The Soviet Biological Weapons Program: A History

  • Published

The Soviet Biological Weapons Program: A History by Milton Leitenberg and Raymond A. Zilinskas. Harvard, 2012, 960 pp.

In The Soviet Biological Weapons Program, Dr. Milton Leitenberg of the University of Maryland and Dr. Raymond A. Zilinskas of the Monterey Institute of International Studies provide a comprehensive account of the Soviet Union’s 65-year biological weapons program. The authors reach the pinnacle of scholarly achievement by documenting the Soviets’ program as the longest and largest of its kind, involving 65,000 scientists, engineers, and support staff spread across a dizzying array of civilian research centers, ministries, and agencies—all involving a level of secrecy exclusive to the Kremlin.

The authors explore every part of the program, including technical aspects, what the United States and British intelligence knew, the role of the Warsaw Pact allies, and the risk of proliferation. Yet, as Leitenberg and Zilinskas stress throughout, much remains unanswered and will likely stay that way because the Russian Ministry of Defense’s doors remain sealed—especially to Western scholars. The high level of secrecy has kept the offensive portion of the program hidden from us, so most of the book refers to the defensive component. Understanding the Russian facade is of the utmost importance since “both institutes [the State Research Center for Applied Microbiology (SRCAM) and Vector] have vast culture collections of pathogens, equipment, and supplies that could be valuable to nations or terrorist groups intent on acquiring biological weapons. Corruption that could lead to the international proliferation of biological weapons is of global concern” (p. 246).

Furthermore, the authors offer an ongoing analysis about why the Soviet Union committed to a biological weapons program even though the United States proclaimed in 1969 to have ended its own program. The most promising explanation dates back to the Russian Civil War (1917–22), during which the Russians learned the power of disease as it reached pandemic proportions, killing more people than did combat. Fighting sickness became a priority that easily transitioned into weapons research. Moreover, by offering lucrative incentives, Soviet politicians convinced graduating PhDs in the fields of biology, chemistry, and genetics that weapons research was crucial to Soviet security. The program has remained active to this day despite a number of political missteps such as the 1979 anthrax epidemic in the city of Sverdlovsk, blamed on contaminated meat, and Gen Valentin Yevstigneev’s accusation in 1999 that the United States used Colorado beetles as a military tactic to destroy crops.

All things considered, The Soviet Biological Weapons Program is relevant and worthwhile to the Air Force community. However, at 712 pages of text and another 209 pages dedicated to four appendixes (acronyms and Russian terms, a glossary, and two sets of official historical documents) together with notes and an index, the book presents a formidable challenge to the reader. However, it is an invaluable source for the individual or organization that seeks an undiluted account of the Soviet Union’s obsession with biological weapons. Lastly, given the fact that the Chemical and Biological Weapons Nonproliferation Program remains an issue among foreign policy analysts, Leitenberg and Zilinskas chillingly declare that the Russian Ministry of Defense preserves the “residual ability to protect and maintain, to an unknown extent, the offensive BW [biological weapons] program” (p. 711).

SSgt Justin N. Theriot, USAF
Incirlik, AB, Turkey

"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."