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The Soviet Biological Weapons Program and Its Legacy in Today's Russia

Raymond A. Zilinskas

In its first Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) Case Study, the Center for the Study of Weapons of Mass Destruction (CSWMD) at the National Defense University examined President Richard M. Nixon’s decision, on November 25, 1969, to terminate the U.S. offensive biological weapons program. This book examines why the Soviet government, at approximately the same time, decided to do essentially the opposite, namely, to establish a large biological warfare (BW) program that would be driven by newly discovered and powerful biotechnologies. By introducing the innovation of recombinant DNA technology - commonly referred to as genetic engineering - the Soviets were attempting to create bacterial and viral strains that were more useful for military purposes than were strains found in nature.

In historical terms, the Soviet BW program had two so-called “generations,” defined as distinct periods of time during which types of weapons were developed from earlier types. The first generation of the Soviet BW program commenced about 1928 and was based on naturally occurring pathogens that had caused devastating epidemics during World War I and the subsequent Russian Civil War. The second generation began approximately in 1972 when the decision was made at the highest political level to institute a research and development (R&D) system that utilized newly discovered techniques of genetic engineering to create novel or enhanced bacterial and viral strains that were better adapted for BW purposes than strains found in nature. President Boris Yeltsin ordered the cessation of the offensive BW program  in 1991.  As is discussed in this volume, elements of the Soviet offensive BW program continue in Russia and may provide the basis for a third-generation BW program supported by the current leadership.