The Soviet Biological Weapons Program and Its Legacy in Today’s Russia

By Raymond A. Zilinskas | CSWMD Occasional Paper 11 | July 18, 2016

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.

Nixon’s decision was widely publicized and documents revealing the reasons behind it are, in the main, available to the public in the National Archives, the Nixon Presidential Library in San Clemente, California, and publications written by members of the Nixon administration. In sharp contrast, the Soviet decision was highly secret at the time and remains so to this day. All contemporary documents pertaining to the Soviet offensive BW program remain classified and none of the military officers and officials who operated it has spoken or written about it except to deny that it existed or to belie its offensive intent. 

The information that has become available about the program has been divulged by scientists and administrators who previously worked in the civilian component of the Soviet BW program, called Biopreparat. Some of them had defected to Western countries and there told their stories, while others chose to remain in Russia after the Soviet Union dissolved in December 1991 and later divulged details of their past secret activities in their own publications, or in broadcasts or print interviews. However, Biopreparat employees, even those who held managerial positions, did not have sufficiently high clearances to be informed about high level BW-related decisionmaking. Decisions such as those that instituted what in effect was a new BW program, and ordered the Soviet Ministry of Defense (MOD) to develop strategies and tactics for the use of biological weapons, were made at the highest levels by members of the Politburo and Central Committee of the Communist Party (CCCP) and the MOD’s General Staff (GS).

Nevertheless, some information pertaining to the establishment of Biopreparat, the planning of programs to research and develop weapons against humans (codenamed Ferment) and animals and plants (codenamed Ekology ), and the accomplishments of these program have become known because Biopreparat scientists learned about them from military scientists who divulged some of this knowledge while working together or in relaxed situations. Thus, the two authors of an extensive history of the Soviet BW program, one of whom is the author of this paper, were able to collect sufficient information from their interviews with Biopreparat employees, autobiographies written by weapons scientists, and articles written by investigative Russian reporters to describe and discuss important aspects of Soviet decisionmaking concerning BW. While this paper draws largely on the contents of this book, additional information comes from sources listed in the endnotes, particularly from the studies on Soviet military decisionmaking conducted by John G. Hines, Ellis M. Mishulovich, and John F. Shull.3

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 decisionmaking 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.