Why did they do it?

Looking back, one of the most unsettling phenomenon of the Cold War was the extent to which the superpowers, locked in existential confrontation, failed to see each other clearly. From the bomber and missile "gaps" of the 1950s to the Cuban missile crisis of 1962, the so-called "window of vulnerability" of the late 1970s and the Strategic Defense Initiative of the 1980s, the United States and Soviet Union repeatedly and dangerously misjudged each other's capabilities and intentions, hampered by secrecy, paranoia and fears of the "worst case" outcome.

Germ warfare offers another good example.

Both the United States and Soviet Union had developed biological weapons in the years after World War II, but in 1969, President Nixon announced the unilateral end of the U.S. program and destruction of the stockpiles. In 1972, the superpowers signed a treaty outlawing offensive germ warfare, along with other countries, and it entered into force in 1975. But in those years between Nixon's announcement and start of the treaty, the Soviet leadership secretly approved and began to build what became the largest biological weapons program the world had ever seen. Not only did it violate the treaty, but it explored the creation of novel pathogens for which there would be no antidote or vaccine.

Why did they do it? The question has never been fully answered.

New insights come from a comprehensive study just published by Harvard University Press: "The Soviet Biological Weapons Program: A History," by Milton Leitenberg and Raymond A. Zilinskas, with Jens H. Kuhn.  The 921-page book is the result of 15 years of research. (Full disclosure: I have relied on both authors as sources, and shared my own work with them.) It is not the first book on the topic -- several earlier ones were written by participants, such as Ken Alibek and Igor Domaradsky, and I covered it in The Dead Hand: The Untold Story of the Cold War Arms Race and Its Dangerous Legacy (2009.) But Leitenberg and Zilinskas drill deep into the institutional, scientific and personnel factors in the Soviet program.

When the Soviet leadership launched the secret program in the early 1970s, there was a sense among some of the country's best scientists that they had fallen behind the West in microbiology, and needed to catch up. According to Leitenberg and Zilinskas, the most influential among them was Yury Ovchinnikov, a remarkable biological scientist who was 36 years old in 1970 but already director of a prestigious research institute in the Soviet Academy of Sciences and who soon became a vice president of the academy. More than anyone else, Ovchinnikov persuaded General Secretary Leonid Brezhnev that the West was zooming ahead of the Soviet Union in genetic engineering, and they had to respond.

However, in a fateful choice, Ovchinnikov did not push for an investment in civilian science that would have benefitted millions of people with new medicines and methods to defeat disease. Rather, he turned to the military. The reason? They had the resources. "To get the attention of Soviet officials," the authors say, "all he had to do was suggest that the Pentagon was likely to apply the revolutionary new developments to R&D on super deadly pathogens for weapons applications." That opened the spigot of funding (even though the United States had announced an end to its program.) It worked, and in 1971 a decree was signed establishing the Soviet program as a military effort, which grew in subsequent years.

All the former Soviet officials and scientists who have spoken about the germ warfare program in recent years claim they were assured by superiors that the United States was continuing to work on biological weapons, perhaps hidden in in the civilian sector. Why was this belief held so widely? Why the dangerous misperception?  

One explanation faults Soviet intelligence reporting on the United States. Soviet spies often sent in information based on flimsy evidence, emphasizing the worst-case scenario so they would not be accused of underestimating the threat, even if they wound up over-estimating it.

Leitenberg and Zilinskas add another disturbing explanation. They think there was a U.S. disinformation campaign to persuade the Soviets that the United States was in fact still working on offensive biological weapons. Details of such a deception operation are sketchy. If it happened, it may have backfired: the Soviets accepted the fake info, and accelerated their own work. What did the Soviets take away? Leitenberg and Zilinskas say they have seen no evidence in the materials they scrutinized that Soviet leaders acted specifically in response to the U.S. disinformation campaign. But there are still many mysteries. One thing is certain: the Soviets did, in the same time period, launch the enormous BW program.   

This is just a sample of the scope and depth of this sprawling new study. I have a feeling that students of the Cold War will be digging into it for a long time to come.


Photo above: the Soviet bioweapons testing grounds at Vozrozhdeniye Island