Russia still doing secret work on chemical arms Research goes on as government seeks U.N. ban

October 18, 1992|By Will Englund | Will Englund,Moscow Bureau

MOSCOW -- Even as Russia joined other countries last week in presenting to the United Nations a treaty that would forever ban the production of chemical weapons, research on new, more powerful poison nerve gases continues here, in a top-secret program code-named Foliant.

Scientists at the high-security laboratory in Moscow where research on chemical weapons is carried out say they have never stopped their quest for the most effective nerve gas.

They say they believe they have developed poisons that are more lethal than any in the U.S. arsenal.

In seeking the abolition of chemical weapons at the United Nations while sponsoring research into their development in Moscow, the Russian government is following in the footsteps of its predecessor, the Soviet Union.

Beginning in 1987, the Soviet government of Mikhail S. Gorbachev repeatedly called for an international ban on chemical weapons and announced on several occasions that it had unilaterally stopped production of its own poison gases.

L But secret scientific research into new gases never wavered.

That research has come to light only because scientists at the lab have taken the extraordinary step over the past month of meeting with a Western correspondent to talk about their work there -- deadly work that they themselves would now like to see brought to a halt.

Ultimately, economic considerations rather than principle may finally accomplish just that. Funds for research on chemical warfare are being slashed by the government of President Boris N. Yeltsin, which has urgent priorities elsewhere, and sources suggest that research at the lab may wind down by the end of the year.

But throughout the era of Mr. Gorbachev's perestroika, when reform was sweeping through the top layers of Soviet society, when an era of good feeling toward the West, and the United States in particular, was dawning, little at the lab was changing. Researchers spent those dramatic years conscientiously pursuing new ways of killing people.

The State Union Scientific Research Institute for Organic Chemistry and Technology, at No. 23 Highway of the Enthusiasts, was described by one its top officials in a recent interview as "the leader in the technology of chemical destruction."

Secret program began in 1982

Breakthrough research on a new class of nerve gases, under the top-secret program, began at the institute in 1982. Five years later, when Mr. Gorbachev first renounced the use of chemical weapons, scientists produced a binary nerve gas they nicknamed "Novichok [Newcomer] No. 5."

Today, scientists at the lab are working on Novichok Nos. 8 and 9.

These are highly toxic substances that are absorbed through the skin or lungs and that shut down the nervous system. On a battlefield, they would kill men in much the same way that pesticides kill beetles, cockroaches and other pests.

The existence of the institute was revealed only on Sept. 16, by Vil Mirzayanov, a former researcher there. Articles in Moskovskiye Novosti and The Sun reported that a new nerve gas had been developed there as recently as last year. Since then, scientists have said that research has never stopped.

U.S. experts in the field say the United States is unlikely to be searching for a more toxic agent because, as one knowledgeable source put it, "the U.S. has never thought we would need a more toxic agent." The research here is more likely to be toward a "more controllable technology," said another source.

Gordon Burck, a chemical engineer engaged as a consultant on the Chemical Warfare Convention, said that to determine whether research at the Moscow lab was out of line "you'd have to look at the dividing line between what is offensive and defensive."

"Defensive work will always continue," he said.

But he added: "If work on a chemical agent was going on in the back room, I should think Yeltsin would be unhappy."

"Sooner or later the Russians are going to have to realize they can't have it both ways," said a Western military analyst in Moscow.

The Soviet research lab occupies a nondescript concrete building marked by faded curtains and a dirty lobby floor.

The only sign outside the building is for a cancer clinic that occupies a corner of the first floor -- on the public side of the elaborate gate-pass system.

Inside, according to Eduard L. Sarkisian, was once a world of discipline, purpose and privilege. A toxicologist, he came to the lab 13 years ago and liked what he saw.

It was a "yashik," or box, as Russians called it -- a closed part of the vast Soviet military-industrial complex. The money was good, the extra privileges were good, and the sense of working for a good cause was bracing.

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