December 28, 1998

        Germ Weapons: In Soviet Past or in the New Russia's Future?


           ust as the Soviet Union was ending its confrontation with the West in the late 1980s, the military
           officers who ran Moscow's secretive germ warfare program ordered up new, much deadlier arms.

        At a remote laboratory complex in Kazakhstan, Russian scientists began animal testing of the Marburg
        virus, a highly contagious germ that kills by attacking every organ and tissue in the body.

        This secret testing, described recently by several veterans of the Soviet program, went undetected at the
        time by Western intelligence agencies, which knew few specifics about the plant's operations.

        Kazakhstan gave up nuclear, biological and chemical weapons soon after it became independent, and
        permitted American experts and a handful of reporters to visit the plant. From their observations, and
        from Soviet defectors, the West has finally learned what was unfolding there in the final years of the
        Cold War.

        The belated discovery of this exotic arms research is one of the elements of a fierce dispute in
        Washington over whether the Russian military is heeding President Boris Yeltsin's 1992 order to
        abandon germ warfare.

        Similar uncertainties loom about Iraq. With the apparent end of United Nations inspections, the West is
        now trying to track Baghdad's germ work with satellites and, perhaps, spies -- the same methods that
        failed to unmask the Soviet program.

        Clinton administration officials contend that Russia no longer poses a major threat. Western experts
        have visited most of its key civilian laboratories, and officials disclosed that Russia had recently
        moved closer to allowing Western experts to visit its closed military installations, a crucial step that
        could dispel many of the lingering doubts about Moscow's activities.

        Administration officials assert that much of what they now understand about the Soviet Union's germ
        weapons has been gleaned through Western aid programs designed to foster peaceful research projects.
        Those projects also pay salaries to former germ scientists, fending off what officials say is the gravest
        danger from the Soviet program -- recruitment of scientists by rogue states or terrorists.

        But some administration officials and Republicans in Congress assert that Russia is still secretly
        researching germ weapons, just as it did in the Cold War. Congress recently cut spending on the
        cooperative exchanges with Russian germ scientists from $14 million to $7 million, both because of
        persistent doubts about Russian intentions and to punish Moscow for selling nuclear and missile
        technology to Iran.

        The debate turns partly on history. After developing germ weapons for several decades, the United
        States and Russia signed an international treaty in 1972 banning such arms. Almost immediately, Soviet
        defectors say, Moscow secretly redoubled its germ research and production.

        Officials and lawmakers acknowledge that there is scant hard evidence to support their suspicions that
        Russia is cheating again, but point to Moscow's reluctance to open up its military bases as an ominous

        That may be changing. Two weeks ago, the officials said, a small group of Pentagon experts and senior
        defense scientists met their Russian counterparts for the first time at the Military Academy of
        Radiological, Chemical and Biological Defense, a once-closed military training institute in Tambov,
        some 300 miles southeast of Moscow.

        High on the agenda were possible scientific exchanges that may provide direct Western access to
        Russia's biological "holy of holies," as one official put it, four military installations at the heart of the
        Russian germ empire -- Sergiyev Posad, Kirov, Yekaterinburg (Sverdlosk), and Strizhi, none of which
        has been visited by the West.

        Officials said the military teams had agreed in principle to a series of military exchanges, starting in the
        United States sometime next year.

        "This is the beginning of a long process," said an official who spoke on condition of anonymity. "But
        the ice has finally been broken, and it's now clear that both of us want to do business."

        The breakthrough is potentially significant. Iraq's entire germ arsenal contained enough deadly poison at
        its peak to kill all the people on earth many times over, according to U.N. weapons inspectors. Yet, the
        Iraqi program was dwarfed by the amount and variety of weapons the Soviet Union had secretly

        The Soviets, as suggested by their research on the lethality of the Marburg virus, were racing ahead in
        their final days to develop entirely new classes of weapons.

        With more than 60,000 scientists and experts at work, they were also developing compounds that could
        control human moods, heart rhythms and sleep patterns and that could be used to destroy an enemy
        army. Among the many unanswered questions, American officials say, is where such work stands today.

        Stepnogorsk, in Kazakhstan, was the only major Soviet germ installation outside the Russian heartland.
        Called the Scientific Experimental and Production Base, it was known only by its post office box, No.

        While Western intelligence analysts had deduced from the configuration of the buildings that it was
        designed to produce anthrax or other bacteriological agents, they never figured out precisely what kind
        of research was being done, what weapons the factory was making or what threat it posed.

        Built on a huge scale on a desolate, wind-blown steppe of Central Asia, it is an eerie place to visit. The
        security fences are no longer electrified. Air locks hang open. Plastic floor covers installed to ease
        decontamination are torn and buckling from neglect and the cold.

        Six stories high and two football fields long, the central factory there is filled with 10 giant
        fermentation vats, each meant to brew 5,000 gallons of anthrax microbes -- enough to kill every man,
        woman and child in America many times over. Iraq's entire germ production could have just about fit
        into one of these vats. And Stepnogorsk was only one of six such Soviet plants.

        "As you can see, we haven't made that in some time." Gennadi L. Lepyoshkin, the base's director, told
        Pentagon experts and a reporter who recently walked through the anthrax plant, which is being
        dismantled with Pentagon aid. "And we will never do it again."

        Russian workers began building the complex in 1982. Former Soviet officials say it was a replacement
        for Sverdlosk (now Yekaterinburg), the Russian military installation where, in 1979, an accidental
        release of anthrax microbes killed about 70 people as well as livestock up to 30 miles away.

        Its role in the confrontation between the superpowers remains unclear. Kanatjan Alibekov, or Ken
        Alibek, as he is now known, Stepnogorsk's former director who defected to the United States in 1992,
        says the plant was to produce up to 330 tons of final "product" in a 200-day period if the order came to
        mobilize for war.

        To this day, however, Moscow says Stepnogorsk made only vaccines and other defensive germ
        products. But Russian scientists who worked there in Soviet days and now run the place say otherwise.
        "This plant was an integral part of the Soviet germ weapons program," said Lepyoshkin, the former
        Soviet colonel who now heads Kazakhstan's National Center on Biotechnology.

        Moreover, the remaining physical evidence of its real purpose is impossible to hide. Next to a concrete
        bunker is a machine that Alibek said was for filling and sealing bomblets. Such equipment -- which a
        Pentagon official called "a smoking gun" in that it proves the factory produced weapons, not vaccines --
        had never previously been discovered at a Russian germ installation.

        Since 1996, Washington has been trying to help Kazakhstan convert the installation to peaceful work
        through a low-key, $5 million program. But the effort has moved slowly. Financial aid was tied up until
        last spring when Kazakh officials finally stopped demanding that Washington fork up $12 million for
        unpaid utility bills and pay taxes on its assistance.

        Commercial success will not be easy, experts say. Stepnogorsk is extremely isolated and, as of last
        month, had food shortages and little or no heat. The city's airport is mothballed, as are the only hotel
        and movie theater.

        Last March, a well-equipped toxicology lab there opened after an infusion of more than $750,000 in
        American aid. The lab employs about 60 former germ scientists who have begun producing, among
        other things, vials of burn ointment.

        Other former employees are struggling to make a living in the impoverished town of 70,000. "Hope
        dies last," said Sergei Antonovitch, a former germ plant scientist who now owns a poorly stocked
        pharmacy in town.

        While Kazakhstan has dismantled its germ program, doubts persist about Russia.

        Moscow's lies on the issue during the Cold War, skeptics in Washington argue, make trust and
        cooperation impossible. Supporters of the Western programs say they do not blindly trust Russia, but
        feel partnership is the best chance for verifying Moscow's claim to have renounced germ weapons.

        Skeptics note that Yeltsin has banned Russian experts from discussing any aspect of their country's germ
        history and has retained several generals instrumental in the Soviet program.

        They worry, particularly, that research may be quietly proceeding on some of the least known of the
        Soviet advances: "bio-regulators." This work was aimed at creating germ agents that could take control
        of human functions like moods, heart rhythms and sleep patterns.

        Igor V. Domaradskij, a pioneer of the Soviet program, said in a recent interview that his scientists were
        searching for compounds that could "sharply change a person's behavior or emotions, such as causing
        fear or an ultra-rapid heartbeat."

        As far as is known, they did not succeed. But Domaradskij said biological science had now progressed
        to the the point where "it can be done."

        Alibek, the former germ scientist who once ran the plant in Kazakhstan, is critical of part of the West's
        approach. The Soviet germ program was hidden in a myriad of civilian and military institutes. Even
        Soviet intelligence, the KGB, he disclosed, had its own germ centers, which developed agents for
        assassination under the code name Flayta, or Flute.

        Some of Moscow's former germ scientists, he said, have recently published papers that could
        conceivably aid weapons research, including several about cultivating the deadly Marburg virus.

        Russia, Alibek insisted, will never entirely abandon a program in which it had military superiority, no
        matter how many treaties it signs or cooperative programs it joins. "I say, 'Guys, don't be so gullible.
        They're lying to you," ' he said.

        Rep. Floyd D. Spence, R-S.C., who heads the House Committee on National Security, contended that
        even civilian biology partnerships might be dangerous if they helped sustain Russia's germ

        Administration officials say those exchange programs are already showing results. Those who follow
        the program most closely say that there is no evidence of large-scale activity even at the military
        institutes. And one American expert, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said Russia's economic
        turmoil made large-scale germ work unlikely.

        "Maybe there is a well-lit, well-heated, well-funded military lab out there that is just humming along,
        totally insulated from the cutbacks that have slashed funding for military salaries and other critical
        Russian defense needs," he said. "But I don't believe it."

        Top Russian scientists deny that Russia still has a germ weapons program. "Everything has been
        destroyed, on our side and yours," said Nickolai N. Urakov, a former Soviet general who heads a
        converted germ center at Obolensk that now does research for peaceful purposes.

        Former Sen. Sam Nunn, D-Ga., who helped sponsor legislation authorizing the scientific exchanges and
        recently toured Obolensk, said the ambiguity about Russia's germ program would persist because much
        basic biological research has both civilian and military applications.

        "This is not something you see with a satellite," he said. "It all turns on intent. That's why this is such a
        hard intelligence problem."

        But the gamble, he said, is worth the risk.

        "We still don't know, and won't know for many years to come, whether or not we succeeded," Nunn
        said recently in Moscow. "But we do know that while we can argue about whether the glass is half full
        or half empty, we know that the trend is right. A decade ago, the glass was all empty."

              Copyright 1998 The New York Times Company