Russia’s biological weapons sites, which pose a far greater threat than do its nuclear weapons, may have been dismantled and hidden for future use, according to a leading specialist on the weapons plants.
“The capability of the old Russian Ministry of Defense sites remains uninvestigated and largely unknown,” said Christopher Davis, a member of the first Western team to visit biological warfare facilities of the former Soviet Union.
“The suspicion is that, at the very least, the basic know-how, expertise, equipment and stock of seed cultures have been retained somewhere within the Ministry of Defense system,” he said Monday at Jane’s Conference on Weapons of Mass Destruction in Arlington, Va.
Mr. Davis traced the Soviet history of biological warfare research and development, and noted areas of concern.
“Biological agents, if of the transmissible variety, are capable of causing casualties far in excess of those caused by nuclear weapons,” he said.
These weapons are also available at a lower cost than nuclear weapons.
The special characteristics of biological weapons include their ability to attack all “living targets,” which range from human beings to plants and livestock, possibly rendering a nation unable to feed itself.
Some biological weapons also have the ability to first exhibit their effects on an area hours or possibly days after their release, making it difficult to ascertain the identity of the aggressor.
The United States chose to disarm its biological warfare program in 1969, but the Soviet Union continued its warfare development through the establishment of an agency named Biopreparat in 1973-1974.
Biopreparat developed biological weapons behind a civilian facade of pharmaceutical and biotechnology industries. This tactic served as an alternative to chemical and nuclear weapons controlled under arms treaties and weapons conventions.
For many years, only a small number of people across the Atlantic were aware of the problem, and many chose not to listen to their warnings, Mr. Davis said.
Only in the period between 1989 and 1991 were analysts able to convince governments that these programs were a threat to the world.
A secret U.S.-British visit to Russian facilities took place in 1991, but as late as 1993, the two nations still were confronting the former Soviet Union about the continued development of biological warfare.
Since then, while Biopreparat has undergone change, efforts were continually being made to help Russians convert these military establishments into civilian facilities.
Now the chief scientific adviser for the Applied Sciences Group at Veridian Systems, Mr. Davis cited several issues that remain unresolved.
“What happened to the part of the program in the closed military facilities to which there have been no visits by Western experts?” he asked.
Also of concern are the hundreds of personnel who were involved in Biopreparat. There are rumors that many have been offered work by certain governments in the Middle East.
Mr. Davis also stressed his concern with regard to the stocks of seed cultures to be used in the production of weapons.
Robert Gallucci, dean of Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service, agreed with Mr. Davis’ assessment.
“This is not a new problem,” he said. “Ever since [former President Boris] Yeltsin agreed to a program of visits between the U.K., U.S. and Russia almost a decade ago, we have been working with Russian governments to bring transparency to this problem.”
He added that although some advance has been made in gaining access to former Soviet biological warfare facilities, those under the Ministry of Defense remain closed to visitors.
“There is concern, therefore, that there remains a very large production capacity, and possibly even research and stockpiles, that have not been destroyed as required by the Biological Weapons Convention,” Mr. Gallucci said.