Secrecy News

The History of the Soviet Biological Weapons Program

In 1972, the United States, the Soviet Union and other nations signed the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention that was supposed to ban biological weapons.  At that very time, however, the Soviet Union was embarking on a massive expansion of its offensive biological weapons program, which began in the 1920s and continued under the Russian Federation at least into the 1990s.

The astonishing story of the Soviet biological weapons enterprise is told in an encyclopedic new work entitled “The Soviet Biological Weapons Program: A History” by Milton Leitenberg and Raymond A. Zilinskas (Harvard University Press, 2012).

The Soviet biological weapons (BW) program was by far the largest and most sophisticated such program ever undertaken by any nation.  It was also intensely secretive, and was masked by layers of classification, deception and misdirection.

“The program’s most important facilities remain inaccessible to outsiders to this day,” Leitenberg and Zilinskas write, “and it has been made a crime for anyone in present-day Russia to divulge information about the former offensive BW program.”  Needless to say, official archives are closed and Russian government officials are uncommunicative on the subject, or deny the existence of the program altogether.

Over a period of a decade or so, Leitenberg and Zilinskas were able to interview about a dozen former Soviet scientists who were involved in the Soviet BW program, along with dozens of other sources.  Their revelations inform the authors’ analysis and serve to advance public knowledge of the subject far beyond previous reports.  Even relatively well-known incidents like the 1979 Sverdlovsk anthrax epidemic are cast in a new light.  Many other aspects of the program will be entirely unfamiliar to most readers.

Much of the book is devoted to a description of the vast infrastructure of Soviet BW research and production, including descriptions of the various institutes, their history, their workforce and the nature of their research, as far as it could be discerned.  Along the way, many fascinating and sometimes horrific topics are addressed.  For example:

  •     In an effort to enhance the weapons-related properties of BW agents, Soviet scientists spent years working to create a viral “chimera,” which is an organism that contains genetic material from two or more other organisms.
  •     Other scientists worked to eliminate the “epitopes” on the surface of existing BW agents in order to make them unrecognizable to regular diagnostic techniques.  By using such a modified agent, “the Soviets would have made it considerably more difficult for the attacked population to identify the causative pathogen of the resulting disease outbreak and begin timely treatment.”
  •     A project codenamed Hunter (Okhotnik) sought to develop hybrids of bacteria and viruses such that use of an antibiotic to kill the bacteria would trigger release of the virus.  “Unlike other national BW programs, which without exception used only classical or traditional applied microbiology techniques to weaponize agents, the post-1972 Soviet program had a futuristic aspect. By employing genetic manipulation and other molecular biology techniques, its scientists were able to breach barriers separating species….”
  •     The Soviet BW program appears to have taken advantage of the declassification in the 1970s of a large number of documents from the United States BW program.  Thus, the design of the Soviet Gshch-304 BW bomblet was found to closely resemble that of the declassified US E-130R2 bomblet.  In 2001, the US Government moved to reclassify many documents on the US BW program, but “nothing could be done about recalling reports that had been distributed relatively freely for more than 35 years.”
  •     The quality of US intelligence about the Soviet BW program left much to be desired.  “Intelligence about Soviet BW-related activities is relatively thin for the pre-1972 period; meager and often of dubious value during 1970-1979; and a little less meager and of better quality during 1980-1990.” After 1990, little has been declassified.  “There is an unknown number of still-classified reports concerning the Soviet BW program produced by the CIA and perhaps by other agencies that we do not have,” the authors write.  The state of declassification is such that “we have been able to collect far more information” about the history of Soviet BW activities from interviews with former Soviet scientists and others than from declassified official records.
  •     In what the authors term “a horrendous mistake by the United States,” the US government undertook a covert deception and disinformation program aimed at the Soviet Union in the late 1960s which implied falsely that the US had a clandestine biological weapons program.  This unfortunate campaign may have reinforced an existing Soviet belief that the US had never terminated its own offensive BW program, a belief that lent impetus, if not legitimacy, to the Soviet BW program.
  •     Today, the situation with respect to BW in the former Soviet Union is “ambiguous and unsatisfactory,” Leitenberg and Zilinskas write. “There remains the possibility that Russia maintains portions of an offensive BW program in violation of the BWC.” Alternatively, “since we do not actually know what is and has been taking place within the three [Ministry of Defense BW] facilities since 1992, perhaps the situation is better than might be feared.”

In 23 chapters, the authors painstakingly examine many facets of the history, structure and operation of the Soviet BW program.  They scrupulously cite prior scholarship on the subject, while sorting out verifiable fact, plausible inference, dubious speculation, and error or fabrication.  (Thus, “No SS-18 ICBM bomblet delivery system was ever completed, none was ever tested, and obviously none could ever have been employed.”)

But even after 900 pages of often dense text, “there are large gaps in our understanding of the Soviet BW program” and “readers are cautioned that much remains to be discovered.”

“We have not been able to resolve definitively some of the most important questions,” they observe.  Unanswered questions involve basic issues such as the motivation and purpose of the program.  Why did the Soviet Union pursue the development and acquisition of biological weapons?  Who was to be targeted by Soviet biological weapons – the US?  China?  Europe? – and under what conceivable circumstances?  And what happens now?

Following a brief period during the Yeltsin years during which Russian officials acknowledged this activity, “Russia’s current official position is that no offensive BW program had existed in the Soviet Union.”

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The History of the Soviet Biological Weapons Program was reviewed by author David E. Hoffman in Foreign Policy last month.

In 2010 the US Government signed an agreement with the former Soviet Republic of Armenia to cooperate in the control or destruction of dangerous pathogens, and in other efforts to prevent proliferation of biological weapons.  The agreement, one of several such documents, was published earlier this year.