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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

Several projects were carried out at the lab, operating under the highest secrecy classification. Scientists needed a pass simply to walk from one floor to another. In those days, the government provided the best materials available for research, hired the most promising young chemists, physicists and biologists, and coddled them with food and consumer goods unobtainable in public stores.

Tests used animals

Dr. Sarkisian's job was to inspect the tissues of animals killed in tests of new gases. These were on-site tests, but more elaborate trials took place in Shikhani, near Volgograd, and in the Nukus region of Uzbekistan.

Dr. Sarkisian is vice chairman of the council of the workers' collective -- a sort of professional association within the lab -- and confirms that research into chemical weapons is continuing there. He is the only scientist still working at the lab who agreed to be identified for this article.

Neither Mr. Yeltsin's government nor Mr. Gorbachev himself concedes that there is anything improper in poison-gas research.

In a statement delivered to The Sun, Aleksandr Likhotal, a spokesman for Mr. Gorbachev, drew a distinction between normal production of chemical weapons and scientific research on and development of new weapons. Normal production did indeed stop in 1987, he said. But at no time, he added, did the Soviet Union ever agree to halt research and development, and no treaty forbids it.

Mr. Gorbachev's position is supported by Sergei Kisselev, head of the chemical-weapons disarmament office of the Russian Foreign Ministry, who said, "Development in my opinion stands very small in relation to production."

Gen. Anatoly Kuntsevich, the former vice commander of Soviet chemical forces and now an adviser to Mr. Yeltsin on biological and chemical disarmament, made the same argument: "The Soviet Union never assumed obligations not to develop chemical weapons."

In the early 1980s, General Kuntsevich was an outspoken critic of U.S. nerve-gas production. But, at the same time, his own work on Soviet chemical weapons so pleased Mr. Gorbachev that two years ago he was named a Hero of Socialist Labor and a winner of the Order of Lenin.

No sign of Novichok

General Kuntsevich and Mr. Kisselev pointed to reams of information that have already been exchanged with the United States in bilateral talks -- but all of it concerns previously known chemical weapons.

The Novichok series of gases is not included in any of the information exchanges, because they were not stockpiled.

"We played the game under the agreed-upon rules," General Kuntsevich said.

While the game was being played, Mr. Gorbachev's government was publicly proclaiming its desire to rid the world of chemical weapons.

In 1987, the Soviet government announced that it was unilaterally halting production.

In 1989, in Paris, Eduard A. Shevardnadze, then the Soviet foreign minister, said the Soviet Union had abandoned the production of poison gases "altogether" and that it was no longer "seeking to shield enterprises and stockpiles from prying eyes."

Mr. Gorbachev himself called for the elimination of chemical weapons in 1988.

In a speech to the United Nations, he said of relations with the United States in general, "For too long, they were characterized by confrontation, and at times by hostility -- sometimes open, sometimes concealed.But in the past few years, the whole world has been able to breathe a sigh of relief."

Neither Mr. Gorbachev nor Mr. Shevardnadze, nor any of their associates, ever talked about the continuing scientific research on poison gases.

Fed by memories

Those weapons hold a particular horror. They were used extensively during World War I, inflicting heavy casualties on both sides. They are cheap and easy to manufacture.

"Chemical weapons are political weapons," said General Kuntsevich, "which have a powerful moral and psychological effect."

The Russian army suffered 425,000 casualties from chlorine and mustard gas attacks by the Germans during World War I, and the memory of that disaster kept the Soviet chemical weapons program alive over the next 74 years.

Chemical weapons were not widely used during World War II, but after the war, research and development in the United States and the Soviet Union moved ahead, concentrating on a new type called nerve gases.

Their use in warfare would be devastating. Scientists at the Moscow lab told the story of one man who was exposed to Novichok No. 5 in 1987.

He was a physicist at the lab, and one day the ventilator broke down in the room where he was working.

He staggered out of the room, his vision seared by brilliant colors and hallucinations. He collapsed, and the KGB took him to a hospital.

By the time he arrived his breathing was labored. In another hour, his heart would have stopped. His entire nervous system was gradually ceasing to function.

nTC The physicist was lucky. The hospital he was taken to, the Sklifosovsky Institute, includes the nation's top center for poison treatment.

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