A covert biological weapons (BW) program was operating in the Soviet Union and later the Russian Federation from the early 1920s until the early 1990s. In April of 1992 Russian Federation President Boris Yeltsin “admitted that the Soviet Union and then Russia had conducted a top-secret offensive biological warfare (BW) program in violation of the 1972 Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention banning the development, production, stockpiling, and transfer of these weapons.” (Tucker) After this admission, it had not been possible to verify if the Russian BW program has been completely halted of it part of it is still in operation.
Despite international treaties that banned the development and use of BW, the Soviet Union has always been in violation of these agreements. The Soviet BW program continued to operate even against international treaty that had been their stockpiling and development. The first of these international treaties was the “Geneva Protocol and the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BTWC) in 1992. The Soviet Union signed the BTWC in 1972 and ratified it in 1975, the year the treaty entered into force.” (Russia | Country Profiles | NTI.)
It is estimated that the Soviet BW program may have begun in the 1930s as a result of necessity. Known as the Anti-Plague (AP) system, this system functioned in two phases. The first phase was to identify and treat naturally occurring disease outbreaks. The second phase of the AP program began sometime in the late 1950s or early 1960s; this second phase was for the military application of biological material. It was at this point in the AP phase that BW was being produced for the purpose of use during wartime. Eventually the AP system evolved into something known as the Biopreparat system. Biopreparat was established in the 1970s and was the civilian aspect of the overall Soviet BW system. Those organizations involved in the Biopreparat system would engaged in civilian disease research such as in development of disease vaccines but were also able to transition into military BW facilities if necessary. This system also allowed the Soviet government of have some degree of plausible deniability. The government could claim to be unaware that civilian organizations were conducting BW research in violation of international treaty. The idea that the initial AP system had transitioned into a BW research system and/or was being used to explore military applications of BW weapons occurred. While the AP system had initially been designed to explore civilian disease research and methods to treat naturally occurring disease outbreaks the Soviet government quickly saw a military application for this type of research. While some of this research was allowed to be conducted by civilian organizations the overall program was under the authority of the Ministry of Defense (MOD). As the Soviet system was compartmentalized it is unlikely that anyone outside the highest level of the Soviet government were completely aware that BW research was being conducted at any level (either for civilian or military applications). Keeping this information compartmentalized was a necessity. It would be hard to keep a lid on a covert weapons program is large segments of the population were aware of the weapons development programs.
Intelligence about the Soviet BW program began to come to light in the 1980s and continued into the 1990s through several high level defections to the United States and the United Kingdom. The first of these defections occurred in “1989... Vladimir Pasechnik, a Soviet bioweaponeer who worked in Leningrad at the Institute of Ultra-Pure Biopreparations (one of the Biopreparat facilities), defected to the United Kingdom. Pasechnik's descriptions of the incredible scale and scope of the Soviet BW program alerted the United States and the United Kingdom to the fact that they had underestimated the Soviet BTWC violation.” (Russia | Country Profiles | NTI.) During this period Ken Alibek also known as Kanatzhan (Kanat) Alibekov former director of the Soviet Biopreparat Program defected to the United States in 1992. The stated goal of Biopreparat was “of the Bioprepart program was development of BW capabilities that could be used in a strategic/operational mode against the United States.” (Moodie)
The Biopreparat system was started “in the early 1970s the Kremlin leadership decided to initiate a second BW program in parallel with one conducted by the Soviet Military. Its goals would be to exploit the coming advances in biotechnology, conduct further BW research and create a dual infrastructure that, while producing civilian products could also be mobilized at any time to produce BW. The new organization, which came to be called Biopreparat, was begun with a top-secret decree in 1973.” (Moodie) Intelligence indicates that Biopreparat may not have been a completely new aspect of the Soviet BW program but simply an evolution or a restructuring of the older AP system. Both AP and Biopreparat allowed the Soviet government to deny that they were producing BW as both AP and Biopreparat were allegedly civilian in nature. Not only does civilian BW research allow a government to deny the existence of a BW program a government can also claim that to the best of their knowledge disease research is defensive in nature such as developing vaccines for natural disease outbreak and as a defense if BW are used by an aggressor nation against the Soviet Union.
To date it cannot be verified if the Soviet/Russian BW program has come to an end or if research is continuing. Given the fact that the Soviet Union had continued to develop BW that was in clear and direct violation of the Geneva Protocol and the BWC it is unlikely that any amount of international pressure would have persuaded the Soviet government to end its BW program. It is more likely that the BW program simply became more covert in nature during the 1980s and research most likely continued through the 1990s and on. The Russian Federation has not shown to be more open in regard to a BW program that the Soviets had been. Additionally it has been difficult for authorities to determine the nature of containment of facilities that had been formerly used as BW production facilities it cannot be verified as to what has been done with BW that had been produced by the Soviet Union. Some of these weapons may still remain in Russia; some may have been sold/stolen by rogue nations. It is also possible that some of these weapons may be improperly stored and may pose a health threat due to age and/or deterioration. Locations that have been used by the Soviet Union as testing facilities may pose a health threat because they have been improperly decontaminated.
It is not possible to determine the scope and size of the Soviet BW program. Intelligence indicates that the program was most likely the largest and most sophisticated BW program in the world. Given the potential size of the entire BW program and the amount of weapons that have been produced, even if the BW program is no longer operational, there would still be a large number of weapons that have been produced and also a large amount of BW production facilities that will require decontamination and/or will be dangerous to human based on levels of contamination.
After the fall of the Soviet Union in 1992 governments of the United States, the United Kingdom and Russia came to an agreement with regard to BW known as the Trilateral Agreement. The purposes behind this agreement were to bring Russia into compliance with the BTWC, to show that former weapons productions facilities where no longer in operation, and also to ensure that all contaminated material and/or contaminated locations were cleaned up. Part of the trilateral agreement required U.S. and UK weapons inspectors to tour former BW facilities in order to ensure that the BW program was no longer functional. To date, this agreement has been an almost complete failure. While weapons inspectors have been allowed to tour former BW facilities these facilities were a small fraction of the BW production capacity of Russia. It should also be noted that part of the BW program was civilian. Therefore it is more than possible that BW production have continued in Russia in locations that has either not been toured by weapons inspectors or are presently being produced by civilian organizations which are not bound by international agreement.
Intelligence regarding the level of the Soviet BW program has come from HUMIT. Intelligence that is obtained from human intelligence should be taken with a grain of salt. It is not possible to establish or identify the motivations behind defectors. Also it may be difficult to verify what level of access defectors had within the BW program and/or how much information that would have about aspects of the BW project they were not directly working on. The Russian Federation government has also admitted that the former Soviet Union operated a BW program in violation of international treaty. Just because a government admits to wrong doing in the past, does not mean there are any indications that they are now in compliance with the international community. Without being allowed to tour all former BW facilities it will be difficult to determine if any level of BW production still exists.
The security situation in the Russian Federation also poses some serious concerns with respect to BW. “The Russian government is committed to the security of nuclear weapons and weapons-useable nuclear materials, but continuing turmoil in society, corruption, and resource shortages complicate the ability of the Russian government to safeguard these materials. The combination of lax security for nuclear materials, poor economic conditions, and the growing power of organized crime in Russia mean that the potential for the theft and subsequent smuggling of these materials will continue.” (Proliferation, threat and response 2001) While the government of the Russian Federation may no longer be behind a BW program and will not be party of the sale or transfer of WMDs to rouge nations it is possible that some of these weapons may no longer be under state control and therefore able to be trafficked to other nations. Also, with a crumbling infrastructure it is possible that the government of the Russian Federation and/or scientists that have worked on these projects would be willing to sell information to rouge nations so as these nations can develop their own BW programs. It is concern that Iran and North Korea may attempt to obtain a functional biological weapon from the Russian Federation or, at the very least, may be attempting to obtain the information/knowledge necessary to produce their own weapons.
Analysis of Sources:
Primary sources used for this report came from the United Nations and weapons non-proliferation organizations. There is more than ample data that gives a historical account of the Soviet BW program but is lacking any serious intelligence as it relates to modern developments of the BW program. The majority of information seems to end in the mid-1990s when U.S. and UK weapons inspectors were unable to tour former BW facilities.
Intelligence efforts were refocused after the events of 9/11/2001. It seems that information on a possible defunct BW program is not on the top of the intelligence list. This would be short sited based on the fact that weapons were at one point produced. Those weapons have gone somewhere. It would seem important to locate what the Soviet Union/Russian Federation have done with BW stockpiles. It would also be of assistance to verify once and for all that a Russian BW program is no longer functional.
Moodie, Michael . "The Soviet Union, Russia, and the Biological and the Toxic Weapons Convention." http://cns.miis.edu/. cns.miis.edu/npr/pdfs/81moodie.pdf (accessed August 21, 2013).
Proliferation, threat and response. Washington, DC: Office of the Secretary of Defense :, 2001.
"Russia | Country Profiles | NTI." Nuclear Threat Initiative. http://www.nti.org/country-profiles/russia/biological/ (accessed August 24, 2013).
Tucker, Jonathan B. "Former Soviet Biological Weapons Facilities in Kazakhstan: Past, Present, and Future." James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies. cns.miis.edu/opapers/op1/fore.htm (accessed August 22, 2013).