Evgeny Maslin, Russian General Who Secured Nuclear Arsenal, Dies at 84

Evgeny Maslin, a Russian general who, after the fall of the Soviet Union, set Cold War-era enmities aside to work with the United States in securing his country’s nuclear arsenal, a process that included the withdrawal of thousands of warheads from Ukraine, died on Feb. 26 at a hospital in Moscow. He was 84.

His daughter Ekaterina Bankovskaya said the cause was cancer.

With Russia’s continuing war against Ukraine and the possibility that NATO could become involved, it may be hard to recall a time when Russia, Ukraine and the United States worked together to reduce a looming threat to global security.

It started in 1991, when the sudden collapse of the Soviet Union presented Russia, Ukraine and other successor states with an enormous challenge: how to make sure that an estimated 25,000 nuclear weapons, most of which were sitting in far-flung and often poorly secured sites, did not fall into the hands of criminals and terrorists.

It was up to General Maslin, who oversaw the 30,000 soldiers and engineers charged with maintaining Russia’s nuclear portfolio, to come up with an answer. He spent three years persuading Ukraine, Kazakhstan and Belarus to hand over their atomic inheritance, only to hit on another snag: Russia didn’t have the means to keep the weapons safe either.

The United States, led by Senators Sam Nunn, Democrat of Georgia, and Dick Lugar, Republican of Indiana, had already offered resources and expertise to help under the Comprehensive Threat Reduction Program, an America effort. But the Russian political and military leadership was suspicious of working with its erstwhile enemies.

General Maslin was different. An engineer who had taken over as head of Russia’s nuclear arsenal just months after the Soviet Union collapsed, he was among the few who embraced the American offer — and he then lobbied his colleagues to go along.

“He was not like others who were saying, ‘Why should we cooperate with Americans?’” said Vladimir Orlov, the director of the PIR Center, a Moscow think tank where General Maslin went to work after retiring in 1997. “He said, ‘We need it for our own security, not to please Americans but to guarantee the security of the nuclear arsenal around the country.’”

General Maslin was, to look at him, every bit the Russian general, as if pulled from central casting. Broad-shouldered, barrel-chested and bushy-browed, his uniform bedecked with rows of shiny medals, he loved nothing more than belting out patriotic songs at the end of a long meal.

But he was also worldly, a lover of cognac and poetry. When he hosted Harold P. Smith Jr., an assistant secretary of defense who ran the assistance program, in Moscow, General Maslin took him to the ballet; in return, when he visited Washington, Mr. Smith arranged a private tour of the National Gallery, where General Maslin dived deep into conversation with a curator about French Impressionism. He prepared to meet his American counterparts by reading Dale Carnegie’s “How to Win Friends and Influence People” and greeted them by quoting Rudyard Kipling. “East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet,” he said, hoping for the opposite.

“He would make clever quips back and forth, saying, ‘Oh, you Americans, you know you’ve had your accidents and here you are trying to help us,’” William Moon, an American who helped carry out the threat-reduction program, said in a phone interview. “But while he was doing that, it was all about developing trust with us.”

And it worked. Step by step through the 1990s, nuclear cooperation between the U.S. and Russia deepened. The Americans sent bulletproof blankets for transporting the warheads, then miles and miles of high-security fencing once they were safely back in Russia. Later still, they helped General Maslin and his team develop a real-time inventory management system to track the weapons.

General Maslin didn’t just secure the warheads; under bilateral agreements with the United States, he oversaw Russia’s partial nuclear disarmament, eliminating about 2,000 a year.

After the project began in the 1990s, skeptics, including Defense Secretary Dick Cheney in the George W. Bush administration, pointed out that even a 99 percent success rate would leave hundreds of weapons unsecured. General Maslin did not lose a single one, despite the continuing political and economic chaos that racked Russia through the 1990s.

“It would not be an exaggeration,” he said in 2016, “if I say that in terms of its importance to peace and security, the collective work within the framework of the Nunn-Lugar program, especially in the early years of its implementation, is comparable to the military and economic cooperation between Moscow and Washington during World War II.”

Soldiers removing a ballistic SS-19 nuclear missile in the yard of a former Soviet rocket base in Vakulenchuk, Ukraine, west of Kyiv, in 1997, as part of a Russian project headed by General Maslin to dismantle nuclear arenals in former Soviet countries. Credit…Associated Press

Evgeny Petrovich Maslin was born on May 20, 1937, in Novotomnikovo, a village about 250 miles southeast of Moscow, and raised in the nearby town of Algasovo. His parents were schoolteachers.

Along with his daughter Ekaterina, he is survived by his wife, Nina; another daughter, Elena; a brother, Nikolai; three grandchildren; and four great-grandchildren.

He joined the Soviet Army in 1954, with plans to become an infantry officer. But his father, who had fought on the front lines during World War II, objected; as a compromise, they agreed that he should become an engineer. He graduated in 1959 from the Military Academy of Communications in Leningrad (now St. Petersburg), where he excelled in mathematics and physics.

He had an offer to join a physics research institute as a fellow. But as he was preparing to leave school, he was handed new orders: He was to report to the 12th Main Directorate, the top-secret branch of the Soviet Ministry of Defense that managed the country’s ever-growing nuclear arsenal.

He rose steadily in the directorate, combining technical proficiency with a keen political sensibility. General Maslin was named its deputy director in 1989, just months before the fall of the Berlin Wall, and took over the top job in 1992, a few months after the dissolution of the Soviet Union.

Though he reached the military’s mandatory retirement age, 60, in 1997, General Maslin continued to work on nuclear security and dismantlement at the PIR Center, advising both the Russian government and its many technical contractors.

“He was not an ideologue in any way,” Rose Gottemoeller, a former Defense Department official who worked with him, said in a phone interview. “He was just a really solid military professional, totally devoted to the mission.”

As the dismantlement project wound down in the 2000s, General Maslin became convinced that only total nuclear disarmament would prevent nuclear war. He sat on the Global Zero Commission, a blue-ribbon panel that pushed for an end to nuclear arms, and kept in contact with like-minded advocates in Europe and the United States.

“In the case of the nuclear war, will the penguins in Antarctica suffer?” he said in a 2017 speech. “Of course they will. Therefore, if we think of the world in terms of the whole planet, then it is high time for humankind to stop threatening each other.”

And he watched with dismay as the spirit of friendly cooperation that he helped foster in the 1990s grew chilly in the 2010s. President Vladimir V. Putin said in 2015 that Russia would no longer accept American nuclear assistance, bringing an end to more than 20 years of cooperation.

But General Maslin did not give up hope that one day the two countries could come back together, even if it meant waiting for a new generation of leaders. In January, weeks before his death and about a month before Russia invaded Ukraine, he wrote, “If young people on both sides of the Bering Strait are thinking about how we can improve Russian-American relations, all is not lost.”

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