Military history

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THE LOST YEAR

Reagan’s last hurrah with Gorbachev came on a warm spring day, May 31, 1988. Having finished the third plenary meeting of their fourth summit, they stepped out into the lilac-scented breezes for a walking tour around the Kremlin and Red Square, trailed by aides and journalists. They stopped near a thirty-nine-ton cannon dating from 1586 that stands in a plaza in the center of the Kremlin. Asked if he still considered the Soviet Union to be an evil empire, Reagan replied, “No.” Surprised, reporters asked why. Reagan paused, and tilted his head to one side. “You are talking about another time, another era,” he said.

The moment marked the end of Reagan’s cold war. On his first visit to the Soviet Union after so many decades of antipathy, Reagan and Gorbachev did not sign any nuclear arms treaties, a missed opportunity for deep cuts in strategic weapons, and they would not eliminate any more weapons together in the eight months remaining in Reagan’s term.1 But they began to put the superpower rivalry to rest, in a vivid and symbolic way, walking the cobblestones of Red Square for twenty minutes under the afternoon sun. Gorbachev, in a light business suit, showed Reagan, in a darker one, the onion-shaped domes of St. Basil’s Cathedral, the GUM department store, the State Historical Museum and Lenin’s tomb. At one point, Reagan and Gorbachev put their arms around each other’s waists, like two tourists posing for photos. “What we have decided to do,” Reagan said, “is talk to each other and not about each other, and that’s working just fine.”

Later in the day, Reagan delivered one of the most powerful speeches of his presidency to students at Moscow State University. He spoke in the lecture hall standing under a large white bust of Lenin with a mural spreading out behind him depicting the Bolshevik Revolution. Reagan articulated his themes of democracy, capitalism and freedom, ideas that had so animated his anti-communism. Reagan declared the world stood at the start of a new revolution “quietly sweeping the globe without bloodshed or conflict.” This was the “information revolution,” Reagan said, describing the power of one computer chip, and “its effects are peaceful, but they will fundamentally alter our world, shatter old assumptions, and reshape our lives.” Reagan celebrated freedom, entrepreneurship and dissent. And, quoting Boris Pasternak, he championed “the irresistible power of unarmed truth” to the students. Reagan endorsed Gorbachev’s drive for change, and voiced anew his goal of abolishing nuclear weapons. Those days in May marked the zenith of his extraordinary partnership with Gorbachev.

Reagan’s enthusiasm was not shared by his vice president, George Bush, who was watching the spectacle at his home in Kennebunkport, Maine. Bush was campaigning that year to be Reagan’s successor, running against a liberal Democrat, Governor Michael Dukakis of Massachusetts. Bush was profoundly cautious by character. His guiding principles were good stewardship—public service in an old-fashioned sense—and avoiding mistakes. He had doubts about whether the changes in Moscow were real, and he was uneasy at the scenes from Red Square. A few weeks later, speaking in San Francisco to the World Affairs Council of Northern California, he expressed this uncertainty. “We must be bold enough to seize the opportunity of change,” he said, “but at the same time be prepared for what one pundit called ‘The Protracted Conflict.’” Bush clearly had not made up his mind. He was more certain about the past than the future. “The Cold War is not over,” he declared.2

The next few months underscored how wrong he was. Gorbachev rushed toward fundamental change. The Soviet leader announced troops would begin a pullout from Afghanistan by May 15, 1988, and they did. In private conversations in the Kremlin, the Cold War was being tossed into the waste bin of history. For example, on June 20—nine days before Bush said the Cold War was not over—Gromyko, once the hardest of the hard-liners, gave strong voice to the new thinking, declaring at a Politburo meeting that decades of competition in the arms race had been senseless. “And so we made more and more nuclear weapons,” he said, according to a transcript of the meeting. “That was our mistaken position, absolutely mistaken. And the political leadership bears the entire blame for it. Tens of billions were spent on production of these toys; we did not have enough brains” to stop.3

By autumn, Gorbachev was preparing his most daring proposal yet, a major speech to the United Nations announcing a massive Soviet troop pullback from Europe. Meeting with a small group of his foreign policy advisers October 31, he recalled Winston Churchill’s famous speech, “Sinews of Peace,” at Fulton, Missouri, in March 1946. In the address, Churchill warned that “an iron curtain has descended across the Continent” with Soviet control tightening over “all the capitals of the ancient states of Central and Eastern Europe.” Gorbachev declared his own ambition was to mark the end of the era. “In general, this speech should be an anti-Fulton—Fulton in reverse,” Gorbachev said.

On November 3, after a Politburo meeting, Gorbachev brought up his plan with a wider group of senior officials. Chernyaev recalled that Gorbachev was “clearly nervous.” He carefully maneuvered so as not to ignite opposition from the military. He did not disclose the full details of the planned one-sided pullback. He noted that the Soviet military was far larger than would be required under the new doctrine Akhromeyev had drafted. This would be difficult to admit publicly. “If we publish how matters stand, that we spend over twice as much as the United States on military needs, if we let the scope of our expenses be known, all our new thinking and our new foreign policy will go to hell,” Gorbachev said. “Not one country in the world spends as much per capita on weapons as we do, except perhaps the developing nations that we are swamping with weapons and getting nothing in return.”4

Gorbachev’s address to the United Nations on December 7 was a milestone in his retreat from the Cold War. He condemned the “one-sided reliance on military power” that had been a pillar of Soviet foreign policy, and he announced unilateral reductions in the Soviet armed forces of five hundred thousand men, including six tank divisions in Eastern Europe. It was a profound break from the past to make such a sizable one-sided pullback. Gorbachev said the Soviet Union would no longer hold the nations of Eastern Europe in its grip, another breathtaking change in approach. “Freedom of choice is a universal principle,” he said. “It knows no exceptions.”

After the speech, Gorbachev took a ferry to meet Reagan for a farewell lunch on Governor’s Island, joined by Bush, who had just been elected president. In the twilight hours of his presidency, Reagan was ebullient, and wrote in his diary that the meeting was a “tremendous success” and Gorbachev had “a better attitude than at any of our previous meetings. He sounded as if he saw us as partners making a better world.”5 Yet on substance, Reagan did not discuss Gorbachev’s remarkable speech in any detail, and they parted without having realized their most cherished goal, eliminating the long-range nuclear weapons, the brass ring they had nearly grasped at Reykjavik. The hope of cutting the arsenals by 50 percent was bogged down in negotiations.6

At the Governor’s Island meeting, Bush, the president-elect, kept quiet, not wanting to upstage Reagan.7 Gorbachev noticed the hesitation. “We should take into account that Bush is a very cautious politician,” Gorbachev told the Politburo on his return to Moscow. Georgi Arbatov, director of the Institute for the Study of the U.S.A. and Canada, the leading Soviet specialist on America, was more blunt. Gorbachev read out to the Politburo group Arbatov’s assessment that the United States has “suddenly sent a trial balloon: we are not ready; let’s wait, we will see. In general, they will drag their feet, they want to break the wave that has been created by our initiatives.”8

Bush did not share Reagan’s hopes of eliminating nuclear weapons. He decided against an early summit with Gorbachev. Two days after Bush was inaugurated, Brent Scowcroft, his national security adviser, said, “I think the Cold War is not over.”9 Within a month of taking office in January 1989, Bush ordered a series of internal foreign policy studies, including one on U.S. policy toward the Soviet Union, which produced little and wasted months. “In the end, what we received was mush,” said Bush’s close friend and his new secretary of state, James A. Baker III.10 In general, Bush saw Gorbachev’s dynamic of change, but interpreted it as a competitive threat to the United States rather than an opportunity. “I’ll be darned if Mr. Gorbachev should dominate world public opinion forever,” Bush wrote to a friend March 13.11

Baker recalled many years later that Bush paused in early 1989 primarily to put his own stamp on foreign policy, and because slowing down the pace with the Soviets would also help calm the right wing of the Republican Party. Baker said the pause was driven by these needs, and was not a response to Gorbachev or the situation in Moscow. The administration soon came up with the idea of “testing” Gorbachev, setting up hoops and demanding that Gorbachev jump through them.12

On April 29, Defense Secretary Dick Cheney predicted in a televised appearance that Gorbachev would “ultimately fail.”13 Bush also found reinforcement from Scowcroft, who was extremely cautious because he feared that Gorbachev was trying to rope the United States into another period of détente in order to gain some advantage, as many felt had happened in the 1970s. “Once burned, twice shy,” Scowcroft said later.14

When Baker visited Moscow on May 10, Shevardnadze told him Gorbachev was eager to eliminate the whole class of tactical, or short-range, nuclear weapons in Europe. “Do not dodge” the issue, Shevardnadze warned Baker. A day later, Gorbachev announced he was unilaterally withdrawing five hundred warheads from Eastern Europe, and promised even more if the United States would take similar steps. But Baker brushed off the proposal as a political ploy.15 On May 16, Marlin Fitzwater, the White House press secretary, told a press briefing that Gorbachev was throwing out arms control proposals like a “drugstore cowboy,” a slang term meaning someone who makes promises they can’t keep.16

On July 20, the U.S. ambassador in Moscow, Jack F. Matlock Jr., met with Alexander Yakovlev, one of the leading architects of Gorbachev’s new thinking. “There is only one danger—nuclear weapons,” Yakovlev insisted, imploring the United States to accelerate negotiations. Matlock replied that Reagan’s dream of nuclear abolition was no longer on the table. “Reagan believed in the possibility of liquidation of nuclear weapons,” Matlock said. “Bush thinks that we need to reduce them to a minimum, but not liquidate them. He believes that without nuclear weapons the risk of war being unleashed would increase.”17

While Bush delayed, Gorbachev’s ambitions for disarmament were as keen as ever. Katayev’s files contain a Politburo work plan on arms control and defense issues for 1989—with dozens of instructions and tight deadlines, starting in early January and running well into the next year—which underscored how the Kremlin wanted to move briskly on many fronts. The list, ten pages long, included the new initiative to reduce tactical or short-range nuclear weapons; the elimination of chemical weapons; publication of once-secret data on Soviet military spending; creating a global space organization; reducing foreign aid to other states in the Soviet bloc; boosting science and technology for the civilian sector; and downsizing the military-industrial complex. The list included directives to various ministries and agencies aimed at jump-starting defense conversion, or switching military production to civilian goods, with an aim of creating better living standards for a society staggering under shortages and economic hardship.18

Katayev drafted a five-page instruction, prepared for the Central Committee’s approval in January 1989, laying out the rationale for a dramatic cut in Soviet weapons. The document is yet another powerful piece of evidence that Gorbachev at this point was pushing to slash military spending. The goal of defense cuts, the instruction said, was to free up resources “for accelerated development of the national economy” and provide for the most urgent everyday needs of the Soviet people.19Another document in Katayev’s files shows that Soviet military spending peaked in 1989 and began a sharp decline thereafter.20 As promised, the Soviet army retreated from Afghanistan by February 15, when the last Soviet commander of the 40th Army, Lieutenant General Boris Gromov, walked back across the Amu Darya River bridge at Termez.

By late 1988 and early 1989, just as Bush was taking office, Gorbachev may have reached the zenith of his powers as a leader. It would have been an ideal time to seize the initiative and lock in a 50 percent cut in strategic weapons, as well as reductions in other systems, such as tactical nuclear weapons. A strategic arms treaty also might have been easier because Bush was not dazzled by Reagan’s grand dream of a defense against ballistic missiles that had proven so contentious in earlier years. But Bush hesitated.

In Moscow, Gorbachev’s room for maneuver soon began to shrink. The forces of freedom and openness he had unleashed began to overtake him, creating obstacles and open resistance: new forces of democracy at home; a sweeping tide of change in Eastern Europe; the reawakening of old nationalist dreams in the Soviet republics. On March 26, the first relatively free election since the Bolshevik Revolution was held for a new Soviet legislature, the Congress of People’s Deputies. In the balloting, the Communist Party leadership in Leningrad was turned out, pro-independence parties won in the Baltics and Yeltsin, the radical reformer, triumphed in Moscow. The Communist Party establishment took a shellacking. When the new legislature met for the first time from May 25 through June 9, Gorbachev ordered the proceedings broadcast on television. People stayed home from work to watch the broadcasts; the country was transfixed by debates that broke new ground in freedom of speech. One result was that Gorbachev, the party, the KGB and the military were lambasted with open and often trenchant criticism. The virus of freedom seemed to be spreading fast.

In China, Gorbachev’s visit in May brought the student protests for democracy in Tiananmen Square to a new level of intensity. They were suppressed by the massacre a few weeks later. Across Eastern Europe, ferment spread, especially in Hungary and Poland, where the Solidarity movement came out from the underground and won in the elections to parliament. On July 7, Gorbachev affirmed to leaders of the Warsaw Pact that the Soviet Union would not intervene to stop the juggernaut, and they were free to go their own way. During the same week, Akhromeyev, in his new capacity as an adviser to Gorbachev, had a remarkable tour of U.S. military installations during which he and Admiral William Crowe, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, openly debated how to end the arms race.21 Bush’s trip to Poland and Hungary in July exposed him to the torrent of change there.22 In his diary, Chernyaev captured the madness and the drama of these months. “All around Gorbachev has unleashed irreversible processes of ‘disintegration’ which had earlier been restrained or covered up by the arms race, the fear of war …” he wrote. Socialism in Eastern Europe is “disappearing,” the planned economy “is living its last days,” ideology “doesn’t exist any more,” the Soviet empire “is falling apart,” the Communist Party “is in disarray” and “chaos is breaking out,” he wrote.23

In September, Shevardnadze flew with Baker on the secretary’s air force plane to a meeting in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. In a long talk on the flight, Shevardnadze drove home to Baker the urgency of Gorbachev’s problems at home, especially the forces of disintegration pulling the republics away from the center. Baker had not realized in the spring that Gorbachev’s situation was so precarious and the window of opportunity was closing. “Our CIA was way, way behind the curve,” he said. Baker recalled the first hints came only that summer, and by September, on the flight to Jackson Hole, it “really became obvious.”24 One concrete outcome of the Baker and Shevardnadze meeting in Wyoming was an agreement to exchange data about chemical weapons stockpiles. However, the Soviet Union did not disclose the secret research on the new binary weapon, the novichok generation.

Chernyaev called 1989 “The Lost Year.” It was also the beginning of the crack-up. A gargantuan superpower was starting to come unglued, with nuclear, chemical and biological weapons strewn across the landscape.

As authority weakened in the Soviet Union, secrets leaked out of the military’s most carefully guarded citadels. Velikhov, the progressive physicist and Gorbachev’s adviser, personally exposed some of them in another amazing glasnost tour. In July, he brought a group of American scientists, led by Cochran of the Natural Resources Defense Council, to the Black Sea to conduct a verification experiment involving a Soviet cruise missile, armed with a nuclear warhead, on a navy ship.25 It was rare for Americans to get so close to a Soviet weapon. The point was to determine if radiation detectors could spot the presence or absence of a nuclear warhead. While some theoretical studies had been done, the experiment offered a chance to check the radiation detectors against a real weapon. The question was important because of the larger debate at the time about whether there could be effective verification of sea-launched cruise missiles. The United States claimed it was impossible to verify nuclear warheads on naval cruise missiles, and insisted they should be left out of the negotiations on strategic arms. The Soviets wanted to count them—and limit them—because of the American advantage. Velikhov wanted to pierce the veil of secrecy, in hopes it would reduce the danger of the arms race, just as he had done in 1986, bringing Cochran to the secret Semipalatinsk nuclear-testing site, and again in 1987 to the disputed Krasnoyarsk radar. This time, the KGB tried to stop Velikhov, but Gorbachev overruled them.26

On a sunny July 5, 1989, the Americans, joined by a group of Soviet scientists, lugged their radiation detectors aboard the Slava, a 610-foot Soviet cruiser at Yalta on the Black Sea. At that moment, the ship held a single SS-N-12 nuclear-armed cruise missile, NATO code-named “Sandbox,” stored in the forward, exterior starboard launcher. The Soviets were so nervous about the visit that they had rehearsed it for weeks. They feared the Americans might learn too much about the design of the warhead. The sea was a sparkling blue, and Cochran wore shorts, a baseball cap and a T-shirt as he and his team wrestled the test equipment onto the missile tube to measure the radiation. The evening before the experiment, the Soviets had insisted that, by the plan, the Americans could take only a very short reading, but Cochran got a longer one and plenty of data. Soviet scientists carried out their own tests, too. In one extraordinary glasnost moment, the hatch was opened and the Americans took photographs of the dark, menacing tip of the cruise missile, lurking just inside the cover.27

No sooner were the scientists back in Moscow on July 7 than Velikhov bundled them off to the airport to see another secret installation. They flew 850 miles east to Chelyabinsk-40, near the town of Kyshtym, a nuclear complex built in Stalin’s day, where reactors had churned out plutonium for nuclear weapons. The complex was top secret, but when Velikhov appeared at the gates, they swung open. “It was the first time foreigners were in a town whose whole existence was to destroy America,” Velikhov recalled.28 Von Hippel, the Princeton professor who had known Velikhov since the early 1980s, said that Velikhov wanted the Americans to see a plutonium reactor being shut down, fulfilling a promise Gorbachev had made earlier. After the tour, “We had a fairy-tale-like dinner on an island in the middle of this lake, with a long table with white tablecloth and silver laid out under the birch trees,” Von Hippel remembered. Boris Brokhovich, the seventy-three-year-old director of Chelyabinsk-40, stripped naked and plunged into the lake. Several of the Americans then followed him. Not far from the lake was the scene of a devastating accident more than three decades earlier, when a storage tank exploded, throwing 70–80 metric tons of waste containing 20 million curies of radioactivity over the surrounding area. The total release of long-lived fission products, almost comparable to Chernobyl, had contaminated thousands of square kilometers. The accident, September 29, 1957, was hushed up for decades, but revealed after the Soviet collapse.

The last stop on Velikhov’s glasnost tour was the most daring, the one he had first suggested to the Central Committee, and which they had rejected: the Sary Shagan laser test site. This was the facility the Reagan administration claimed “could be used in an anti-satellite role” and might also be used for missile defense. It was the subject of the ominous illustration in Soviet Military Power showing a beam shooting straight up into the heavens. The Soviet leadership knew the claims were untrue but had been embarrassed to admit it. Velikhov brought the Americans to see for themselves on July 8. Von Hippel quickly realized the U.S. claims had been vastly exaggerated. “It was sort of a relic,” he said of the lasers he saw there, which were the equivalent of industrial lasers, easily purchased in the West. There was no sign of the war machine the Reagan administration had conjured up. “These guys had been abandoned, a backwater of the military-industrial complex. It was from an earlier time. It was really pitiful.” The one “computer” consisted of transistor boards wired together—built before the personal computer. “They had been trying to see whether they could get a reflection off a satellite,” he recalled. “They never succeeded.”29

Velikhov’s campaign for openness paid one of its most surprising dividends in 1989, when the Soviet leadership finally admitted that the Krasnoyarsk radar was a violation of the ABM treaty, as Katayev’s candid internal spravka had indicated in 1987. Shevardnadze acknowledged the treaty violation in a speech to the Soviet legislature, and claimed, “It took some time for the leadership of the country to get acquainted with the whole truth and the history about the station.” This was a dubious claim, since Shevardnadze had signed a document laying out the issues two years before. The larger point was clear, however. Gorbachev was coming clean.30

The glasnost championed by Velikhov did not extend to Biopreparat. On July 27, 1989, the masters of biological weapons met in Moscow at the office of Lev Zaikov, the Politburo member who oversaw the military-industrial complex. According to minutes and handwritten notes in Katayev’s files, the meeting began at 6:30 P.M. and was attended by sixteen other officials in addition to Zaikov. The meeting was a Politburo “commission,” a formal high-level committee of members of the ruling body of the Soviet Union, and although Gorbachev was not present, he must have known about the discussions. Among those present were Yuri Kalinin, the head of Biopreparat; Valentin Yevstigneev, the head of the military’s 15th Main Directorate, which oversaw biological weapons; Foreign Minister Shevardnadze; Vladimir Kryuchkov, head of the KGB, and his predecessor, Viktor Chebrikov, who remained a member of the Politburo; Mikhail Moiseev, chief of the General Staff; and others. Akhromeyev was originally on the list, but his name was crossed out.31

The first item on the agenda was listed as “About measures for modernizing the organization of work on special problems.” The term “special problems” was a euphemism for biological weapons. The officials were once again worried about the arrival of international inspectors and how to cover up the illegal work. The goal of the meeting was to prepare a Central Committee resolution, which would be a major policy instruction.

Katayev’s notes of the meeting are fragmentary and leave unanswered questions. But they also open a window on high-level discussions about the illicit germ warfare program—evidence of a remarkable back-and-forth discussion that was kept utterly secret.

Kalinin opened the meeting, suggesting that biological weapons were cheap.

The Katayev notation:

Per 1  

conventional  

2,000 doll.  

 

Nuclear

800   ″

 

Chem

60     ″

 

Bio

1      ″

The unit of measurement is not stated, but apparently was dollars. Experts in nonproliferation had worried about the same thing for many years—biological weapons could be the poor man’s atomic bomb.

Then, according to Katayev’s handwritten notes, Kalinin complained that the United States had concealed the location of work on biological weapons.

Next, Kalinin reported to the group on the status of preparations for international arms inspections. Some facilities were being modified so they could be displayed as centers for civilian medicines. According to Katayev’s notes, Kalinin said the cleanup would have to remove any speck of evidence that would point to a weapons program. “Today we are not finding spores,” Katayev wrote. “But possibly in pockets.”

If inspectors came, Kalinin said, they would be given the explanation “these are for manufacturing vaccines.”

Kalinin said he needed eighteen months to bring two more sites into order, and appeared to be seeking permission.

Shevardnadze, who had endorsed the idea of surprise inspections in his speech in Geneva, interjected. “Violation or not?” he demanded, according to Katayev’s notes. “What is the purpose of legends?” or cover stories. “There will be a convention in a year’s time—any enterprise will be under verification.” This was a reference to a chemical weapons treaty, or international convention, which would include provisions for surprise inspections as a verification measure. It was being hammered out by negotiators.

Zaikov asked why Kalinin needed the eighteen months. Couldn’t he be ready sooner?

Kalinin said something about “secret designs,” perhaps hinting that more time was needed to hide the true purpose of the facilities. Katayev noted, cryptically, and without specifying which facilities were being discussed: “All recipes are destroyed. Stockpiles liquidated … Equipment is multi-purpose—remains. It serves to manufacture medications. We are going to preserve the equipment for the time being.”

Zaikov wanted the equipment taken down, too. He was also worried about documents, and wanted them destroyed. At one point he suggested all the documents be “liquidated” in three months. Katayev wrote another cryptic line in his notes, quoting Shevardnadze: “What we violate and what we don’t.”

A little more than two months after the meeting in Zaikov’s office, the Central Committee issued the resolution, ordering more cover-up activity, with an eye toward possible future inspections, according to records in Katayev’s archives. This instruction was to recall all documentation from sites “connected with manufacturing of special-purpose product,” design new means of disguising them and modernize facilities so they could appear to be manufacturing defensive biological agents, such as vaccines. The goal, according to the resolution, was to preserve “the achieved parity in the field of military biology.”32

A very small group of intelligence officials in the United States and Great Britain worked on biological weapons. They were mainly technical specialists, and they were outnumbered in the intelligence and policy community, where vast staffs worked on nuclear and strategic weapons, and on topics such as the Soviet economy. The CIA even had a full-time analyst devoted to monitoring canned goods in Soviet stores. The germ warfare experts felt like a lonely band, warning of dangers that were often not taken seriously by others and for which they could not offer absolute proof. Christopher Davis, who served on the British Defense Intelligence staff for ten years as the senior specialist on biological weapons, said that methods that had worked for counting nuclear missile silos were virtually useless when it came to assessing a biological weapons program. The missiles and hardware could be tracked from above, but not the pathogens. “A building is a building at the end of the day,” he explained. “It might have some strange features but there is little one can conclude about its function without x-ray eyes. You can’t tell what anyone is doing inside, and that’s the key question. In intelligence terms, it’s a very hard target.”33

The claims of the biological weapons experts met with deep skepticism by other defense, intelligence and policy officials. “The biological weapons clique inside Washington was so doomsdayish, that they tended to undermine their own credibility,” said Doug MacEachin, who had become arms control director at the CIA in March 1989. “It never had a whole lot of credibility. They went beyond the evidence too many times.” MacEachin was also influenced by his own calculation that biological weapons would have little use on the battlefield; thus no one would go to all the trouble, certainly not in the nuclear age.34

In the autumn of 1989, Ken Alibek, deputy director of Biopreparat, recalled visiting Obolensk, south of Moscow. On the first floor of the big new building, in the auditorium, the annual review of work at the institute was held. “We were not allowed to bring briefcases or bags inside the room,” Alibek recalled. “We could take notes, but they were gathered up by security guards after each meeting. We had to get special permission to see them again.”

The next-to-last speaker was Sergei Popov, the young researcher who had worked at both Koltsovo and Obolensk. He approached the lectern to give a report on a project that Alibek called “Bonfire.”

“Few paid attention at first. Work on Bonfire had dragged on for some fifteen years, and most of us had given up hope of ever achieving results.”

But Alibek added that his attention perked up when Popov announced that a suitable bacterial host had been found. This was the two-punch weapon in which one agent would be the vehicle and the attack on the immune system would be the second, deadly strike. Alibek recalled watching an experiment involving animals. Alibek wrote in his memoir they were rabbits, but Popov said later they were guinea pigs. Behind glass walls in a laboratory, a half-dozen were strapped to boards to keep them from squirming free. Each was fitted with a masklike mechanical device connected to a ventilation system. Watching from the other side of the glass, a technician pressed a button, delivering small bursts of the genetically altered pathogen to each animal. When the experiment was over, the animals were returned to their cages for examination. They all developed symptoms of one sickness, such as high temperatures. In one test, several also developed signs of another illness. “They twitched and they lay still,” Alibek recalled. “Their hindquarters had been paralyzed—evidence of myelin toxin.”

It was Popov’s two-punch killer agent on display. “The test was a success,” Alibek recalled. “A single genetically engineered agent had produced symptoms of two different diseases, one of which could not be traced.” The room fell silent. “We all recognized the implications of what the scientist had achieved. A new class of weapons had been found.”35

Popov vividly recalled working with the guinea pigs. By 1989, the scientists at Obolensk had reached a period of uncertainty. There was less money than before. “It was a frustrating time of disappointment and moral challenge,” he said. “And at that time, I made a commitment to myself. I committed myself to never deal with animal experiments again. The trigger was my last huge experiment with guinea pigs. Something like a few hundred guinea pigs had been held in a containment facility. I and my colleagues visited them every day. Wearing space suits, we fed the survivors and took out the dead. I was very shocked with how it went. Nothing new, but it was unpleasant. Absolutely unpleasant.

“I just couldn’t stand any more the conditions the animals were held in. We saw animals dying, awfully, starving, experiencing paralysis and convulsions in conditions neglecting the very sense of life. The agent paralyzed half of the animal’s body. I did not want to be involved in this any more.”36

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