The Soviet Biological Weapons Program and Its Legacy in Today's Russia (Paperback)
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In its first Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) Case Study, the Center for the Study of Weapons of Mass Destruction (CSWMD) at the National Defense University examined President Richard M. Nixon's decision, on November 25, 1969, to terminate the U.S. offensive biological weapons program. This occasional paper seeks to explain why the Soviet government, at approximately the same time, decided to do essentially the opposite, namely, to establish a large biological warfare (BW) program that would be driven by newly discovered and powerful biotechnologies. By introducing the innovation of recombinant DNA technology - commonly referred to as genetic engineering - the Soviets were attempting to create bacterial and viral strains that were more useful for military purposes than were strains found in nature. In historical terms, the Soviet BW program had two so-called "generations," defined as distinct periods of time during which types of weapons were developed from earlier types. The first generation of the Soviet BW program commenced about 1928 and was based on naturally occurring pathogens that had caused devastating epidemics during World War I and the subsequent Russian Civil War. The second generation began approximately in 1972 when the decision was made at the highest political level to institute a research and development (R&D) system that utilized newly discovered techniques of genetic engineering to create novel or enhanced bacterial and viral strains that were better adapted for BW purposes than strains found in nature. President Boris Yeltsin ordered the cessation of the offensive BW program some months after the Soviet Union dissolved in December 1991 and in 1992 publically stated that it had conducted an offensive BW program in violation of the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention. However, after Vladimir Putin was elected president, high-level Russian officials have lied about the Soviet BW program, stating that it was strictly a defensive program that had not broken international law. As is discussed later in this paper, elements of the Soviet offensive BW program continue in Russia and may provide the basis for a third-generation BW program supported by the current leadership. The first section of this paper describes the Soviet BW program's first generation, including its establishment, work plan and operations, and accomplishments. The second section focuses on "establishing the conditions" for the Soviet decision that was made sometime during 1969-1971 to establish and operate the second generation BW program. Conditions that are considered include the geopolitical challenges as perceived by the Soviet government, the decision making process for military acquisitions, and the inferior state of the biosciences in the Soviet Union at that time, which stimulated Soviet bioscientists to "play the military card" in order to introduce genetic engineering into the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics' (USSR's) bioscience establishment. The final section has two sub-sections. The first summarizes the key factors that drove Soviet decisionmaking in the early 1970s to institute a huge offensive BW program. The second informs readers that even before Vladimir Putin was elected president for the second time, he openly stated that new weapons were to be developed using high technologies including "genetics." Based on this promise, and considering the secrecy that still keeps the military biological institutes and anti-plague institutes closed to outsiders, the paper discusses the possibility that the Putin administration may institute a third generation BW program. The appendix consists of a short biography of the Soviet general Yefim Ivanovich Smirnov who was for many years in charge of the Soviet BW program.