By Pavel Felgenhauer
Continued U.S. accusations that Iraq is secretly producing biological weapons has increased international interest in Russia's germ-warfare capabilities. Russia has been accused of illegally preparing to use biological weapons and also helping Iraq.
Last November, U.S. Defense Secretary William Cohen displayed a bag of Domino sugar on a Sunday television talk show to press the point that five pounds of anthrax could kill half of Washington's population. The spectacle was not impressive. Only a fitness maniac can be seriously scared by a bag of sugar. Obviously, better proof was needed.
So The Washington Post disclosed that in 1995, Iraq's military procurement officials struck a deal with Russian companies to buy large fermentation vessels to produce single-cell protein. The same vessels could also produce large quantities of biological weapons. No vessels ever reached Iraq, however, so the story was continued in a different way.
Recently, Dr. Kanatzhan Alibekov, a senior official in the former Soviet biological warfare program now living in the United States as Ken Alibek after defecting from Kazakhstan in 1992, began giving newspaper and television interviews in the United States, alleging not only that "hundreds of tons" of anthrax were ready to be loaded on Soviet missiles at a few days notice in the '80s, but that Russia is continuing work on new biological agents under the guise of defense research.
Alibek's firsthand knowledge of current Russian biological defense programs may be dubious. But his account of the Soviet past is at least partially accurate.
The Soviet Union did have a biological military program and did in fact violate the 1972 international convention banning biological weapons. In April 1992, President Boris Yeltsin signed an ukaz that banned work on biological weapons. Yeltsin also officially acknowledged that the anti-biological weapons treaty was violated.
However, the Soviet biological military effort was never huge in scale or scope in comparison with other conventional and nonconventional defense projects. Soviet generals in the '80s had up to 50,000 nuclear warheads and 50,000 tons of chemical weapons. They obviously had better payloads for their missiles than anthrax.
A vaccine injection, or maybe ordinary napkins, could save lives and foil a biological attack. Militarily speaking, nuclear weapons are much more predictable and effective. General Mikhail Kolesnikov, the chief of Russia's General Staff from 1992 until 1996, told me that during Soviet times, "biological warfare was never discussed at the collegium of the Defense Ministry. It was not an intricate part of the Soviet defense doctrine, and we did not put biological weapons into our military plans."
There was a small Department of Biological Defense in the Soviet Defense Ministry (dissolved in 1992). The last chief of this department, General Valentin Yevstigneyev told me that on Vozneseniya Island in the Aral Sea in the '70s and '80s, delivery systems were tested and simulations of biological combat rehearsed. "This was in direct violation of the anti-biological treaty," he said.
The island center has long been abandoned, and the U.S. Congress has provided Kazakhstan with funds to destroy it totally. Russia still has, however, military biological research institutions in Kirov, Sergiyev Posad and Sverdlovsk, where various pathogenic microorganisms are bred and studied, vaccines are prepared and so on. Such activities are entirely legal under international law.
The main obstacle to effective enforcement of the anti-biological treaty is that almost any activity short of actual biological weapons use is more or less legal. In the Soviet Union, high-capacity fermenters were built to produce single-cell protein. The same fermenters are made in the West. Russian military officials concede that these fermenters could be easily converted to produce biological warfare agents. But a British official expert from the Foreign Office recently told me that this is fully legal. "The same installation may be considered legal in Britain and illegal in Iraq. This is a matter of judgment," he added.
The Western media, helped by government leaks, have made a scarecrow of biological weapons. If UN inspectors do not produce bags of true anthrax from Iraq soon, no one will believe the threat is genuine. Crying "wolf" for no good reason can only increase the threat of real proliferation.
Pavel Felgenhauer is the defense and national security affairs editor of Segodnya.
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