Washington, 2 March 1998 (RFE/RL) -- A former Soviet scientist now living in the U.S. says Russia is continuing to study, develop, and produce biological weapons under the guise of defensive research.
He says this is going on even though the government officially ended its biological weapons program in 1991 and ratified an international treaty banning such weapons.
Ken Alibek, the second-in-command of the Soviet's biological weapons program from 1975 to 1991, told RFE/RL that the Russians are still secretly studying and developing biological weapons for offensive and strategic purposes in order to maintain a superiority in the field.
Russian officials strongly deny this, saying they are only conducting defensive research on biological agents, such as creating new and more effective vaccines. Defensive research is permitted under the international treaty, and the U.S. and other countries are openly engaged in such study.
But Alibek, a medical doctor and a native of Kazakhstan, says the fact that the Russians have refused to permit international inspections of some of their military facilities over the past few years raises serious questions about their activities.
Says Alibek: "They do not conduct [defensive research]. If [they did], then why do they not want to open their military facilities? You know, it is not a big secret to conduct defensive research....But if somebody doesn't want to show their production line, buildings, technology equipment, and doesn't want to discuss particular works ...then in this case, it raises very serious suspicions that the work is not defensive."
Officially, in 1990 after the collapse of communism, then-Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev announced the Soviet biological weapons program was over. Russian President Boris Yeltsin also signed a decree in 1992 forbidding such work.
But Alibek says the program was never actually dismantled and Russian scientists continue their extensive work in secret.
Alibek says he believes the Russians are the most advanced in the world in terms of knowledge, expertise, personnel and production capability of biological weapons.
During the Cold War, Alibek says the Soviets prepared "hundreds of tons" of biological agents capable of quickly being mounted on intercontinental ballistic missile warheads.
Most of those warheads, says Alibek, were aimed at large cities in the U.S. and Western Europe. Among the biological agents in the weapons, says Alibek, were anthrax, smallpox and plague which could have killed thousands to millions of people.
By most medical accounts, death by any of these agents would be prolonged and excruciating. For example, in the case of anthrax, spores that are inhaled invade the lungs, and sometimes the intestinal tract, causing a bloody discharge through the nose and mouth, convulsions, slow suffocation and eventually hemorrhage.
According to Alibek, there are more than 50 agents available for use in biological weapons, although he says no one would need to develop that many for effective strategic purposes. However, he acknowledges that during his tenure in the Soviet program, "dozens" of agents were researched, developed and produced.
But Alibek says the Soviets were not just working on and using natural biological agents for weapons. They were also creating super viruses -- viruses against which there is no known vaccination.
Says Alibek: "It was according to the Soviet Union's philosophy to develop and apply biological weapons. Of course, the most suitable weapons were those agents that didn't have a vaccine."
Alibek says from reading unclassified Russian scientific journals and other sources today, he believes scientists are still hard at work on these super viruses.
When asked whether he thought Russia might have shared or sold biological agents or information on how to create such weapons to Iraq, North Korea or other countries, Alibek says he is doubtful.
He says it is possible Russia could have passed on some technology for the manufacture and development of biological weapons, but he doesn't believe the Russians would pass on an actual agent or specific documentation on how to create one.
As for his decision to come to the U.S., Alibek says the choice was a "difficult and painful" one.
Says Alibek: "I did not defect. I love my country. I love Kazakhstan, but unfortunately I could not stay there."
Alibek, who spent most of his career in Russia, says he began having doubts about his work and left his post in 1991, returning to his native Kazakhstan. But he says after a short time he was dismayed to find himself coming under intense pressure to resume biological weapons work in Kazakhstan. He says when he refused, the situation became intolerable and he was forced to leave. Alibek adds he is now in the process of obtaining American citizenship.
When asked why he hadn't spoke publicly about the issue before, Alibek says that in April of 1992, when Yeltsin signed a decree to stop the manufacture of such weapons, he truly believed it was the end of the matter.
Says Alibek: "For all this time, I've watched the situation very carefully, very closely. I had a hope that Russia would at last start to understand that this is prohibitive work. I hoped that they would really stop it. But, you know, as time went by, I saw nothing serious was being done. That's why I decided to speak out."
He says that his decision to warn the world of the dangers of biological weapons is also, in part, his own way of seeking absolution for making them.
He adds: "In my opinion, now is an appropriate time to stop and eradicate biological weapons from Earth. ...It is very important now to force Russia to open its military facilities for inspections and to help this country to stop its program."