Ukraine's nuclear weapons 'can only be considered safe for 24 months. After this point no one can be sure,' Interfax news agency quoted the Russian Foreign Minister, Andrei Kozyrev, as saying.
Mr Kozyrev's almost apocalyptic warning follows a series of reports from Moscow in recent months of carelessness and incompetence at nuclear weapons sites in Ukraine. Kiev, which wants more money, more time and better security guarantees, has mostly dismissed such reports.
Mr Kozyrev said his own concern was based on new and 'extremely alarming information from the Ukrainian representatives themselves about the technical state of a number of rockets'. He was speaking before his departure for the Black Sea port of Odessa for talks with Ukrainian officials, and said he had been given disturbing news 'literally in the last few hours'. He spoke later of his 'great, great alarm'.
Ukraine inherited some 1,800 nuclear warheads from the Soviet Union's nuclear arsenal, two-thirds of them fitted on SS-24 and older SS-19 missiles, the remaining 600 attached to the former Soviet bomber fleet based in Ukraine.
'The technical state of the some of the warheads could lead to a tragedy much worse than Chernobyl,' Itar-Tass quoted Mr Kozyrev as saying. He urged Ukraine to honour a pledge, confirmed as recently as 3 September, to start sending strategic weapons back to Russia next January.
In September the Russian Defence Minister reported a 'serious incident' at a warhead depot in the Pervomaisk region of southern Ukraine. Temperatures and radiation levels were reported to have shot up after too many warheads were stored together.
Ukraine has reneged on commitments to sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, while President Kravchuk has pleaded for dollars 2bn ( pounds 1.3bn) compensation for nuclear weapons already sent back to Russia.Reuse content