At the end of the Cold War in 1991, Washington worried that a weak Russia could be more dangerous than a strong Soviet Union. Would a poor country with a premier nuclear weapons program keep that expertise to itself?

Even as Russians endured low wages during the Cold War, Soviet nuclear scientists enjoyed a privileged lifestyle inside of cities devoted to nuclear research called Atomgrads. They made good wages and had nice houses and cars. But when the Soviet Union collapsed, those privileges dissipated. Wages fell and the director of one Atomgrad committed suicide due to his inability to pay his workers. By 1998, the Russian government owed more than $400 million in unpaid wages to their striking nuclear scientists and workers. A project that worked with Russian scientists to help them find new forms of employment described Americans’ fears:

“That resulted in a potentially chilling formula: financially desperate scientists with knowledge of weapons of mass destruction eagerly sought by rogue states and enemies of the United States could possibly be tempted or coerced into revealing their deadly secrets.”

Combined with the fact that the security guarding Soviet nuclear facilities also eroded, at times to chain link fences and unpaid soldiers, and that the Soviets never invested in strict accounting of their nuclear material, this did result in the theft and sale of some fissile material – a fact historians know from several successful sting operations to recover stolen highly enriched uranium and plutonium.

If any rogue Russian scientists have sold nuclear secrets, their actions have not been revealed. But in the nineties, the cash-strapped Russian government did sell their nuclear expertise. For commercial gain, Russia made deals to share centrifuge and other technology with Iran, often backing off due to American pressure. But Russia did initiate civilian nuclear ties that helped “an entire generation of Iranian physicists and engineers acquire knowledge that is potentially applicable to a weapons program.”

(For the record, the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons enshrines every country’s right to civilian uses of nuclear energy. Many of Iran’s first nuclear scientists were educated at MIT in Boston when the US and Iran were allies.)

While nonproliferation efforts continue, the main competitive thrust between today’s superpowers seems to be over cyber espionage. While much of China’s hacking consists of unsophisticated measures like simple phishing attacks to acquire usernames and passwords, it is broad in scope and seemingly effective. Pentagon officials have reported that “Beginning at least as early as 2007, Chinese computer spies raided the databanks of almost every major U.S. defense contractor and made off with some of the country’s most closely guarded technological secrets.”

The United States, for its part, gathers an incredible amount of intelligence through cyber espionage on “terrorist financial networks, international money-laundering and drug operations, the readiness of foreign militaries, even the internal political squabbles of potential adversaries.” Funding for these activities at the National Security Agency is one of the only areas in the military budget expanding rather than contracting.

While the expectation that China will continue to grow and rival the United States as the world’s richest and most powerful country holds sway, this rests on the assumption that China can duplicate its previous decades of unprecedented growth and relative stability into the future. China very well may, but there are good reasons to suspect that China could suffer a Soviet style setback. Scholar Minxin Pei, for example, looks at how China’s state-led development has resulted in a corrupt, “decentralized predatory state” that could collapse without making substantial reforms. Others have pointed to China’s rising inequality, restless pools of unemployed migrant workers, and ethnic tensions as problems that could ignite into civil strife.

In the near future, we can expect China to continue to grow and for both the United States and China to invest in their cyber espionage abilities. In the long term, China could face challenges that threaten its domestic stability and economic growth. If an internal crisis turns China’s focus inward and curtails hacking and cyber activities as a priority, Chinese hackers could be the 21st century’s Russian scientists – neglected, poor, and highly skilled at a potentially dangerous activity that unsavory actors would be willing to pay them good money for.

This post was written by Alex Mayyasi. Follow him on Twitter here or Google Plus. To get occasional notifications when we write blog posts, sign up for our email list.