The former Soviet offensive biological program was the world’s largest and consisted of both military facilities and nonmilitary research and development institutes. This program employed thousands of scientists, engineers, and technicians throughout the former Soviet Union, with some biological warfare agents developed and weaponized as early as the 1950s. The Russian government committed to ending the former Soviet biological weapons program. Plants outside the Russian Federation were closed or abandoned. Nevertheless, serious concerns about Russia’s offensive biological warfare capabilities remained.
Key components of the former Soviet program remained largely intact in the 1990sand may support a possible future mobilization capability for the production of biological agents and delivery systems. Moreover, work outside the scope of legitimate biological defense activity may be occurring now at selected facilities within Russia. Such activity, if offensive in nature, would contravene the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention of 1972, to which the former Soviet government is a signatory. It would also contradict statements by top Russian political leaders that offensive activity had ceased.
Although the biological weapons programs were clearly military in nature, political leaders retained ultimate control over them. In the Soviet Union around 1925, military physician Jacov Fishman became the head of the new Soviet biological weapons programme, which was part of the modernization of the Soviet Army promoted by General Mikhail Tukhachevsky. However, as Soviet leader Josef Stalin rose to power, he grew suspicious of both military and medical scientists, and the days of this first Soviet biological weapons programme were numbered. During the 1937 purges, when Stalin established his power by eliminating all potential opposition, Tukhachevsky was executed and Fishman was incarcerated along with many other microbiologists in the military and public health sector.
In 1969, in a position paper for Nixon, Harvard University biologist Matthew Meselson argued that US biological warfare research created a model that other, less powerful, nations might easily emulate, to the eventual detriment of US security. In November that year, in an unprecedented act in US history, Nixon summarily renounced biological weapons on behalf of the USA. The UK and France, which had both become nuclear powers, had already retreated from their offensive research and turned to defensive endeavors.
In addition to curtailing US military exploitation of advances in genetics and molecular biology, Nixon's decision paved the way for the 1972 Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BTWC), which required signatories to ban all activities associated with the development of biological weapons. Unfortunately, owing to the Cold War, the BTWC was not given the aggressive transparency measures, such as on-site inspections, that would have made it a more effective constraint on proliferation. In 1975, the Soviet Union made use of this loophole and initiated an enormous offensive biological warfare program, which incorporated both advanced biology and new military delivery systems. Although it clearly violated the BTWC, the suspicion that the USA had secretly kept its programme alive was a justification for the Soviet leadership to start this massive enterprise. The growing militarization of the Soviet Union and the totalitarian secrecy that characterized its government and society allowed an unrestrained, industrial-scale pursuit of biological weapons, employing tens of thousands of scientists and technicians.
According to the memoirs of two highly ranked Soviet scientists — Ken Alibek and Igor Domaradskij — the program's routine bureaucratic pressures, inter-laboratory competition and Kremlin politics kept them focused on specific technical tasks. These included creating tularaemia strains resistant to antibiotics and meeting high production goals for anthrax slurry—in the order of tons. Their working conditions, centred on loyalty to the state, left them free of qualms about civilian suffering and death.
Biopreparat, the agency in charge of the program, was established in 1973, a year after the Soviet Union signed the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention. Biopreparat consisted of some forty research-and-production facilities, including a dozen major complexes. The staff was more or less evenly divided between development of new weapons and work on cures and antidotes.
At its peak, the former Soviet Union had the world's largest biological warfare program, with somewhere between 25,000 and 32,000 people employed in a network of 20 to 30 military and civilian laboratories and research institutions.
Biological agents were developed and stockpiled for delivery by a variety of means, including long-range missiles. Special cooling systems in the warheads protect the biological agents during re-entry. Parachutes slowed the warhead, which at a set altitude dispense over a hundred small bomblets. At least twenty tons of weapons-grade dry smallpox was stockpiled in bunkers for loading into these and other delivery systems.
President Boris Yeltsin, in a statement on 29 January 1992, reaffirmed Russia's commitment to the 1972 Biological Weapons Convention. He informed Western leaders about the former Soviet biological weapons programs, and issued a decree which banned biological programmes and mandated Russia's compliance with the convention.
Dr. Ken Alibek, former deputy director of Biopreparat, the civilian arm of the former Soviets' biological weapons program, appeared in October 1999 before a joint meeting of the House subcommittees on military procurement and military research and development. Alibek moved to the United States in 1992 and has since written a book, "Biohazard: The Chilling True Story of the Largest Covert Biological Weapons Program in the World."
Alibek said the Soviet Union established a huge production capability to manufacture biological weapons, and Russia still has four top-secret production facilities. One facility is capable of producing 1,000 tons of anthrax a year; another can make 50 tons a year, he said. Other facilities can produce hundreds of tons of plague and other biological agents such as tularemia and glanders obgrislosis, he added.
Alibek said Soviet military doctrine included the use of smallpox and plague as strategic biological weapons and anthrax, Q-fever and Marburg infection as operational ones. The Soviets were also developing delivery systems such as medium-range bombers with spray tanks, cluster bombs and missiles; and strategic bombers and ballistic missiles with single or multiple warheads.
According to Soviet military doctrine, Alibek said, biological weapons would have been used in massive amounts to significantly destroy any military resistance during war. The KGB also had a sophisticated program to develop biological weapons for assassination, he added. He asserted the Soviets used biological weapons against German troops during World War II and in Afghanistan in 1982. Anyone who doubts the effectiveness of these weapons is wrong, he stressed -- a small, accidental outbreak of anthrax in the city of Sverdlovsk in 1979 killed hundreds.
With the Cold War's end, Russia downsized its biological weapons program and ordered its stockpiles destroyed, Alibek said. He believes only about 10 to 20 percent of the former Soviet capability remained as of 1999, "but believe me, it's enough to develop sophisticated biological weapons," he said. Up to 70,000 scientists were involved in Soviet Cold War biological weapons research, development and manufacturing, Alibek said. Some moved to the United States and other Western nations when the Soviet Union collapsed, but others went to Iraq, Iran and other countries and may be proliferating biological weapons.
In 2008 the US Congressional Research Service reported that unclassified sources indicated that several nations were considered, with varying degrees of certainty, to have some BW capability, including China, Iran, Israel, North Korea, Russia, and Syria.
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