Russia Challenged To Disclose Status of Biological Weapons
By David Hoffman
A defector to the United States who held high rank inside the Soviet-era biological warfare program, as well as activists here, have called in recent days for Russia to reveal whether it still maintains an illicit germ warfare complex.
Although President Boris Yeltsin renounced the biological weapons program in 1992 and Moscow had ratified an international treaty barring the development, production and storage of biological weapons, some Western intelligence experts have been concerned in recent years that Russian military and security agencies have nonetheless retained a research network that could be used to develop such weapons.
Their concerns have been reinforced by Russia's refusal to permit international inspections of some closed military facilities, including one in Yekaterinburg, in the Ural Mountains east of Moscow, that was at the center of the world's most serious known outbreak of human inhalation anthrax in 1979. The cause is believed to have been a biological weapons accident.
The latest call for disclosure came from Kanatjan Alibekov, who was second-in-command of a branch of the Soviet program from 1975 to 1991 and who defected in 1992 and wrote a history of the Soviet biological weapons program for the CIA.
He was the second leading Soviet participant in the program to defect to the West. In 1989, Vladimir Pasechnik, who was director of a key institute in what is now St. Petersburg, defected to Britain and revealed the existence of the Soviet Union's vast "Biopreparat" complex for biological weapons development. During the 1980s, it employed more than 25,000 people and included 18 research institutes, six mothballed production facilities and a large storage plant in Siberia.
In an interview published today by the New York Times, and in an interview to be aired tonight on the ABC News program "Prime Time Live," Alibekov, who now goes by the name Ken Alibek, spoke out for the first time publicly, although his role in confirming aspects of the Russian program had been previously reported. He said Russia continues to study offensive biological weapons agents under the guise of defensive research.
"They continue to do research to develop new biological agents," he was quoted as saying, "They conduct research and explain it as being for defensive purposes."
"We can say Russia continues research in this area to maintain its military biological potential," he said. "They keep safe their personnel, their scientific knowledge. And they still have a production capability."
He said Moscow's Cold War plans included preparing "hundreds of tons" of anthrax bacteria and tons of smallpox and plague viruses.
"I think his claims that Moscow had plans for producing large quantities of anthrax is credible," said Jonathan B. Tucker, director of the Chemical and Biological Weapons Nonproliferation Project at the Center For Non-Proliferation Studies in Monterey, Calif.
Tucker has written, for example, that the Progress Plant in Stepnogorsk, in what is now Kazakhstan, was built in the early 1980s for dual use, with the requirement that biological weapons production could be brought on line with six-months notice. Buildings there were designed to produce, process, handle and store biological agents as well as turn them into weapons. By 1987, according to Tucker, the Soviet Biopreparat complex could produce a little more than 96 pounds of freeze-dried plague bacteria per week, if ordered to do so.
"Stepnogorsk had enormous production capacity," Tucker said in an interview today. "It was not engaged in large-scale production. It was a mothballed facility that would be up and running in wartime in six months. The part I think is most credible is they did have substantial production capacity. It is unclear if they had large stockpiles."
Tucker said the difficulty in establishing the truth about Russia's current program is the ambiguity between research on defensive means, such as a vaccine, and on offensive weapons, which often involve identical equipment.
"Defense is very difficult to distinguish from offensive," he said. "If you are developing a defensive vaccine, you have to test it against a virulent agent." Even small quantities of these organisms could be grown to military significant quantities "in a few weeks," he said.
In September 1992, after Alibek defected and took his information to the CIA, the United States, Britain and Russia signed an agreement specifying a program to build confidence that Russia was in fact dismantling its biological weapons program.
At the time, Russia acknowledged that the program had been a closely guarded Soviet secret but denied that biological weapons were being stockpiled.
According to Tucker, Russia agreed to terminate all offensive biological weapons research, dismantle pilot production lines, close testing facilities, cut personnel involved in military biological programs by 50 percent and reduce funding by 30 percent. The agreement also called for short-notice inspection of "any non military biological site" suspected of being involved in the biological weapons program.
But over the last few years, Western officials have repeatedly complained about foot-dragging by Russian officials, and the trilateral process has stalled as Russia has refused requests for inspection of any military facilities.
One aspect of the debate centers on a top-secret installation in Yekaterinburg, which was named Sverdlovsk in Soviet times. In April 1979, the military microbiology laboratory there known as Compound 19 emitted a cloud of anthrax spores that spread downwind into another closed area known as Compound 32.
Officially, 68 people died after inhaling the anthrax, which was blamed on an outbreak among livestock and the spread of contaminated food. Yeltsin, who had been Communist Party boss of Sverdlovsk, later acknowledged that the military had been responsible for the leak.
But the KBG conducted a furious campaign to cover up the cause and eradicate the evidence, and since then a debate has been underway about the affair as well as the current research at the heavily guarded facility.
In 1994, a Western research group that included Professor Matthew Meselson of Harvard University published a study, based on research at the scene, that confirmed that the anthrax came from the secret military installation. But their research left some questions unanswered, including the absence of any victims under the age of 24.
At a news conference in Moscow last week, and in a series of newspaper articles, Union for Chemical Study president Lev Fedorov, who had long been concerned about chemical weapons, charged that the 1979 leak did not release anthrax but some kind of "new biological weapon" that was designed to target middle-aged men. He did not provide fresh evidence for his claims about the new weapon but demanded that the Russian government disclose the full nature of activity there.
Fedorov was accompanied by Sergei Volkov, a former Yekaterinburg city official who grew up inside Compound 32 and whose father was a top security official there. Volkov, a self-styled environmental "dissident," has spent years privately collecting data about the 1979 accident. In an interview, Volkov described the secret facility as a "super-modern" underground laboratory "where biological weapons were developed." He maintains that the 1979 death toll was much higher than acknowledged.
Recently, scientists at the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico who analyzed tissues preserved from accident victims announced they had found at least four strains of anthrax, leading to speculation that the germs were somehow enhanced to make vaccines less effective.
Time magazine this month published an interview with the former director of personnel at Compound 19, who said the center has been discreetly rebuilding with the aim of resuming the production of offensive biological weapons.
Meselson, the professor, said he believes Russia should be more open. "We need to have some frank talk," he said. "What did they do there, and what are they doing now?"
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