any terrorist attack given the neighborhood that they live in.

“I don’t foresee that they would be lax, or more lax on that issue.”

Sen. Kelly AyotteKelly Ann AyotteExplaining Democratic victories: It’s gun violence, stupid Trump voter fraud panel member fights back against critics Dems plan to make gun control an issue in Nevada MORE (R-N.H.), another member of the Armed Services panel, voiced similar concerns.

“They do have an interest in ensuring that nuclear weapons don’t get in the hands of non-state actors because from their perspective they could be the subject of the bad end of that as well,” she said.