Russia Admits It Violated Pact on Biological Warfare
Russia on Monday admitted violating an international germ warfare ban until last March but said it has now agreed to open its laboratories to U.S. inspectors on a reciprocal basis to reassure Washington that all violations have ceased.
Trying to lay to rest persistent suspicions in the United States and the West that the vast and secret Soviet program for developing biological attack weapons continues, the Russian government agreed to a sweeping series of steps to prove its commitment to the 1972 Convention on Biological and Toxic Weapons.
After talks last Thursday and Friday with U.S. and British officials in Moscow, the Russians said the number of personnel engaged in military biological projects in this country will be cut in half and funding slashed by 30%. They also certified “the cessation of offensive research, the dismantling of experimental technological (production) lines for the manufacture of biological formulas and the closure of the biological weapons testing facility,” a three-country communique issued here said.
The statement said Russia has agreed to allow unlimited access at any time to non-military biological facilities and that the three governments would set up working groups to consider reciprocal inspections of military facilities suspected of being involved in the production of germ warfare agents, on condition that “confidential information” be respected.
“Such visits would include unlimited access, selections of samples, talks with the personnel and audio and video recording,” said the communique, which was made available to journalists in Moscow.
“For the first time, agreement has been reached at such a high level on monitoring such facilities,” Maj. Gen. Valentin I. Yevstigneyev of the Russian Defense Ministry’s department for protection against radiological, chemical and biological weapons, told reporters. “We too have some questions to put to the British and U.S. side.”
On April 11, Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin announced that his country would abide by the multi-nation convention on biological warfare, which the Soviets and Americans were among the first to sign 20 years ago.
At a news conference Monday, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Grigory V. Berdennikov revealed that “the Soviet Union was violating this convention and was running a program in the sphere of offensive biological research and development, which has been declared unlawful by the convention.”
“These activities were in progress from 1946 until March of 1992,” Berdennikov said.
The deputy foreign minister did not give details but said all violations “were discontinued” by Yeltsin’s April decree.
In Washington, U.S. officials expressed confidence that the Russian government will follow through on destruction of germ warfare capability and will not try to hide the program the way the Soviet Union had done.
“We’re convinced that President Yeltsin and his government are sincere in their commitment to full compliance with the Biological Weapons Convention,” one U.S. official told reporters. “The Russian leadership clearly has taken a decision that is a matter of principle . . . and as a part of their becoming a member in good standing of the community of nations, Russia will live up to its international obligations.”
Nevertheless, the official, who declined to be identified by name, said Washington will monitor Russian activities closely.
“I believe we’ll have enough ways . . . to track what’s gone on to be able to verify in our own minds that the program has in fact come to an end,” he said.
Neither the Russian officials who spoke Monday nor the communique said whether Russia now has any stocks of germ--or biological--warfare agents, which can kill or incapacitate people, livestock or the crops that constitute an enemy nation’s food supply.
U.S. intelligence officials say they have discovered at least 20 sites in the former Soviet Union for germ warfare research, production or storage. Until Monday, authorities in Moscow had insisted they were merely developing vaccines that could be used against biological weapons and conducting other research of a defensive nature, which is allowed under the 1972 treaty.
Berdennikov said that under an understanding reached last week, Russian facilities involved in producing biological warfare agents or antidotes for them would be inspected first; then inspections would be conducted at similar laboratories in the United States and Britain.
The personnel cuts will occur because of the shutdown of a field testing laboratory at Aralsk in Kazakhstan, as well as “the whole infrastructure” supporting it, Yevstigneyev said.
The three-nation talks also led to the abolition of the Defense Ministry subdivision that administered the development of offensive germ weapons, and its replacement by an agency charged with devising defenses against atomic, biological and chemical arms. Also to be eliminated are related offices at the Defense Ministry’s Institute of Microbiology and a special research and test regiment.
In response to U.S. and British requests, Yeltsin specifically ordered an investigation into the work of the St. Petersburg Institute for Extra-Pure Biological Preparations. According to some reports in the Russian news media, military scientists there have been trying to breed a particularly virulent strain of the plague.
Yevstigneyev said the St. Petersburg lab had not received an order from the military in five years and had in fact been working in concert with veterinarians to develop a vaccine for a disease--known in Russian as “chicken plague"--that was decimating poultry.
In line with Yeltsin’s order, U.S. and British representatives were invited to tour the facility in the northwestern Russian city immediately but begged off, saying they needed time to prepare, the Russian officials said.
The U.S. official in Washington brushed aside suggestions that the United States should make some sort of reciprocal gesture to Moscow.
“The United States is prepared to consider joint confidence-building measures with the Russian government as reflected in the joint statement, even though we find ourselves in a very different position than does the Russian government,” the official said. “Russia must deal with the legacy of a 20-year Soviet violation of the Biological Weapons Convention while the United States itself has, in fact, been in full compliance.”
Times staff writer Norman Kempster, in Washington, also contributed to this report.