Biosecurity in Putin’s Russia

  • Published

Biosecurity in Putin’s Russia by Raymond A. Zilinskas and Philippe Mauger. Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2018, 385 pp.

Known as one of the foremost scholars on Russian biosecurity, the late Dr. Raymond A. Zilinskas served as the director of the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies Chemical and Biological Weapons Nonproliferation Program and supported research by academics and even the much-lauded TV show The Americans. Biosecurity in Putin’s Russia, cowritten with former research student Philippe Mauger, is a follow-on to Zilinskas’s 2012 book published by Harvard University Press, The Soviet Biological Weapons Program: a History. Zilinskas’s work proves worthy of his bona fides, which include an academic background in Biology, Organic Chemistry, and International Relations, and 16 years as a clinical microbiologist. Biosecurity in Putin’s Russia is clearly a result of relentless pursuit and clever investigation but would only be possible with an in-depth understanding of biological weapons programming and Soviet history. Throughout the book, Zilinskas and Mauger acknowledge a lack of verifiable answers; instead they offer educated inferences with explicit explanations of the substitute source material and indicators. The authors support these inferences with extensive citations and a robust index. The authors embarked on a significant challenge considering they had minimal direct access to information. And yet, Zilinskas and Mauger managed to provide a tome so detailed as to serve better as a reference text than a nonfiction read. They describe the difficulties of attaining accurate, current information to include access challenges as well as the reality of Russia’s academic isolation due to a complex “indexing system so obtuse that librarians in Russian earn a little extra income by charging researchers a search fee” (p. 203). Truly, the Russian biosecurity program is complex, but the systemic Russian duplicitousness is pierced by the authors’ research process that includes satellite imagery, document translation and examination, and equipment orders, as well as inferences from open-source news.

The book is premised on military employment of bioweapons specifically in reference to a newspaper article by President Vladimir Putin mere weeks before his unsurprising electoral win for a second term in office, as well as the US Department of State 2012 annual compliance report on the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BWC). Putin’s article discussed “weapons systems based on new physical principles (beam, geophysical, wave, genetic, psychophysical and other technology) [that] will be developed.” (p. 1) Only one month later, the minister of defense, Anatoliy Serdyukov, set forth tasks in accordance with Putin’s article employing the same verbiage. The State Department’s report reflected doubt of Russia’s BWC compliance due to dual-use programs.

Zilinskas and Mauger provide a complex study of the current Russian biosecurity program. They open with an explanation of the Soviet biosecurity program, history’s “largest and most sophisticated BW program,” and segue into the program of today, as the context for a major source of disconcertment over Russia’s bioterrorism. However, only at the end of the book do the authors specify the Russian Ministry of Defense’s definition of “‘genetic weapons’ as weapons that are capable of damaging the genetic code of an individual” (p. 352). In light of the aforementioned events of 2012 and under the current circumstances, through Biosecurity in Putin’s Russia, the authors aimed to raise awareness of Russia’s biosecurity activities to better inform and encourage a stronger US response.

As the book is premised on the Putin administration’s statements regarding genetic (the properties in the genes or biological structures of substances, not the hereditary passing of characteristics from parent to child) weapons as well as degraded US-Russia relations within the BWC, the authors address Russia’s approach to the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention. Although delving into available and indirect data on military activities, they also commit significant research and text to Russia’s civilian biotechnology institutions, recognizing the need for foundational science institutions with academic development and publications as well as the dual-use potential of technology, research and development, and human capital. These metrics can be interpreted as proxies for the inaccessible data on military programs.

Biosecurity in Putin’s Russia is a sentinel of troubling activity under President Putin’s reign, especially amidst the recent high-profile, conspicuous poisoning of double agent Sergei Skripal in UK territory. In the conclusion, they offer a specific response to recent Russian diplomatic attacks on the US via the BWC, broader potential policy solutions, and cooperative efforts between the US and Russia. Regarding the current US “nonresponse” (p. 355) to Russia’s aggression in the area, the authors posit that it spawned from previous diplomatic goals to prop up decaying relations. However, they advocate instead for various diplomatic options, to encourage US consideration of the issue, and subsequent action rather than simple observation/participation in the BWC. Their recommendations are prescient and reinforced by solid research; the international community would be wise to utilize this work to further advocate pressure for transparency and compliance in the BWC.


Maj Caitlin Diffley, USAF
Naval Postgraduate School
Monterey, California


"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."