Russian Nerve Gas


October 30, 1992|By AMY SMITHSON

Washington. -- Recent reports from Russia that research on new, more powerful chemical-warfare agents continues unabated are disturbing. The subsequent arrest of three scientists who described the research program to Western and Russian journalists can only fuel suspicions that the Russians' intentions are not benign.

The three chemists were said to have breached state security by telling the press that scientists at the top-secret State Union Scientific Research Institute for Organic Chemistry and Technology had discovered a new generation of binary nerve agents in the late 1980s and continued their research on these lethal chemicals at least through January of this year. While two have been released, Dr. Vil Mirzayanov is still being held at Lefortovo, the infamous KGB prison.

These events, reported in The Sun on October 18 and 23, lend credence to assertions that President Boris Yeltsin's hold over the former Soviet military apparatus is tenuous.

Following Mr. Yeltsin's orders, the Russian delegation in Geneva worked diligently with 38 other nations throughout the summer to conclude a Chemical Weapons Convention to ban the research, development, production, stockpiling and use of chemical weapons. The Russians also are cooperating with the United States to implement a bilateral 1990 agreement to destroy chemical stockpiles. The recent arrests, however, suggest that the former Soviet military establishment is not entirely happy with these moves and that it still has the wherewithal and willingness to go toe-to-toe with President Yeltsin.

The U.S. government should steadfastly support Mr. Yeltsin's efforts to quell hard-line factions in his nation. The Russian president should be encouraged to explain quickly and fully the nature and extent of former Soviet chemical-research programs. He may infuriate and shame his generals, but Mr. Yeltsin made his reputation by taking on the old Soviet system. He also should be pressured to ensure that Russia is an initial signatory of the chemical-weapons ban, when it is opened for signature in January.

No treaty currently in force prohibits chemical-weapons research. The 1925 Geneva Protocol, which nine former Soviet republics -- including Russia -- agreed in May to uphold, bans only the use of chemical weapons. Thus, continuation of a nerve-agent research program, if true, does not break any treaty commitment. Given the not-so-sterling Soviet record of treaty compliance, however, perpetuation of chemical-research programs reflects poorly on the Yeltsin government.

Mikhail Gorbachev and Gen. Anatoly Kuntsevich, a former vice-commander of Soviet chemical forces now in charge of the Russian chemical-destruction program, have carefully spun their words about these programs. Mr. Gorbachev's 1987 claim that the Soviet Union had stopped producing chemical weapons was true as far as it went: Research is research, not production.

Also true, if perhaps disingenuous, was General Kuntsevich's statement that Russia had no new chemical-weapons systems. An agent discovered in the laboratory cannot be considered a new weapon until it has been ''weaponized,'' or incorporated into munitions and integrated with available delivery systems so that the deadly agents will disperse predictably on the battlefield.

Mr. Yeltsin may not even have known about the research program until the press first broke the story. Despite the collapse of the Soviet Union, many of the military research and production facilities spread throughout this vast country have continued their work as though on autopilot, assembly lines still churning out aircraft, missiles and other military hardware. Scientists at the Moscow chemical institute may have been simply engaged in business as usual.

These fine points notwithstanding, arrests at dawn for an act of free speech are a terror tactic reminiscent of the Stalin period and ill-suited to a government struggling to assume the mantle ++ of democracy.

This episode is not the first, nor will it be the last, in which the new Russian government will have uncomfortable encounters hTC with the ugly legacy of 70-plus years of Soviet military policies and practices. Just this past August, longstanding concerns that biological weapons research continued at the Biopreparat pharmaceutical complex -- a Soviet and Russian violation of a 1972 treaty banning such research -- came to a head.

Mr. Yeltsin found the strength to force his military and industrial advisers to come clean. In mid-September, Russia signed an agreement with Britain and the United States that will allow short-notice visits to any military or non-military biological sites. Inspectors will be granted unrestricted access and will be allowed to take samples, interview plant personnel, and make audio and video tapes of the visits.

As Russia owns up to past Soviet activities, the international community must accept such revelations without overreaction. Condemning the Russian government for what its predecessor did is hardly a fair approach, nor is it logical to accept the admission without demanding that corrective measures be taken. Immediate release of Dr. Mirzayanov, full disclosure of what has occurred at the Moscow Institute, and prompt Russian ratification and implementation of the Chemical Weapons Convention are the corrective steps called for in this case.

Amy E. Smithson, an arms-control verification specialist, is a senior associate of the Henry L. Stimson Center in Washington.

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