Arms Control and the U.S. Russian Relationship



The Biological Weapons Convention was negotiated and ratified in the first half of the 1970s. Upon unilaterally renouncing all U.S. possession of biological weapons in 1969, President Richard M. Nixon also announced U.S. support for a biological weapons convention, as had been proposed by the United Kingdom. The BWC, which was signed on April 10, 1972, and came into force when the United States, United Kingdom, and U.S.S.R. deposited their instruments of ratification on March 26, 1975, now has 137 parties. The convention prohibits the development, stockpiling, and acquisition of biological agents and toxins "of types and in quantities that have no justification for prophylactic, protective, or other peaceful purposes."

To date, the BWC at best is a confidence-building measure. While legally binding, unlike the CWC it contains no verification or enforcement provisions. The United States viewed the treaty and its own renunciation of biological weapons as a hedge against their future proliferation. With America eliminating its biological weapons stockpile, it was thought that perhaps other nations would have less of an example to follow and less incentive to build up their own.

Biological weapons have, nevertheless, proliferated, most notably in lraq, whose anthrax and botulinal toxin weapons posed a real threat to coalition forces during the Gulf War. There is now a need to change the BWC from a confidence-building measure to a tool that can be used to detect or discourage the presence of biological weapons and facilitate their destruction. There have been new efforts in the 1990s to agree on a series of measures to move the BWC toward an inspection-based, nonvoluntary convention, including the VEREX (Verification) group,


which met four times in Geneva between March l992 and September 1993. The Third Review Conference to the BWC created this ad hoc group of governmental experts, which met to consider potential verification measures from a scientific and technical standpoint. They considered 2l measures, including remote sensing, data exchange, and on-site inspections, among other steps that might be taken. However, the group conceded that the implementation of a combination of these measures, rather than of one single device, would be necessary to strengthen the BWC.

A special conference held in Geneva in September 1994 established another ad hoc group, open to all parties, to consider verification and other measures to strengthen the BWC and incorporate them into a legally binding agreement. The United States and Russia have been active participants in these negotiations. In the fall of 1996, the group will report to the Fourth Review Conference of the BWC on the status of this legally binding protocol that is intended to provide for mandatory measures to enhance compliance with the BWC.


Russia's history with the BWC is checkered. In 1992, President Yeltsin acknowledged that the Soviet Union (and then Russia) had maintained a biological weapons program in direct violation of the BWC up until March l992. (The United States first made this allegation in 1984.) Yeltsin pledged that the program would be terminated. Now, however, there is some question of whether this has occurred. The problem of coming to closure on the Russian biological weapons program has been frustrating to Washington and London, which have been unable to resolve the issue with Moscow despite trilateral talks on the subject during the last three and one-half years. Russia also presents an exporting problem: the danger of biological weapons knowledge proliferation from Russian scientists working abroad.

More generally, the most common criticism of the BWC is clearly correct. It is a toothless document. The number of biological weapons states is believed by U.S. experts to have risen from 4 - at the time of the convention's ratification - to 10 or 12 today.


It is not clear that the convention has had any effect on efforts to check the proliferation of biological weapons.

Were the BWC to become more verifiable, however, there would be obstacles that could prevent it from becoming an effective arms control regime. First, biological weapons cannot be monitored or controlled in the same fashion as nuclear or chemical weapons. Because of the dual-use nature of most biological research, it is difficult to distinguish between those efforts of an offensive nature - that is, of a potential weapons capability - and those of a commercial or defensive nature.

The data gleaned from inspections poses another potential difficulty. The nature of the information will sometimes - in addition to its military dimension - be commercial in character. It is unlikely that many countries any time soon will allow short-notice inspections of facilities that may be of commercial importance.


  1. The United States should press the Russian government at the highest level to uncover the truth about the present status of Russian biological weapons efforts and, if they exist, to terminate them immediately.

  2. If the United States is satisfied that Russia has conclusively ended its biological weapons program, American and Russian experts should engage in counter-biological weapons cooperation.

  3. If the matter of Russia's biological weapons program can be cleared up, Washington should seek a joint effort with Moscow to establish strong BWC verification provisions, criminalize biological weapons activities, and together pressure nonmembers to join. This may not have a decisive impact on potential proliferators but, given the emerging biological weapons, threat to the United States, it is better than nothing.