Toxic Alert in Russia

Friday, January 30, 1998

Intelligence reports suggest that some Russian scientists and former military officials are selling chemical weapons technology. Yet the United States is considering funding research projects at former Soviet germ warfare centers. Indeed, under an exchange program currently under consideration in Washington, the Americans and Russians would exchange scientists at their chemical weapons laboratories. The Russian scientists would be stationed at the supersecret biohazards laboratory in Fort Detrick, Maryland, and the American scientists would be stationed at corresponding Biopreparat facilities.

U.S. specialists have already visited five of forty-seven such sites, one of which reportedly has more than a hundred lab and administrative buildings. The American objective is to convert Russian bioweapons laboratories to peacetime work as quickly as possible.

The implication of the foregoing is that these installations are perfecting, if not still producing, biological and toxin weapons banned by treaty twenty-two years ago. Although in 1990 and 1991 Mikhail Gorbachev denied any knowledge of such activities, President Boris Yeltsin acknowledged them and assured his counterparts (George Bush in 1992 and Bill Clinton in 1993) that the programs would be shut down. Several defectors to the United States and Britain, however, claim that they have been expanded. One of the scientists, Vladimir Pasechnik, formerly directed two Biopreparat research laboratories and three manufacturing plants. His program had developed a new strain of the tularemia pathogen (a form of plague).

General Anatolii Kuntsevich, the man appointed to dismantle Biopreparat, was dismissed by Yeltsin in 1994 for "numerous and rude violations of duties" as well as "a single gross violation." He had been charged with clandestinely shipping eight hundred kilograms of toxic chemicals to an unidentified Middle East country. A second shipment was intercepted by Russian authorities. According to Israel's defense minister, the country may have been Syria, which is developing a chemical weapons program on the outskirts of Damascus with the help of Russian scientists. It will build VX nerve gas warheads that can be carried on Russian-made Scud missiles.

Another general officer, Stanislav Petrov, chief of chemical protection troops, only last month became cofounder of a private commercial firm at Shikhany (formerly the closed city of Volsk-18) to produce and export abroad toxic arsenic on behalf of the Russian army. It is probably no coincidence that Yeltsin issued a decree at about the same time making Shikhany a closed city again. The edict will provide special financing from the adjusted 1997 state budget. This center, which has existed since the 1930s to develop new types of chemical weapons, consists of Shikhany-1 and Shikhany-2, about 5 kilometers apart, with Saratov some 130 kilometers down the Volga River. The main enterprise is called the State Institute for Technologies of Organic Synthesis.

Back in 1992, chemical agents were destroyed here. It was learned in the process that so-called reaction masses were formed, whereby arsenic could be extracted by electrolysis and then purified. One kilogram of pure arsenic can be sold abroad for $2,000 to $3,000 in hard currency, hence, the development of purification processes at Shikhany. All this is disturbing, especially when 15,000 highly skilled civilians plus 61,469 military personnel are placed off limits to American officials who must know that this site represents the largest Russian chemical weapons manufacturing and testing facility. A treaty banning such weapons entered into force several months ago.

Is it too much to hope that officials at the defense, energy, and state departments, as well as the National Academy of Sciences (who will manage and/or fund the proposed exchange program) will examine carefully Mr. Yeltsin's decrees as well as defector reports before committing millions of taxpayer dollars to a collaborative research program that may support production of more advanced bioweapons and chemical weapons warheads, while destroying only obsolete ones? They should be aware of open testimony last June by a deputy assistant secretary of state, Robert J. Einhorn, before a subcommittee of the U.S. Senate Committee on Governmental Affairs, who said that "we continue to be concerned that the offensive bioweapons program has not been entirely eliminated" in Russia.