Fear and loathing in moscow

The Russian biological weapons program in 2022

Fear and loathing in moscow

The Russian biological weapons program in 2022

By Robert Petersen
October 5, 2022

On February 24, Russia launched a war of conquest against Ukraine after it had already illegally annexed Crimea in 2014 and waged war for eight years in the Donbas. The invasion was widely condemned, including by the United Nations General Assembly, with 141 states voting in favor of a resolution directed against the invasion, five against, and 35 states abstaining, with 12 not present.

The Russian invasion was accompanied by a disinformation campaign that claimed the United States had a secret biological weapons program in Ukraine. The roots of this disinformation campaign can be traced to 2009, but suddenly it became one of the official reasons for the Russian invasion against Ukraine. In the first weeks of the war, this created concerns that Russia might use these false allegations as a pretext to conduct an attack with its own weapons of mass destruction.

The Russian accusations and the fears they evoked raise an important question: What is the status of Russia’s own biological weapons program? The Russian government inherited a substantial part of the Soviet biological weapons program following the collapse of the Soviet Union, and what happened to this large program is a mystery. According to the US State Department, the Russian government continues to have a biological weapons program, and the US government did impose sanctions on several Russian military-biological facilities in 2021.

Although Russia is highly secretive with regard to its biological research enterprise, and there is no definitive proof of an extant bioweapons program, the public record strongly suggests that Russia has maintained and modernized the surviving parts of the Soviet biological weapons program. For instance, the Russian government repeatedly admitted and then, in subsequent years, repeatedly denied inheriting a large part of the Soviet biological weapons program. Also, there are public signs of continuing research into biological weapons (including non-lethal biological weapons) at several locations in Russia. Meanwhile, discussion and policy decisions regarding so-called genetic weapons demonstrate the Russian leadership’s obsession with the idea of a new generation of advanced bioweapons.

Any Russian attempt to conduct research on new biological weapons will face serious obstacles typical in contemporary Russia, including corruption, poor management, and a loss of expertise (accelerated by the Ukraine invasion). Nevertheless, as this article shows, the Russian government is sufficiently devoted to biological weapons to overcome these problems, if it decides to do so.

The Soviet

inheritance

The Soviet inheritance

A statue of Vladimir Lenin stands in the city center in Yekaterinburg. In the aftermath of the Soviet collapse, Russian president Boris Yeltsin acknowledged the existence of an illegal biological weapons program to the UN. The admission would be rescinded years later.

In December 1991, the Soviet Union collapsed, but what happened to the Soviet biological weapons program was more complicated. Soviet research into biological warfare began in the 1920s, was assembled into a biological weapons program in 1928, and continued throughout the Cold War. The Soviet Union was a signatory to the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BTWC) in 1972, which banned biological weapons, but the Soviet government intentionally ignored its treaty obligations. Instead, the program was expanded through the creation of the quasi-civilian biotechnology research organization Biopreparat in the 1970s to exploit the novel possibilities in genetic engineering. The program peaked in the 1980s with an estimated 65,000 employees working at dozens of military or civilian facilities. Due to strict secrecy, the full scale of the program and what it managed to accomplish largely eluded Western intelligence. Even accidents like the deadly leak of weaponized Bacillus anthracis from the bioweapons facility Sverdlovsk-19 in April 1979 did not reveal the full scale of the program, although it did arouse suspicion among some US and British intelligence officials that the Soviet Union was not upholding the biological weapons treaty.

In 1989, Vladimir Pasechnik, a senior scientist from Biopreparat, defected and revealed key details about illegal Soviet bioweapons research to UK and US intelligence. Pressure began to mount on the Soviet government to admit to and—more important—to end these activities. In September 1991, Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev was confronted by the British Prime Minister John Major about the Soviet Union’s vast and illegal bioweapons program. Unlike previous encounters about the issue, Gorbachev did not deny the charge this time, but claimed that he had been misled by other senior Soviet officials. In November 1991, the Kremlin informed the UK that an order to terminate the Soviet biological weapons program had been issued.

Following the Soviet collapse, Russian president Boris Yeltsin on several occasions acknowledged the existence of an illegal biological weapons program, and some details about the program were included for the first time in a Confidence Building Measure submitted to the UN in 1992. All previous annual Soviet submissions had denied the existence of any offensive biological weapons program. During the same year, the UK, the United States, and Russia concluded the Trilateral Agreement, which reaffirmed their commitment to the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention and declared that Russia would eliminate the biological weapons program on its territory. The agreement also provided a mechanism for the parties to conduct inspections on each other’s territory to ensure compliance.

The Russians quickly broke the promises in the Trilateral Agreement, and in May 1994, the Russian government suddenly withdrew Yeltsin’s admission that it had inherited large parts of the Soviet bioweapons program. The Russian government also claimed that US companies were violating the biological weapons treaty and demanded access to overseas US military laboratories. Russia would later claim that these US laboratories were secret bioweapons facilities. The Trilateral Agreement was finally put to rest in November 1995, when a senior Russian diplomat declared at the Fourth Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention Review Conference in Geneva that Russia had never developed, produced, stockpiled, or stored biological weapons. This remains the Russian government position to this day.

The collapse of the Trilateral Agreement should have created an uproar, but it did not. Russian democracy was fighting for its survival by the mid-1990s, and the West set aside the question of whether Russia continued to maintain a biological weapons program in favor of what was considered to be a more important issue: supporting the Yeltsin administration. The United States and other Western countries hoped that another mechanism would alleviate at least some concerns about Russian bioweapons activities, and in 1991, the United States initiated the Cooperative Threat Reduction program. That program aimed to assist the Soviet Union and later Russia in preventing nuclear materials and weapons from falling into the wrong hands. Later, it was expanded to include the elimination of the former Soviet chemical weapons stockpile and production facilities, along with the conversion of the Biopreparat facilities to peaceful uses. The latter would serve to keep pathogens from being misused, stolen, or accidentally released from those facilities, while at the same time preventing a brain drain of scientists or technicians to countries such as Iraq or North Korea. Although it was never intended to replace the Trilateral Agreement, the Cooperative Threat Reduction program did provide some degree of reassurance that large parts of the former Soviet bioweapons program were no longer active.

Nevertheless, there were reasons for concern: The three Soviet military bioweapons facilities at Sergiev Posad-6 (previously Zagorsk-6), Yekaterinburg-19 (previously Sverdlovsk-19), and the Kirov Institute remained as they had been in the Soviet era and inaccessible to foreigners. These military facilities had been used for research and development and also weaponization and production of biological weapons. The anti-plague system (which had played a key role in the defensive part of the Soviet bioweapons program) also remained largely closed to foreigners. Because of lack of access, the Cooperative Threat Reduction program never included these facilities in its activities. According to the Russian press, scientists at Sergiev Posad-6 finished working on weaponized Monkeypox, Lassa virus, and Ebola virus in the early 1990s. Lassa virus was viewed as an especially attractive bioweapon, because the "probable adversary" (i.e. the United States) did not have the means of prevention or treatment. Ebola virus was viewed as an attractive combat virus due to its lethality, although it was a very difficult virus to cultivate.

Vladimir Pasechnik, a senior scientist from Biopreparat who defected in 1989 and revealed key details about the Soviet bioweapons research. (FederalCity.ru)

A renewed biological weapons program?

A renewed biological weapons program?

Acting President Vladimir Putin participates in a farewell ceremony for an airborne regiment leaving Chechnya in March 2000. (The Kremlin)

Things began to change due to the growing threat of terrorism, which became a serious issue in Russia because of the wars against Chechnya. In July 1999, there was an outbreak of Congo-Crimea hemorrhagic fever in Oblivskaya in the Rostov region of southern Russia. Although not described as a bioterrorist attack, the outbreak nevertheless served to galvanize the old biological weapons program and provide it with a new mission. Reportedly, Chechen separatists tried in 2000 to infiltrate Sergiev Posad-6 in an effort to obtain pathogens, which may also have influenced Russian decision-makers at the time. The government issued two decrees in 1999 intended to protect the Russian people against manmade or natural biological threats, including by designating Sergiev Posad-6 and the Volgograd Anti-Plague Institute as leading biopreparedness institutions. These decrees incidentally also allowed both facilities to continue highly advanced dual use-research on dangerous pathogens, including by conducting aerosol experiments. As the Swedish defense institute FOI noted in a report about the two facilities: "In this context, the unchanged focus regarding pathogens studied expertise in aerosol and research that can contribute to both defensive and offensive aims at the two new centres and their mother institutes are notable."

The administrative status of the Russian bioweapons program was further modified with government decree no. 303 in 2005, which described the Russian Nuclear, Biological and Chemical (NBC) Protection Troops as the leading organization defending against biological threats. The 48th Central Scientific Research Institute (48th CSRI) of the Russian Defence Ministry was one of several specialized organizations, which would support the Russian NBC Protection Troops. The 48th CSRI was formally established in 2006 and encompassed all the former bioweapons facilities belonging to the Soviet military. Several of the old Biopreparat facilities now became part of Rospotrebnadzor, which was responsible for human health and consumer rights in Russia.  These included for example the State Research Center of Virology and Biotechnology VECTOR in Koltsovo and all of the anti-plague facilities.

Despite the official emphasis on biopreparedness, signs of biological weapons activities continued to appear. In 2004, the Russian newspaper Moskovskij Komsomolets proudly proclaimed about Sergiev Posad-6: "According to some sources, all the production facilities of the underground part of Zagorsk-6 are kept in perfect order, including the lines for the production of ammunition based on the smallpox virus. We are ready for biological warfare." In 2005, the Military Industrial Commission and the Security Council of the Russian Federation approved a new concept for the research and development of different kinds of non-lethal weapons that could be used against living targets or to disable equipment and objects. Among these non-lethal weapons were microorganisms capable of infecting people, animals, and plants and destroying weapons and machines. One example of such research involved bacteria that could decompose lubricants over a period of days, leading to blockage of fuel lines and destruction of combustion engines. According to a 2020 report by the nonprofit research organization MITRE, Russian research and development of non-lethal weapons (including biological agents) continues.

Based on the available evidence, it is reasonable to conclude that the Russian biological weapons program was officially reconstituted as a biodefense program in the 1999-2006 time frame. During the same period, signs of biological weapons activities continued to appear in the press and other public reporting. If the Russian press is correct, the 48th CSRI retained the capability to produce biological weapons for large-scale warfare. At the same time, the Russian interest in non-lethal weapons (including those of a biological nature) is interesting and could be viewed as an attempt to adapt the program to perceived new security threats such as terrorism and insurgencies.

640px-Evstafiev-chechnya-prayer2

The first Chechen war of independence took place from 1994–1996, culminating in the Battle of Grozny and a peace treaty in 1997. In August 1999, separatist Islamic fighters from Chechnya declared themselves an independent state and set off the Second Chechen War. Russia accused the separatists of using chemical weapons while the Russian military conducted bombing raids of Grozny. (Mikhail Evstafiev, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

The 48th Central Scientific Research Institute

The 48th Central Scientific Research Institute

Colonel Sergey Borisevich, head of the 48th Central Scientific Research Institute, receiving an award from Russian President Vladimir Putin on his work developing the Sputnik-V vaccine. (The Kremlin)

The 48th Central Scientific Research Institute employs about 1,400 people, has an annual budget of approximately 1.5 billion rubles (about $25 million), and is headed by Colonel Sergey Borisevich. According to Raymond A. Zilinskas and Philippe Mauger's book "Biosecurity in Putin's Russia, "the 48th CSRI belongs to the Russian Ministry of Defense and is supervised by the Russian General Staff. The Kirov Institute is the leading facility in the 48th CSRI and played an important role in Soviet times by developing bioweapons such as Francisella tularensis, Yersenia pestis and Bacillus anthracis. In Soviet times, the Kirov Institute had at least one BSL-3 laboratory, a vivarium—a contained observation area—for animals used in testing, several aerosol test chambers, one explosion chamber, a pilot plant, and a small production plant. The facility continues to conduct research on primates, so it is safe to say that the vivarium remains in use. In recent years, the Kirov Institute has received funding for renovation of buildings and modernization of production systems for medical immunobiological preparations against Bacillus anthracis and vaccines against Yersinia pestis, the bacterium that causes plague in humans.

Yekaterinburg-19 was partly modernized in 2005-2010 and again in 2014-2015. Several bunker facilities previously used for the storage of biological weapons remain in use.[1] Information in the public domain shows that Yekatarinburg-19 has received funding for major renovations of laboratory and production facilities and the facility’s physical protection system. Almost all of the buildings have received new roofs, and a new factory for the production of antibiotics has been built. In addition, an open-air test site called Pyshma is being modernized. In Soviet times, Pyshma was being used to test military equipment against biological weapons simulants, but presumable it would also be possible to test real biological weapons there.

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Sergiev Posad-6 contains a large collection of viruses and rickettsia, conducts research on primates (including rhesus macaques), and develops vaccines against the Venezuelan equine encephalomyelitis virus and the Ebola virus. The facility also produces vaccines against Bacillus anthracis, Yersinia pestis and Variola major. There is once again evidence of major renovation projects, for example of laboratory and production facilities. Officially, Sergiev Posad-6 has the necessary capabilities to make diagnostics and treatments for dangerous viral and rickettsial pathogens. The facility also has a mobilization capacity to produce therapeutic or immunobiological medicines.

In 2016, a fourth facility belonging to the 48th CSRI was established in Moscow. The facility was in 2016 headed by Colonel Dmitry Poklonsky and had among its staff six doctors and nine PhDs. The purpose of this unnamed center is to monitor the biological situation in Russia, while being ready to respond with practical and methodological assistance in case of an emergency.

Based on 36 articles published between 2008 and 2017[2], the 48th CSRI’s main focus seems to be on medical countermeasures, epidemiology, diagnostics, and aerosol studies. The 48th CSRI appears to have strong capabilities in molecular biology, toxicology, and immunology. The institute has in recent years acquired a wide array of laboratory equipment that indicates the use of molecular biology and gene editing in scientific work. The 48th CSRI is, for example, using DNA/RNA synthesizers and has several times ordered ligases, restriction enzymes, and transfection reagents.

The 48th CSRI does not exist in isolation: For example, Sergiev Posad-6 has a close working relationship with the Volgograd Anti-Plague Institute. Sergiev Posad-6 specializes in viruses and rickettsia, while the Volgograd Anti-Plague Institute concentrates on bacterial and fungal pathogens. During the COVID-19 pandemic, several former Biopreparat facilities and the Gamaleya National Center of Epidemiology and Microbiology of the Russian Ministry of Health collaborated with the 48th CSRI in developing and producing the Sputnik V-vaccine. In an interview with Krasnaya Zvezda, the director of the Gamaleya Institute, Alexander Gintsburg, proudly stated that he "inherited" a strong collaboration with the military dating back to the Soviet biological weapons program.

The 48th CSRI also collaborates with the FSB, the principal Russian intelligence agency. The relationship between the 48th CSRI and the FSB dates back to an executive order from 2005. In December 2020, OpenFacto, a nonprofit association that promotes French language open-source intelligence efforts, revealed that the 48th CSRI had cooperated with FSB Unit 68240 about a project called Toledo. The operational management of Project Toledo was delegated to Unit 34435, the FSB Criminalistics Institute. The purpose of Project Toledo is unknown, but Unit 34435 is infamous for having a secretive poison laboratory, which played a key role in assassinations in Soviet times. More recently, Unit 34435 has been investigated in connection with the failed attempt to kill Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny using a Novichok nerve agent. It therefore seems possible that the 48th CSRI assists the FSB in developing new "tools" to eliminate perceived enemies of the Russian state.

The above description presents some aspects of the 48th CSRI. It clearly has strong scientific and technical capabilities, and it has maintained old networks with former collaborators in the Soviet bioweapons program while creating new bonds with the FSB.

“More rats than cats”

“More rats than cats”

Trash piles up in Sergiev Posad-6. Residents have protested against the living conditions in the town. (AltGazeta.ru)

There is another aspect of the 48th CSRI that requires explanation. The Russia-Ukraine War has revealed deep structural problems in the Russian military due to malpractice, theft, and corruption at all levels. Perhaps this should not have come as a surprise to observers of the Russian military. The Swedish defense institute FOI recently quoted an anonymous Russian oligarch in exile as saying: "And how will the army be good, if everything else in the country is shit and mired in nepotism, sycophancy, and servility?"

There are many signs of such problems in the 48th CSRI. In February 2022, the newsler.ru website reported that a military hospital located at the Kirov Institute was in such a poor state that bricks were falling from the walls and ceiling, endangering the lives of patients and staff. Sergiev Posad-6 has for several years struggled with problems such as dilapidated buildings, lack of central heating, and lack of garbage removal. Sergiev Posad-6 is not "only" a military-biological facility, but also an old Soviet-style closed city that is home to 5,000 to 6,000 residents. In Soviet times, such closed cities were subject to a severe security regime and sometimes did not even appear on maps or road signs. In those times, the inhabitants enjoyed a much higher living standard compared to average Soviet citizens, so it was quite attractive to live there. But those times are long gone. In 2018, a demonstration took place after residents in Sergiev Posad-6 had been without hot water and heating for almost two weeks. As one resident complained: "We have more rats than cats. This is not a town, but some kind of concentration camp."

The residents in Sergiev Posad-6 live in a village called Vaktsina or Settlement 67, which is kept separate from the technical zone where bioweapons research possibly could be taking place. But basic problems such as mismanagement and corruption must surely have an impact on bioweapons activities. In June 2019, the Moscow City Court sentenced Lieutenant Colonel Vladimir Klevtsov, the former deputy head of the logistics department of the 48th CSRI, to four years in prison and a fine of 780,000 rubles (about $13,000). Klevtsov’s crime was accepting a bribe for services not delivered by a civilian company. In September 2019, the Moscow Regional Court fined Dmitri Shulov, the former chief engineer at the 48th CSRI, 3.2 million rubles (about $53,000) for accepting a bribe. In August 2020, the Solcnechnogorsk Garrison Military Court assessed a fine of 35,000 rubles (some $577) against Dmitry Kutaev, the former deputy head of research work at the 48th CSRI. Kutaev had the previous year signed a certificate for the acceptance of goods, knowing that one of the companies involved did not fulfill its obligations. The resulting damage was estimated to be 416,000 rubles (about $6,900). Kutaev admitted his guilt and provided compensation for the losses incurred.

The most serious corruption scheme involved Sergey Lupin, the former chief accountant of the 48th CSRI, Anton Makeev, the former head of the planning department, Alexei Yakimov, a former employee of the planning department, and Irina Borisova, a former employee of the financial department. From 2009 until 2011, all four forged financial documents and paid themselves more than 21 million rubles (about $345,000). In October 2019, Lupin was sentenced to 4.5 years in prison, Makeev and Borisova to 3.5 years in prison, and Yakimov to 3 years in prison.

According to the Russia-based news outlet PASMI, this particular corruption scheme was only the tip of the iceberg. The scheme began in 2009 and involved Georgy Vasiliev, the head of the Center for Financing Special Programs (later renamed Unit 22280) and two of his employees. The center was formed to pay for special military projects, but Vasiliev abused his authority and the secrecy surrounding the 48th CSRI to transfer money to himself. The scheme lasted until 2014 and resulted in the theft of 355 million rubles (about $5.85 million) or 10 million rubles per month. The subsequent trial punished the persons mentioned above, but several of the major perpetrators involved—including members of the Main Military Prosecutor’s Office and the FSB—escaped punishment.

Overall, it is clear that substantial corruption exists in the administrative and funding support of the 48th CSRI. While the problems described here will not prevent military scientists from researching and producing biological weapons, these deficiencies could affect the quantity and quality of such weapons. They also raise the question of how much of the modernization effort described previously was actually implemented, and how much of the funding was stolen or otherwise misused.

Sergiev Posad-6, previously known as Zagorsk-6, is a closed city where bioweapons research is taking place. Residents of the city are kept out of the technical zone where research is conducted and have protested the living conditions in the town. (AltGazeta.ru)

The genetic weapons campaign

The genetic weapons campaign

As mentioned before, the Russian invasion of Ukraine was accompanied by a disinformation campaign alleging US bioweapons activities in Ukraine. The campaign included the claim, made by Major General Igor Kirillov (the head of the Russian NBC Protection troops), that US and German military scientists had been working on a biological weapon capable of selectively targeting different ethnic populations in Russia.

To understand the genesis of this notion, one must go back to the 1930s, when Soviet agricultural scientist Trofim Lysenko—with support from Soviet leader Joseph Stalin—rejected Mendelian genetics and instead advocated the theory that traits acquired through environmental exposures could be transmitted to offspring.[3] This theory effectively destroyed Soviet genetics research and resulted in the execution or imprisonment of thousands of scientists. By the 1960s, it was understood that Lysenkoism was pseudoscience, and it once again became acceptable for Soviet scientists to study genetics.

One reason why the Soviet Union established Biopreparat in the 1970s was because several senior academic scientists, led by Yuri A. Ovchinnikov, convinced General Secretary Leonid Brezhnev that the Soviet biological weapons program should use genetic engineering in order to make new biological weapons. Ovchinnikov was not particularly interested in biological warfare, but he understood how far behind the Soviet Union was in genetic research, and that it would be necessary to have support from the powerful Soviet military to catch up.

This renewed focus on genetics paved the way for Soviet interest in genetic weapons, which preferentially could target people of specific ethnicities or people with specific genotypes. Genetic weapons (sometimes also called ethnic bioweapons) are in that regard different from biological weapons that have been enhanced or modified through genetic engineering. In 1976, Soviet military scientists began to use the term genetic weapon in reaction to suspected military research in the United States. Russian geneticist Evgeny Lilyin recently claimed that Soviet scientists did attempt to make genetic weapons in the 1980s, although apparently without much success.

Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, a strange public "debate" about genetic weapons began in Russia. Senior scientist Mikhail Paltsev and biochemist Alexander Spirin claimed that it would soon be possible to make genetic weapons. Gen. Makhmut Gareev and Maj. Gen. Vladimir Slipchenko discussed the possibility of creating weapons based on new physical principles, including genetic weapons.[4] Both Gareev and Col. Maksimov from Sergiev Posad-6 claimed that such weapons would be outside the scope of international law, including the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention.  Maksimov claimed that the US military was already busy making bioweapons using genetic engineering. During this peculiar and otherwise one-sided "debate," Slipchenko made his opposition to such weapons clear: "Imagine an artillery piece that, having fired a shell at the enemy, immediately explodes, destroying the crew. Would anyone want to fight with such a cannon? Unlikely." According to Slipchenko, even if these weapons proved to be successful they would end up killing as many people as a nuclear war. Genetic weapons were "unmanageable" and only a "complete dilettante" would therefore advocate for the development and use of such weapons, Slipchenko stated.

This was a reference to Yuri Bobylov, who is a chief proponent of genetic weapons in Russia. In his book, The Genetic bomb: Secret scenarios of bioterrorism from 2006 (reprinted in 2008), Bobylov painted a dire picture of the world captured in a Malthusian Trap. Since he described the world as heading towards ecological disaster, he advocated for the development and use of genetic weapons to exterminate most of the human race, leaving only about 1 billion to 1.5 billion people ("the golden billion") to survive and prosper. The term "the golden billion" is widely used in post-Soviet Russia and refers to how a rich and powerful cabal tries to exploit the majority of the human race to benefit the one billion people living in the Western world. The Russian leadership is notorious for using this term and usually portrays itself as fighting against this conspiracy.

In Bobylov’s book and subsequent articles, this term is turned upside down; he encouraged the use of genetic weapons as the main weapon in world genocidal wars to reach the promised land of "the golden billion." Not surprisingly, Bobylov’s book is full of racist sentiments, admiration for Nazism, and respect for individual Nazis like the renowned zoologist Konrad Lorenz. As Bobylov wrote in 2018: "Military-oriented science reaches the peak of its development when it is the science of life that becomes the science of death and, accordingly, the most important means of war. Civilization on Earth is now in the stage of a deadly crisis. The world urgently needs world genocidal wars for further harmonious development."

What makes Bobylov a remarkable figure is his background and how he was treated. Bobylov had previously worked for several different government agencies and been a staff member of the powerful Military-Industrial Commission (VPK). He knew about the work supervised by Lt. Gen. Valentin Evstigneev, who was the former head of the 15th Directorate of the Soviet General Staff, which was responsible for the Soviet biological weapons program. According to Bobylov, they had a personal conversation in 2007, in which Evstigneev assured him of the superiority of biological warfare, compared to other methods of warfare. Belye Alvy—a publishing house allegedly controlled by the Russian military, police, and the FSB – was responsible for printing Bobylov’s book. It is therefore safe to say that the Russian government tacitly supported Bobylov’s arguments. In fact, it seems likely that a large part of the Russian "debate" about genetic weapons was a political campaign intended to influence public opinion about biological weapons inside Russia. Since it was exclusively directed at the Russian public, its significance has so far not been properly understood abroad.

Chief-of-Russian-Radiation-Chemical-and-Biological-Protection-Force-Igor-Kirillov

Major General Igor Kirillov is the Chief of the Radiation, Chemical, and Biological Protection Force in Russia. (Jamestown Foundation)

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President Putin and the genetic weapon

President Putin and the genetic weapon

Russian President Vladimir Putin, left, with Security Council Secretary Nikolai Patrushev at the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia, on June 5, 2017. (The Kremlin)

In 2007, the Russian government briefly banned the export of biological material (including hair and blood samples) after the head of the FSB, Nikolai Patrushev, informed President Vladimir Putin that foreign powers were using these samples to develop genetic weapons targeting ethnic groups in Russia. This was the first of many signs regarding a policy shift in response to perceived biological threats. In 2012, Russia announced it would withdraw from the Cooperative Threat Reduction program, and it completely abandoned the partnership in 2014. Even before that, Russia launched a massive disinformation campaign against the program in neighboring countries, particularly against Ukraine and Georgia. The alleged threat from "US military-biological laboratories" in these countries was subsequently included in the Russian national security strategy in 2015.

In 2012, Prime Minister Putin (shortly before he returned to the presidency) wrote an essay about future military technologies, including genetic weapons. During a subsequent televised meeting with his ministers, the Russian Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov pledged to develop new weapon systems based on Putin’s essay, including genetic weapons. In 2017, President Putin expressed his concern that certain foreigners (i.e. the US military) were busy collecting biomaterials from ethnic groups in Russia—just as Patrushev had warned 10 years earlier. During his speech at the annual Valdai Discussion Club in 2018, President Putin suggested that foreign scientists were already busy developing genetic weapons.

How people close to President Putin think about this matter is perhaps best explained in a speech by Mikhail Kovalchuk to the Federation Council in September 2015. Kovalchuk is the president of the prestigious National Research Centre Kurchatov Institute and enjoys, together with his brother Yury (known as "Putin's personal banker"), a close relationship with the Russian president. The Kurchatov Institute is famous for its role in the development of nuclear weapons and nuclear energy in Soviet times, but it also provided sanctuary for Soviet geneticists like S. I. Alikhanyan, who lost his job at the Department for Genetics at Moscow State University for opposing Lysenkoism. Alikhanyan would later play a key role in the Soviet biological weapons program and created the State Research Institute of Genetics and Breeding of Industrial Microorganisms in 1968. In 2017, this institute would become a part of the Kurchatov Institute.

In his speech to the Federation Council, Kovalchuk essentially repeated several of the key messages from Bobylov’s book, painting a dire picture of humanity’s future due to population growth and dwindling resources. Unless the human race was brought down to a sustainable level ("the golden billion") it was doomed. If the Russian state was to survive, it therefore had to employ new technology, including genetic engineering. He predicted that it would soon be possible to develop targeted medicine, but also genetic weapons that could strike specific ethnic groups as a weapon of mass destruction. Kovalchuk also warned that the global elite, overseen by the United States, was developing a genetically edited caste of laboring “servant people” who would eat little, not think, and only reproduce on command.

This bizarre and dark worldview may explain a series of government decrees in the 2018-2020 period intended to strengthen the development of genetic technologies in Russia—a program that would have a planned budget of 230 billion rubles (or more than $3.8 billion). The program intends to create three genomic centers and 65 laboratories and research centers, while training some 3,000 individuals. President Putin has compared this effort to the atomic and space projects of the 20th century. Furthermore, a presidential decree in March 2019 prescribed the genetic certification of the population and the formation of a genetic profile of Russians. Kovalchuk’s Kurchatov Institute will provide the scientific leadership for the new program and house a center for digitization and storage of genomic data. A prototype of the biorepository should be ready at the institute in 2024 and overseen by the FSB. The energy company Rosneft will help create a special center capable of decoding the genomes of 100,000 people living in Russia (mostly employees of Rosneft and their family members).

There are competing agendas behind the program, which has some troubling parallels to the decision to create Biopreparat in the 1970s. For President Putin, this program is designed to defend against and presumably also to research and develop genetic weapons. Russian scientists even joked about the fantastical genetic weapons the president likely must have imagined when he agreed to their proposal. President Putin has apparently not been satisfied with whatever research into genetic weapons was undertaken following his essay in 2012 and Defense Minister Serdyukov’s subsequent pledge to develop such weapons. Others—like former education and science minister Andrey Fursenko—hoped to use the program as a belated attempt to catch up with the West in molecular genetics. According to the Russian news aggregation site Meduza, this is badly needed: Russia lacks equipment like DNA sequencers and has only 340 medical geneticists and slightly more than 600 geneticists.

The program could possibly also be viewed as an example of cronyism. It is difficult to ignore that so many of Putin’s associates and friends and even a family member (the president’s eldest daughter Maria Vorontsova is overseeing the program) are involved in the genetics program. One anonymous geneticist quoted by Meduza expressed skepticism regarding the program in sardonic terms: "On the one hand, they want some kind of results, but then they treat science like tractor manufacturing. This country has had this system for the last 20 years. Have you seen it work yet?"

It is also questionable how strong the science behind the Russian fixation on genetic weapons is, and to what extent it instead reflects the rise of pseudo-science in contemporary Russia, which also includes attempts to rehabilitate Lysenko. The possibility of making genetic weapons was first mentioned by Swedish scientist Carl A. Larson in Military Review in 1970. In 1999, the British Medical Association warned that the biotechnological revolution and projects like the Human Genome Project could create a breakthrough for the development of such weapons. Since then it has only become clearer how challenging this would be. As a recent US report made it clear, it would be very hard to make such a weapon, although future technological changes could yet alter this assessment. The Russian scientist Valery Ilyinsky, the founder of the DNA testing company Genotek, called the idea of genetic weapons an "utter absurdity" and "the stuff of science fiction movies." Russian scientist Mikhail Gelfand completely dismissed the possibility of genetic weapons: "It is probably possible—although very expensive and very difficult—to create a weapon against some very small ethnic group that has not mixed with anyone for the last thousand years. The Russians are not such an ethnic group."

At the very minimum, President Putin’s interest in genetic weapons and more generally gene technology suggest a commitment to a new generation of biological weapons. Although the Russian government undoubtedly would portray this as a defensive response, one cannot ignore the possibility that the Russian government would attempt to develop its own genetic weapons. At the same time, the dubious science behind genetic weapons and the poor state of Russian biotechnology makes it unlikely that Russian scientists will quickly achieve a breakthrough in this field.

Mikhail Kovalchuk

Mikhail Kovalchuk delivers a speech at the Federation Council in 2015, where he espouses "the golden billion", a conspiracy theory that posits that the human population must be reduced to one billion people globally. (TRV-Science.ru)

The threat from Russian biological weapons

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Meeting between Russian President Vladimir Putin and his French counterpart Emmanuel Macron, in Moscow, on February 7, 2022. (Elysée)

The threat from Russian biological weapons

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Meeting between Russian President Vladimir Putin and his French counterpart Emmanuel Macron, in Moscow, on February 7, 2022. (Elysée)

In a last-ditch attempt to avert a Russian invasion of Ukraine, French president Emmanuel Macron visited President Putin in Moscow in February 2022. Their meeting took place at a very long table in the Kremlin, because President Macron had refused to take a COVID-19 test before meeting his Russian counterpart. Macron’s motive for refusing a Russian PCR test was telling: He did not want Russian intelligence to get a sample of his DNA.

This episode once again raises the question whether Russia still has an offensive biological weapons program. The short answer to that question is: yes. Although there is no definitive proof—nor should one expect such proof from the current Russian government—there are numerous public indications that suggest that Russia has maintained and modernized the surviving parts of the Soviet biological weapons program. The indications include, but are not limited to, the Russian government’s repeated admission and subsequent, repeated denials that it had inherited a large part of the Soviet biological weapons program; press and other public accounts of continuing research into biological weapons (including non-lethal biological weapons); and the Russian pursuit of a disinformation campaign that is directed against the Cooperative Threat Reduction program and attempts to characterize it as a US bioweapons effort. Meanwhile, the "debate" and policy decisions regarding genetic weapons demonstrate that the Russian leadership is obsessed with the idea of a new generation of advanced bioweapons.

It needs to be stressed that thanks to years of relentless Russian state-sponsored propaganda, many Russians take it for granted that the US military has an offensive biological weapons program. According to a recent Russian survey, 84.4 percent of Russians have heard about a US biological weapons program in Ukraine and 66.5 percent believe that bioweapons were being developed there. Russian virologist and professor Alexander Chepurnov used this disinformation to call for reinvigorating the Russian biological weapons program in order to deter the Americans: "And here it is important to understand that the study of biological weapons is necessary not only in order to fend off the looming biological threats over our country, but also so that the counterthreat deters those who want to use it."

While all of this is concerning, this assessment of the Russian bioweapons program must be accompanied by several caveats. The backward nature of Russian biotechnology, poor management, brain drain (accelerated by the Russia-Ukraine War), and corruption will all impede both the quality and quantity of any Russian bioweapons research. While the Russian preoccupation with genetic weapons is deeply disturbing, it is unclear how Russian scientists—or anybody else, for that matter—can ever develop a weapon which can kill Swedes but not Germans, or Arabs but not Israelis, etc. The Russian genetic weapons campaign bears all the hallmarks of pseudo-science, not unlike Lysenkoism.

The Russia-Ukraine War could facilitate the Russian military to address these issues. Most likely, the Russian military is right now searching for weapons that can turn the tide of war on the battlefield in Ukraine and that might also prove useful in a wider war against NATO. As professor Chepurnov warned, Russia will "need to solve a lot of things and quickly so as not to be naked in this war." That would mean curbing problems like corruption in the 48th CSRI. The war might also force the Russian leadership to take a new look at genetic weapons and search for more realistic solutions. Even if genetic weapons are a dead-end, there are plenty of ways in which genetic engineering can be used to enhance existing bioweapons or develop entirely new ones. If nothing else, the last 30 years since the fall of the Soviet Union has demonstrated that the Russian government never abandoned the belief that biological weapons could play an important role in future warfare. It would be very foolish to ignore this belief and the threat it poses.

Robert Petersen, MA in History and Middle East Studies, PhD in history, is an analyst at the Centre for Biosecurity and Biopreparedness (CBB) in Denmark. He works with open source intelligence, the history of biological weapons and biological warfare as well as regulatory aspects of biosecurity in Denmark.

Footnotes

[1] Allison Puccioni: "Facility analysis: Sverdlovsk-19". Jane's by IHS Markit, October 20 2017.

[2] All the articles are scientific publications and the majority are available on the website of the journal "Problems of Particularly Dangerous Infections", which is being published by Federal State Scientific Institution “Russian Research Anti-Plague Institute “Microbe”.

[3] To understand the difference between Lysenkoism and the modern studies in epigenetics, please read "Russia’s new Lysenkoism" by Edouard I. Kolchinsky et al.

[4] Vladimir Slipchenko’s book, Sixth Generation Wars: Weapons and Military Art of the Future, is available for free online but requires browser-based translation software to read in English.

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Danny Ferguson
Danny Ferguson
2 months ago

So sad that The Bulletin is pushing anti Russia propaganda. The sensational title: ” Fear and Loathing in Moscow” undermines the scientific credibility essential for The Bulletin to be taken as a objective source of information. The failure to report on NATO or US bio weapons further weakens The Bulletin’s credibility. I will no longer support The Bulletin. This one sided propaganda increases the probability of nuclear war therefore The Bulletin has become worse then nothing. I have no love for the Russian government just a commitment to dispassionately reduce the probability of nuclear war. Retract the sensational propaganda and… Read more »

marice nelson
marice nelson
1 month ago

russian belief in the plausibility of a genetic weapon, regardless of its effectiveness on a target population, could still result in death, disease and disability in large numbers of people if it were ever used. the results would just be seen in a much larger group than the target population. given their denial of other incidents, it is unlikely they would ever admit to the use of such a weapon and depending on the effects, it might take some time if ever to figure out what had happened. the amount of current genetic knowledge is infinitesimal compared to what is… Read more »

Jeffrey .H.
1 month ago

I am overwhelmed by my fear, I had nothing to say. . . . ????????