Preventing a biological weapons attack—long a terrifying battlefield danger and now a serious threat to civilian populations as well—is a major contemporary global security priority. The anthrax attack on the U.S. Congress, the discovery of ricin laboratories in France and the United Kingdom, and the unearthing of documents detailing pathogen production processes in al Qaeda hideouts indicate that terrorists are willing to pursue both biological weapons development and use.
The rapid advances that have occurred in biotechnology, the small footprint of many laboratories, and the difficulty in locating and securing biological pathogen stockpiles further increase the already difficult challenges of preventing the spread of biological weapons. In addition, the recent discovery of nuclear procurement and technology transfer networks in the Middle East, Asia, Africa, and Europe have underscored the difficulty of comprehensively tracking illicit and covert movements of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and related technology.
In the past few years, the United States has responded to the threat from biological weapons by pouring more than $14 billion into attack response preparedness and biodefense programs under the Department of Homeland Security and other agencies. However, neither the United States nor its key allies have taken the step of creating an effective forward line of defense against bioterrorism by rapidly accounting for and securing known stockpiles of pathogens on foreign shores.
Although a number of nations may possess suspected biological weapons programs, this accelerated security effort should begin in Russia and the former Soviet states. A vast complex of Soviet-era biological research and development institutes still exists, questions remain about the adequacy of the security of the pathogen collections at a number of the facilities, and numerous scientists are threatened with unemployment as a result of the downsizing of facilities and the elimination of state subsidies.
Russia has renounced its offensive biological weapons capability, but as a key partner in the fight against proliferation, it needs to do more to secure its biological materials and technologies adequately and to redirect former weapons scientists to peaceful activities. These issues must transcend traditional arms control approaches and are best addressed through the expansion of current U.S. and allied programs aimed at reducing former Soviet stockpiles of nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons.
The West has been engaged in these cooperative efforts with Russia and the former Soviet states for more than a decade, and managing biological threats has become an increasingly important priority. Still, spending is paltry both in comparison to U.S. nuclear-related foreign assistance and to U.S. domestic defenses against biological weapons threats. The United States, which has led this effort, is still spending less than $100 million annually (see sidebar for details) under multiple programs. These efforts are supplemented by another $25-30 million provided by Western-nation contributions to science centers in Russia and Ukraine and another half-million dollars in assistance coming directly from some European nations to projects in Russia and the former Soviet states.
There are several reasons for this funding shortfall, including a lack of prioritization and urgency in key Western governments. A crucial sticking point, however, is the unwillingness of the Russian government to permit Western access to several sensitive biological facilities and the Kremlin’s reluctance to override an entrenched bureaucracy to address its domestic bioproliferation dangers.
The Soviet Legacy
At the time of the Soviet Union’s collapse, there were about 1.7 million scientific researchers in the country, and the government financed 97 percent of the research conducted, with many of the scientists working in military-related programs. The exact number of BW scientists remains unknown, but nonproliferation experts generally agree that Soviet biological weapons facilities in total employed 60,000-65,000 people. The Soviet BW complex was separated into three distinct areas, which helped to conceal research activities; the complex contained some activities that were clearly prohibited by the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC), although Western intelligence agencies never could determine to what extent this was so. The complex included:
• multiple Ministry of Defense- controlled facilities, employing around 15,000 people. These facilities conducted research on some biological agents, such as Lassa fever, probably deemed too sensitive for Biopreparat institutes.
• the Biopreparat network of facilities that employed roughly 40,000 scientists and workers. This network included 50 nominally civilian/ commercial facilities that many believe used a “civilian” cover to engage in BW activities. The Defense Ministry was in fact the main customer for Biopreparat’s work.
• six agricultural laboratories, which employed about 10,000 people. Work at these facilities focused on developing pathogens related to plants and animals.
Stopping the proliferation of biological weapons expertise from the former Soviet states is complicated by the difficulty in pinpointing key experts, particularly those with the knowledge to make a key contribution to a biological weapons program. Recent figures have suggested that there are anywhere from 5,000 to 10,000 former Soviet biological weapons scientists with weapons-relevant skills. Ken Alibek, who was deputy director of Biopreparat immediately before the collapse of the Soviet Union and who later defected to the United States, has publicly stated that roughly 100 scientists have the expertise to create a biological weapon from beginning to end. Some experts have offered higher figures. Glenn Schweitzer, the International Science and Technology Center’s first executive director, stated that about 25,000 of those formerly engaged in the Soviet biological weapons complex represented a real proliferation risk.
Threat Reduction Responses
In April 1992, President Boris Yeltsin formally announced that Russia would adhere to the provisions of the BWC and that all offensive work on biological weapons would end immediately. This opened the door to cooperation between the former Soviet facilities and the United States under the newly created cooperative threat reduction (CTR) agenda and its related multilateral institutions.
The U.S. Departments of State, Defense, and Energy; the European Union (EU); and joint efforts between the United States and other wealthy nations all currently fund threat reduction programs (see sidebars). During the past decade, important progress has been made on eliminating or converting infrastructure in the BW complex. In addition, some Biopreparat workers have been redirected to peaceful activities. Access to these facilities also has improved over time as mutual suspicion has been replaced by partnership. By 2000 the United States had gained access to approximately 30 of the 50 nonmilitary institutes formerly associated with Biopreparat, and a number of these laboratories had begun working on commercial biotechnology and pharmaceutical projects. This new nonproliferation cooperation, however, has not extended to allow access to several key biological facilities controlled by the Defense Ministry.
Standoff on Defense Ministry Facilities
Yeltsin’s announcement had raised hopes that the Russian government and military would be more transparent with regard to the military-related facilities. Yet despite pressing for more than a decade, the United States and allied nations have failed to gain access to or significant information about the Defense Ministry-controlled biological facilities.
Most experts agree that there are currently four biological weapons facilities under the jurisdiction of the Russian Defense Ministry.
• The Center of Virology in Sergiev Posad (formerly Zagorsk). This is the largest military biological facility managed by the Defense Ministry.
• The Center for Military Technical Problems of Anti-Bacteriological Defense in Ekaterinburg (formerly Sverdlovsk). This facility is best known for the infamous anthrax outbreak of 1979, which killed 66 people, including some Soviet scientists working at the center.
• The Scientific Research Institute of Microbiology in Kirov. Under the Soviet Union, this facility was active in developing typhus, Q fever, tularemia, brucellosis, anthrax, and glanders. It also produced and stockpiled plague. The Kirov-200 Institute in Strizhi is a related insti- tution. Partial jurisdiction of it was recently transferred to the Ministry of Education, and it is believed to be the most commercially oriented of the sites.
• The Scientific Research Institute of Military Medicine in St. Petersburg. This is one of the leading centers for defense against chemical and bio- logical weapons. It is engaged in vaccine testing, development of mass immunization and prophy- lactic methods, and pathogen detection techniques.
U.S. officials have tried to gain access to these facilities on numerous occasions. Beginning with the Trilateral Agreement of September 1992, the United States, together with the United Kingdom, negotiated with Russia for “visits” (not inspections) to nonmilitary biological sites. Subsequent negotiations for access to military facilities, commonly known as the Rules of the Road, took place sporadically from 1994 to 1996 with little result.
Although the issue of access to the Defense Ministry sites remained part of the nonproliferation dialogue between the United States and Russia through the end of the decade, this issue assumed a higher profile after a 2000 General Accounting Office (GAO) report repeatedly criticized Russia’s refusal to allow the United States “to inspect its military institutes currently managed by the Ministry of Defense.” Part of the problem in gaining access to the Defense Ministry facilities, according to the GAO report, was that “the same generals who directed the Soviet biological weapons program continue to lead the greatly reduced Russian military defensive biological weapons program.”
Some U.S. politicians have independently tried to resolve access issues with Russia. Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Richard Lugar (R-Ind.) has been an outspoken critic of the Russian government’s refusal to allow access to the Defense Ministry-run sites. In 2002, Lugar traveled to Kirov-200, but Russian officials barred him from entering the facility. For Lugar, the last-minute refusal was a frustrating reminder of the Russian paradoxical mindset: “[T]hey [the Russians] were interested in getting…pharmaceutical companies to invest in these facilities. But as I told them, it’s a non-starter if investors can’t even get inside the place.”
In a meeting with Lugar the next day, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov provided no explanation for the rebuff. There are generally three lines of argument that are offered by Russian officials for excluding foreigners from the Defense Ministry-controlled sites:
• The official Moscow line, continu- ing from the Soviet era, is that Russia neither has nor had an offensive biological weapons development or procurement program. The existence of the Defense Ministry facilities is denied or explained in terms of “other than offensive” activities that rep- resent an integral component of Russian national security.
• Russia’s current biological pathogen research also is described as en- tirely defensive or “peaceful” in nature. Thus, some chief Russian officials argue that access has been denied to foreigners at the Defense Ministry sites simply because there is nothing to hide and no reason for them to enter.
• A third reason given is that the United States refuses to accept reci- procity. Some Russian officials insist that, in return for allowing access to Russian military sites, they be allowed to visit similar U.S. military facilities. The United States has opposed this, and it has fed Russian concerns about the true intent and scope of the U.S. biodefense program.
As a result of the Russian resistance on this issue, the U.S. Congress has acted to limit the expenditure of threat reduction funds at facilities that do not allow site access to U.S. agencies. This stance is intended to ensure that no offensive biological weapons research is being conducted at facilities receiving U.S. funds and also to increase the pressure to resolve this access standoff, but it also perpetuates obvious security concerns.
Both the United States and Russia have a mutual interest in finding agreement on access to the Defense Ministry facilities because each recognizes the magnitude of the global threat posed by the proliferation of biological weapons, technology, and expertise. The reorganization of the Russian government this spring following President Vladimir Putin’s re-election and the increasing focus by wealthy and European nations on reducing the biological weapons threat could create new opportunities for negotiation on the subject. Bringing the parties to the negotiating table, however, most likely will require high-level political involvement, which so far has been lacking.
As a starting point, the United States and Russia could agree to a confidential exchange of updated information about former and current (defensively oriented) military facilities. Particular attention should be directed to the existence of any genetically altered pathogens that are resistant to current vaccines. The implications of an accidental release of such a pathogen should transcend rigid adherence to national security secrecy.
This voluntary exchange of information could begin to establish a level of trust.
It would then be important to decide whether discussions of access to the Defense Ministry-run facilities should be reopened. If discussions were to begin, they could focus on biosafety and biosecurity and the principles of trust and transparency. An important issue would be the level of intrusiveness that is acceptable and required for site visits and how to incorporate degrees of flexibility into the process. Another consideration is whether to keep the discussions entirely as a bilateral U.S.-Russian matter or whether the inclusion of other parties, such as the United Kingdom or other EU nations, NATO, or perhaps even the United Nations, could help to facilitate the process.
Governments can look to the ongoing collaboration with Russia in other sensitive nonproliferation areas, especially in the nuclear field, as a guide for resolving transparency issues at the Defense Ministry-run facilities. Obtaining access to nuclear cities and facilities was a long and gradual process during which many obstacles had to be overcome, and cooperation in this sphere still is far from perfect. Nevertheless, ways were found to overcome sensitivities and mistrust and to cooperate effectively in this area, with benefits accruing to all sides. With renewed diplomatic commitment, both sides could reconcile past differences and agree to some form of access to the Defense Ministry-run facilities.
Expanding the Effectiveness of Bio-Threat Reduction
Besides solving the problem of Defense Ministry facility access, there are many additional actions that could be taken at nonmilitary facilities to expand and improve such threat reduction activities. Increased funding could be readily absorbed in some key areas such as scientist re-employment and product commercialization. In fact, a number of assistance proposals have been approved but await funding.
There also could be better integration between the efforts that target the elimination of infrastructure and those that focus on scientist and worker redirection. For example, the biological weapons production capacity at the Stepnogorsk plant in Kazakhstan was eliminated by a U.S. program, but this action left many scientists without work. As similar infrastructure elimination is planned in other former Soviet states, it would be wise to carry out advance planning for worker re-employment in order to yield a more substantial and long-lasting nonproliferation benefit. If the Defense Ministry facility access problems can be solved, then even greater acceleration of the scope and funding for bio-threat reduction programs would be in order.
In order to develop a more comprehensive and cooperative strategy for addressing the dangers posed by unsecured biological pathogens, the West, Russia, and former Soviet states need to begin working on the following additional key elements of the program.
Although gaining access to Russian military facilities is essential, there also is a need for greater access to Russian private-sector biological research facilities. As the biotechnology boom has spread across Russia and the former Soviet states, many biological institutes have been privatized. Given the many problems with transparency in Russia and the sensitive and competitive nature of biotechnology research and commercialization, concerns naturally arise about the adequate monitoring of the activities at these private facilities. It is necessary to guarantee a level of proprietary protection and confidentiality in order for companies to be competitive, but the international community must be assured that private owners of these facilities have not bought them to pursue dangerous ends.
Expanding the Research Agenda
New opportunities for biological weapons scientists need to be identified and funded. Much of the focus has been on employing scientists on biodefense projects, but there is also a need to focus even greater attention on the development and commercialization of affordable pharmaceuticals and research aimed at solving global health problems. Pharmaceuticals from the former Soviet states perhaps will not be competitive in the West, but they could serve needs in Russia, China, and other nations. Another valuable opportunity might be in employing Russian biological experts and facilities in the UN’s efforts to stem the mushrooming global HIV/AIDS epidemic. Finally, former weapons scientists could be drafted to participate in the improvement of public health in their local areas. Disease surveillance and health-care planning are crucial elements in minimizing the potential impact of bioterrorism, and this is one area where the local facilities could be better integrated with global networks such as the World Health Organization.
Creating an EU Initiative
Expanded EU involvement would also be a welcome supplement to current efforts. The EU has recognized the increasing danger posed by bioterrorism and the need to expand threat reduction initiatives to deal with it. Indeed, both the United Kingdom and France have indicated that this will be an area of intensified focus. The EU nations could concentrate on expanding biosafety and biosecurity upgrades and contributing to the creation of biotechnological parks at critical sites. For example, environmental monitoring labs have been established at Stepnogorsk and Kirov with help from the United States, but many proposals and project ideas for these centers remain unfunded, including analyses that could contribute to environmental pollution mitigation and food safety improvement. Also, EU governments and industries could investigate the potential benefits of greater cooperation on civilian biotechnology.
Insuring Best Practices
There is a need to support training and education in biosecurity and biosafety best practices and to reinforce ethical norms and codes of conduct as a tool to combat the misapplication of biology by scientists. This is a problem faced by many nations, not just Russia and the former Soviet states. Improving the quality of biosafety and biosecurity measures at key facilities will also help to improve their ability to market their capabilities and products to Western commercial partners as well as deepen cooperation, transparency, and trust, potentially leading to progress in other areas.
The world is facing an increasingly challenging battle against potential bioterrorism. Advances in biotechnology are occurring rapidly, and the traditional arms control methods of controlling biological weapons are increasingly inadequate to address the modern-day challenges. The global community, and in particular the wealthy nations involved in the G-8 Global Partnership Against the Spread of Weapons and Materials of Mass Destruction, need to develop new cooperative, synergistic, and effective strategies that can mitigate the bioterrorism danger. The recent statement from the G-8 summit at Sea Island, Georgia, underscored the “unique and grave threats” posed by bioterrorism but contained no new funding pledges or programs. Rather, it focused primarily on the effective implementation of the prohibitions contained in the BWC as the primary defense against biological weapons. This narrow response is insufficient.
Effectively addressing the proliferation danger from biological weapons will require targeting new funding on underfinanced areas, including rapidly increasing security and safety at all biological facilities, expanding research opportunities, and creating new commercial initiatives. The place to begin is in Russia and the former Soviet states, where the largest problems exist and where existing CTR mechanisms allow for rapid action. Yet, the effort cannot stop there. It must be extended globally to prevent any dangerous biological pathogens from falling into the hands of terrorists.
2. The Center for Strategic and International Studies and the Congressional Research Service place the number at 60,000, and the Henry L. Stimson Center, citing an annonymous government official, puts the number at 65,000.
3. Jonathan B. Tucker, “Biological Weapons in the Former Soviet Union: An Interview With Dr. Kenneth Alibek,” The Nonproliferation Review, Spring/Summer 1999, p. 4.
4. Amy Smithson, Toxic Archipelago: Preventing Proliferation From the Former Soviet Chemical and Biological Weapons Complexes (Washington, DC: Henry L. Stimson Center, 1999), p. 10.
5. Nuclear Threat Initiative, “Russia: International Science and Technology Center (ISTC).”
6. U.S. General Accounting Office (GAO), “Biological Weapons: Efforts to Reduce Former Soviet Threat Offers Benefits, Poses New Risks,” GAO/NSIAD-00-138, April 2000, p. 6.
7. The precise number and identity of the Defense Ministry-controlled facilities has varied in recent years. “In information submitted to the UN in 1987, the Soviet Union declared five institutes under Ministry of Defense control: Leningrad (now St. Petersburg), Kirov, Sverdlovsk (now Yekaterineberg), Zagorsk (now Sergiev Posad), and Aralsk [this facility is actually located near the Vozrozdheniya Island test site, which has been decontaminated]. Russia’s 1992 declaration referred to Kirov, Sverdlovsk, and Zagosrk,” as well as to the sites Obolensk, Chekhov, Leningrad, and the Vozrozdheniya Island test site. Graham S. Pearson et al., “Biological Weapons Proliferation: Reasons for Concern, Courses of Action,” Henry L. Stimson Center Report No. 18, January 1998, p. 29.
8. GAO, “Biological Weapons,” pp. 3-4.
9. Ibid, p. 16.
11 . Joby Warrick, “Russia Denies U.S. Access on Bioweapons,” The Washington Post, September 8, 2002, p. A25.
12. There are two significant EU documents that address bioterrorism and the importance of threat reduction: Presidency Conclusion, Annex II, Declaration on Non Proliferation of Weapons of Mass Destruction, Thessaloniki, June 19-20, 2003; Javier Solana, A Secure Europe in a Better World, European Council, Thessaloniki, June 20, 2003.
The United States, the European Union, and other global actors have initiated a variety of efforts to eliminate the residue of Soviet biological weapons programs.
Total funding for these four efforts is currently about $55 million per year. In its fiscal year 2005 budget request (for the budget year beginning Oct. 1), the Pentagon proposed substantially cutting cooperative research funding and more than doubling funds for biosecurity and biosafety.
Through the end of 2003, the ISTC had provided roughly $130 million in funding for more than 700 regular and partner projects in biotechnology and life sciences. Such projects in recent years have been an increasing focus of the center’s work. Similarly, the STCU has spent more than $7 million to date on biotechnology and related medical projects.
G-8 Global Partnership
European Union Programs
Kenneth Luongo is executive director of the Russian-American Nuclear Security Advisory Council (RANSAC). Derek Averre is senior research fellow at the Centre for Russian and East European Studies at the University of Birmingham, U.K. Raphael Della Ratta is director of the Weapon Scientist Redirection Project at RANSAC. Maurizio Martellini is secretary-general of the Landau Network Centro-Volta, Como, Italy. The article is based in part on the findings of a meeting organized by the authors in Como, Italy, in November 2003 on the future of bio-threat reduction.