The former head of national security, Alexander Lebed, made the stunning allegations to a US television programme, 60 Minutes, saying that each bomb had the power to kill up to 100,000 people. The programme is due to be aired in the United States tomorrow.
"I don't know their location," he said in the interview, "I don't know whether they have been destroyed or whether they are stored or whether they've been sold or stolen." But they were "not under the control of the armed forces of Russia". He suggested that they may have been left in former Soviet republics, such as Ukraine, Georgia or the Baltics.
His claim was swiftly denied by the Russian Defence Ministry and by the Prime Minister, Viktor Chernomyrdin, who described it as "absolute stupidity", and "totally out of the question". Speaking at a European security summit in Lithuania, the premier said that all Russia's nuclear weapons are under the reliable control of the armed forces.
The West has been aware for some time that the Russians have small-scale nuclear bombs, which could be reduced to the size of a suitcase. They are thought to be intended for use by the special forces, allowing them - for instance - to parachute into rural hostile territory carrying the weapons which are then detonated in an effort to cause maximum confusion.
Paul Beaver, of Jane's Information Group, said that Mr Lebed's claims were "rather alarming" although he disputed the numbers involved. "These are small tactical nuclear weapons which are used to cause as much havoc as possible by placing them in hotels, or using them to destroy strategic targets like power stations. "He said they are not covered by any international arms agreements, such Start I and II, which apply to strategic weapons.
"You have to immediately ask yourself if these have gone missing, whether they have fallen into the hands of the mafia or Chechens."
"They are thought to exist," said one Western source. "It is feasible to get the technology down to that size. It is even conceivable that one or two have gone missing." But, he said, the likelihood of 100 disappearing was unrealistic. "If it was the case, then why didn't Lebed say something about this before?"
The White House was equally dismissive. "We don't have any evidence to support what he [Mr Lebed] said, and responsible Russian officials have specifically denied it," said a spokesman.
This is not the first time that the security of Russia's nuclear arsenal has been called into question. Last year, Professor Graham Allison, a former US deputy Defence Secretary, released a report saying that the risk of the loss or theft of nuclear weapons and nuclear-weapons usable material represented the single most important threat to US and Russian national security.
In February, no lesser figure than the Defence Minister, Igor Rodionov, warned that Russia's military was in such disarray that it was at risk of losing control over its nuclear arsenal. He later toned down his remarks. Earlier this year, he was fired.
Nor is it the first time Mr Lebed has raised the question of the allegedly missing bombs. In May, he told a US congressional delegation that, during his brief tenure as the head of Russia's Security Council, he discovered that the Russian military could not account for 48 of 132 of the suitcase bombs, a figure he has now doubled.
As the former head of the Security Council, presidential security adviser, and army general, Mr Lebed is known to have extremely close ties with the military, which will lend weight to his allegations. However, he also makes no secret of his desire to be Russia's next president, exposing him to the charge of publicity mongering.
Since he was fired by Boris Yeltsin in October, he has been struggling to get into the headlines of the country's main newspapers and television stations, which are increasingly influenced by Mr Yeltsin's right-hand man, and Mr Lebed's arch-foe, Anatoly Chubais. Nor are his chances of being taken seriously helped by his reputation for wild statements. His controversial public remarks include suggesting that Nato expansion should be met by Russia's missiles.Reuse content