Bioweapons from Russia: Stemming the Flow

The U.S. must broaden its efforts to deal with the serious proliferation threat posed by the legacy of the Soviet biological weapons program.

For nearly two decades, the former Soviet Union and then Russia maintained an offensive biological warfare (BW) program in violation of an international treaty, the 1972 Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention. In addition to five military microbiological facilities under the control of the Soviet Ministry of Defense (MOD), a complex of nearly 50 scientific institutes and production facilities worked on biological weapons under the cover of the Soviet Academy of Sciences, the Ministry of Agriculture, the Ministry of Health, and an ostensibly civilian pharmaceutical complex known as Biopreparat. The full magnitude of this top-secret program was not revealed until the defection to the West of senior bioweapons scientists in 1989 and 1992.

Today, the legacy of the Soviet BW program, combined with continued economic displacement, poses a serious threat of proliferation of related know-how, materials, and equipment to outlaw states and possibly to terrorist groups. The three primary areas of concern are the “brain drain” of former BW specialists, the smuggling of pathogenic agents, and the export or diversion of dual-use technology and equipment. Although the U.S. government is expanding its nonproliferation activities in this area, far more needs to be done.

The Soviet BW complex

The nonmilitary Soviet BW complex comprised 47 facilities, with major R&D centers in Moscow, Leningrad, Obolensk, and Koltsovo (Siberia) and standby production facilities in Omutninsk, Pokrov, Berdsk, Penza, Kurgan, and Stepnogorsk (Kazakhstan). According to Kenneth Alibek (formerly known as Kanatjan Alibekov), the former deputy director for science of Biopreparat, a total of about 70,000 Soviet scientists and technicians were employed in BW-related activities in several state institutions. Biopreparat employed some 40,000 people, of whom about 9,000 were scientists and engineers; the MOD had roughly 15,000 employees at the five military microbiological institutes under its control; the Ministry of Agriculture had about 10,000 scientists working on development and production of anticrop and antilivestock weapons; the institutes of the Soviet Academy of Sciences employed hundreds of scientists working on BW-related research; and additional researchers worked on biological weapons for the Anti-Plague Institutes of the Soviet Ministry of Health, the Ministry of Public Culture, and other state institutions. Even the KGB had its own BW research program, which developed biological and toxin agents for assassination and special operations under the codename Flayta (“flute”). Ph.D.-level scientists were in the minority, but technicians acquired sensitive knowledge about virulent strains or the design of special bomblets to be used to disseminate biological agents.

According to defector reports, Soviet military microbiologists did research on about 50 disease agents, created weapons from about a dozen, and conducted open-air testing on Vozrozhdeniye Island in the Aral Sea. Beginning in 1984, the top priority in the five-year plan for the Biopreparat research institutes was to alter the genetic structure of known pathogens such as plague and tularemia to make them resistant to Western antibiotics. Soviet scientists were also working to develop entirely new classes of biological weapons, such as “bioregulators” that could modify human moods, emotions, heart rhythms, and sleep patterns. To plan for the large-scale production of BW agents in wartime, Biopreparat established a mobilization program. By 1987, the complex could produce 200 kilograms of dried anthrax or plague bacteria per week if ordered to do so.

The specter of brain drain

In April 1992, Russian President Boris Yeltsin officially acknowledged the existence of an offensive BW program and issued an edict to dismantle these capabilities. As a result of Yeltsin’s decree and the severe weakness of the Russian economy, the operating and research budgets of many biological research centers were slashed, and thousands of scientists and technicians stopped being paid. From the late 1980s to 1994, for example, the State Research Center for Virology and Biotechnology (“Vector”) in Koltsovo lost an estimated 3,500 personnel. Similarly, between 1990 and 1996, the State Research Center for Applied Microbiology in Obolensk lost 54 percent of its staff, including 28 percent of its Ph.D. scientists.

Iran has been particularly aggressive about recruiting former Soviet bioweapons scientists.

This drastic downsizing raised fears that former Soviet bioweapons experts, suffering economic hardship, might be recruited by outlaw states or terrorist groups. In congressional testimony in 1992, Robert Gates, then director of the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, expressed particular concern about “bioweaponeers” whose skills have no civilian counterpart. According to Andrew Weber, special advisor for threat reduction policy at the Pentagon, about 300 former Biopreparat scientists have emigrated from the former Soviet Union to the United States, Europe, and elsewhere, but no one knows how many have moved to countries of BW proliferation concern. Despite the lack of information about the whereabouts of former bioweapons scientists, some anecdotes are troubling. For example, in his 1995 memoir, former Obolensk director Igor V. Domaradskij reported that in March 1992, desperate for work, he offered to sell his services to the Chinese Embassy in Moscow. He made a similar offer in May 1993 to Kirsan Ilyumzhin, president of the Kalmyk Republic within the Russian Federation, but reportedly received no response to either inquiry.

Some directors of former BW research centers have sought to keep their top talent intact by dismissing more junior scientists and technicians. Yet because of the Russian economic crisis, which worsened in August 1998 with the collapse of the ruble, even high-level scientists are not being paid their $100 average monthly salaries.

Iranian recruitment efforts

Iran has been particularly aggressive about recruiting former Soviet bioweapons scientists. The London Sunday Times reported in its August 27, 1995 edition that by hiring Russian BW experts, Iran had made a “quantum leap forward” in its development of biological weapons by proceeding directly from basic research to production and acquiring an effective delivery system. More recently, an article published in the December 8, 1998 edition of the New York Times alleged that the government of Iran has offered former BW scientists in Russia, Kazakhstan, and Moldova jobs paying as much as $5,000 a month, which is far more than these people can make in a year in Russia. Although most of the Iranian offers were rebuffed, Russian scientists who were interviewed said that at least five of their colleagues had gone to work in Iran in recent years. One scientist described these arrangements as “marriages of convenience, and often of necessity.”

According to the New York Times, many of the initial contacts with the former Biopreparat institutes were made by Mehdi Rezayat, an English-speaking pharmacologist who claims to be a “scientific advisor” to Iranian President Mohammed Khatami. Iranian delegations who visited the institutes usually expressed interest in scientific exchanges or commercial contacts, but two Russian scientists said that they had been specifically invited to help Iran develop biological weapons. Of particular interest to the Iranians were genetic engineering techniques and microbes that could be used to destroy crops. In 1997, for example, Valeriy Lipkin, deputy director of the Russian Academy of Sciences Institute of Bioorganic Chemistry, was approached by an Iranian delegation that expressed interest in genetic engineering techniques and made tempting proposals for him and his colleagues to come and work for a while in Tehran. Lipkin states that his institute turned down the Iranian proposals.

Nevertheless, evidence collected by opposition groups within Iran and released publicly in January 1999 by the National Council of Resistance indicates that Brigadier General Mohammed Fa’ezi, the Iranian government official responsible for overseas recruitment, has signed up several Russian scientists, some of them on one-year contracts. According to this report, Russian BW experts are working for the Iranian Ministry of Defense Special Industries Organization, the Defense Ministry Industries, and the Pasteur Institute. Moreover, on January 26, 1999, the Moscow daily Kommersant reported that in 1998, Anatoliy Makarov, director of the All-Russia Scientific Research Institute of Phytopathology, led a scientific delegation to Tehran and gave the Iranians information related to the use of plant pathogens to destroy crops.

Novel forms of brain drain

Although the scale and scope of the Russian brain-drain problem are hard to assess from unclassified sources, early assumptions about the phenomenon appear to have been wrong. Some scientists have moved abroad, but the predicted mass exodus of weapon specialists has not materialized. One reason is that few Russians want to leave family and friends and live in an alien culture, even for more money. Some evidence suggests, however, that brain drain may be taking novel forms.

First, foreign governments are not merely recruiting Russia’s underpaid military scientists to emigrate to those countries but are enlisting them in weapons projects within Russia’s own borders. Former BW scientists living in Russia have been approached by foreign agents seeking information, technology, and designs, often under the cover of legitimate business practices to avoid attracting attention.

Second, some weapons scientists could be moonlighting by modem: that is, supplementing their meager salaries by covertly supporting foreign weapons projects on the margins of their legitimate activities. This form of brain drain is based on modern communication techniques, such as e-mail and faxes, which are available at some of the Russian scientific institutes.

Third, bioweapons scientists could be selling access to, or copies of, sensitive documents related to BW production and techniques for creating weapons. Detailed “cookbooks” would be of great assistance to a country seeking to acquire its own biological arsenal. Despite Yeltsin’s edict requiring the elimination of all offensive BW materials, a 1998 article in the Russian magazine Sovershenno Sekretno alleged that archives related to the production of biological agents have been removed from the MOD facilities at Kirov and Yekaterinburg and from a number of Biopreparat facilities and put in long-term storage.

Diversion of agents and equipment

Another disturbing possibility is that scientists could smuggle Russian military strains of biological agents to outlaw countries or terrorist groups seeking a BW capability. Obtaining military seed cultures is not essential for making biological weapons, because virulent strains can be obtained from natural sources. According to Alibek, however, Soviet bioweapons specialists modified a number of disease agents to make them particularly deadly: for example, by rendering them resistant to standard antibiotic therapies and to environmental stresses.

Because a seed culture of dried anthrax spores could be carried in a sealed plastic vial the size of a thumbnail, detecting such contraband at a border is almost impossible. Unlike fissile materials, biological agents do not give off telltale radiation nor do they show up on x-rays. The article in Sovershenno Sekretno claims that “Stealing BW is easier than stealing change out of people’s pockets. The most widespread method for contraband transport of military strains is very simple-within a plastic cigarette package.”

Smuggling of military strains out of secure facilities in Russia has already been alleged. Domaradskij’s memoir states that in 1984, when security within the Soviet BW complex was extremely high, a scientist named Anisimov developed an antibiotic-resistant strain of tularemia at the military microbiological facility in Sverdlovsk (now Yekaterinburg). He was then transferred to a Biopreparat facility, but because he wanted to get a Ph.D. degree for his work on tularemia, he stole a sample of the Sverdlovsk strain and brought it with him to his new job. When accused of the theft, Anisimov claimed innocence, but analysis of his culture revealed that it bore a biochemical marker unique to the Sverdlovsk strain. Despite this compelling evidence, senior Soviet officials reportedly covered up the incident.

The more than 15,000 viral strains in the culture collection at the Vector virology institute include a number of highly infectious and lethal pathogens such as the smallpox, Ebola, and Marburg viruses, the theft or diversion of which could be catastrophic. Because of current concerns about the possible smuggling of military seed cultures, the U.S. government is spending $1.5 million to upgrade physical security and accounting procedures for the viral culture collection at Vector and plans to invest a similar amount in enhanced security at Obolensk.

Another troubling development has been the export by Russia of dual-use technology and equipment to countries of BW proliferation concern. For example, in the fall of 1997, weapons inspectors with the United Nations Special Commission on Iraq (UNSCOM) uncovered a confidential document at an Iraqi government ministry describing lengthy negotiations with an official Russian delegation that culminated in July 1995, in a deal worth millions of dollars, in the sale of a 5,000-liter fermentation vessel. The Iraqis claimed that the fermentor would be used to manufacture single-cell protein (SCP) for animal feed, but before the 1991 Persian Gulf War, Iraq used a similar SCP plant at a site called Al Hakam for large-scale production of two BW agents, anthrax and botulinum toxin. It is not known whether the Russian fermentor ordered by Iraq was ever delivered.

Efforts to stem brain drain

To counter the recruiting of Russian BW scientists by Iran and other proliferant states, the United States has begun to expand its support of several programs designed to keep former BW experts and institutes gainfully employed in peaceful research activities. The largest effort to address the brain drain problem is the International Science and Technology Center (ISTC) in Moscow. Funded by private companies and by the governments of Russia, the United States, the European Union, Japan, South Korea, and Norway, the ISTC became operational in August 1992. Since then, the center has spent nearly $190 million on projects that include small research grants (worth about $400 to $700 a month) so that former weapons scientists can pursue peaceful applications of their expertise.

The initial focus of the ISTC was almost exclusively on nuclear and missile experts, but in 1994 the center began to include former BW facilities and scientists. Because of dual-use and oversight concerns, this effort proceeded slowly; by 1996, only 4 percent of the projects funded by the ISTC involved former bioweapons specialists. In 1998, however, the proportion of biologists rose to about 15 percent, and they now constitute 1,055 of the 17,800 scientists receiving ISTC grants. Although the stipends are far less than what Iran is offering, U.S. officials believe that the program is attractive because it allows Russian scientists to remain at home. Even so, the current level of funding is still not commensurate with the gravity of the BW proliferation threat.

A disturbing possibility is that scientists could smuggle Russian military strains of biological agents to outlaw countries or terrorist groups.

Another ISTC program, launched in 1996 by the U.S. National Academy of Sciences (NAS) with funding from the U.S. Department of Defense, supports joint research projects between Russian and U.S. scientists on the epidemiology, prophylaxis, diagnosis, and therapy of diseases associated with dangerous pathogens. Eight pilot projects have been successfully implemented, and the Pentagon plans to support a number of additional projects related primarily to defenses against BW. The rationale for this effort is to stem brain drain, to increase transparency at former Soviet BW facilities, to benefit from Russian advances in biodefense technologies, and-in the words of a 1997 NAS report-to help reconfigure the former Soviet BW complex into a “less diffuse, less uncertain, and more public-health oriented establishment.”

Other programs to engage former Soviet BW expertise are being funded by the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, the Agricultural Research Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and the U.S. Department of Energy’s Initiatives for Proliferation Prevention Program, which promotes the development of marketable technologies at former weapons facilities. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services is also interested in supporting Russian research on pathogens of public health concern. In fiscal year 1999, the Clinton administration plans to spend at least $20 million on scientist-to-scientist exchanges, joint research projects, and programs to convert laboratories and institutes.

Some conservative members of Congress oppose collaborative work between U.S. and Russian scientists on hazardous infectious diseases because they could help Russia to keep its BW development teams intact. But supporters of such projects such as Anne Harrington, Senior Coordinator for Nonproliferation/Science Cooperation at the Department of State, counter that Russia will continue to do research on dangerous pathogens and that it is in the U.S. interest to engage the key scientific experts at the former BW institutes and to guide their work in a peaceful direction. Collaborative projects have greatly enhanced transparency by giving U.S. scientists unprecedented access to once top-secret Russian laboratories. Moreover, without Western financial support, security at the former BW institutes could deteriorate to dangerous levels.

Given the continued BW proliferation threat from the former Soviet Union, the United States and other partner countries should continue and broaden their engagement of former BW research and production facilities in Russia, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Moldova. Because the line between offensive and defensive research on BW is defined largely by intent, however, ambiguities and suspicions are bound to persist. To allay these concerns, collaborative projects should be structured in such a way as to build confidence that Russia has abandoned offensively oriented work. In particular, it is essential that scientific collaborations with former BW experts and facilities be subjected to extensive oversight, including regular unimpeded access to facilities, personnel, and information.

At the same time, the United States should continue to work through bilateral and multilateral channels to enhance the transparency of Russia’s past offensive BW program and its current defensive activities. An important first step in this direction was taken on December 17, 1998, when U.S. and Russian military officials met for the first time at the Russian Military Academy of Radiological, Chemical and Biological Defense in Tambov and agreed in principle to a series of reciprocal visits to military biodefense facilities in both countries. The U.S. government should explore ways of broadening this initial constructive contact. Finally, the United States should encourage and assist Russia to strengthen its export controls on sales of dual-use equipment to countries of BW proliferation concern.

ISTC programs are pioneering a new type of arms control based on confidence building, transparency, and scientific collaboration rather than negotiated agreements and formal verification measures. This approach is particularly well suited to the nonproliferation of biological weapons, which depends to a large extent on individual scientists’ decisions not to share sensitive expertise and materials.

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Cite this Article

Tucker, Jonathan B. “Bioweapons from Russia: Stemming the Flow.” Issues in Science and Technology 15, no. 3 (Spring 1999).

Vol. XV, No. 3, Spring 1999