Military history

—————  EPILOGUE  —————

When Mikhail Gorbachev shook hands for the first time with Ronald Reagan at Geneva on November 19, 1985, the two superpowers had amassed about sixty thousand nuclear warheads. The arms race was at its peak. “We looked at each other on the threshold, in front of the building where the negotiations were to take place, the first meeting,” Gorbachev recalled more than two decades later. “Somehow, we extended a hand to each other, and started talking. He speaks English, I speak Russian, he understands nothing, and I understand nothing. But it seems there is a kind of dialogue being connected, a dialogue of the eyes.” At the end of the summit, when they shook hands again on a statement that a nuclear war could not be won and must never be fought, Gorbachev was astonished. “Can you imagine what that meant?” Gorbachev told me. “It meant that everything we had been doing was an error.”

“Both of us knew better than anyone else the kind of weapons that we had,” he said. “And those were really piles, mountains of nuclear weapons. A war could start not because of a political decision, but just because of some technical failure.” Gorbachev kept a sculpture of a goose in his Moscow office as a reminder that a flock of geese was once briefly mistaken for incoming missiles by the early-warning radars.

At Reykjavik, Gorbachev and Reagan went further toward eliminating all nuclear weapons than anyone had gone before. But a generation later, the great promise of Reykjavik remains unfulfilled. The “absolute weapon” is still with us. While the total number of nuclear warheads has shrunk by about two-thirds, thousands are still poised for launch. The United States maintains at the ready about 2,200 strategic nuclear warheads, and 500 smaller, tactical nuclear weapons. Another 2,500 warheads are held in reserve, and an additional 4,200 are awaiting dismantlement. Russia still maintains 3,113 warheads on strategic weapons, 2,079 tactical warheads and more than 8,800 in reserve or awaiting dismantlement. That’s more than 23,000 nuclear warheads.

Since the end of the Cold War, the world has changed dramatically. Amorphous and murky threats—failed states, terrorism and proliferation—have grown more ominous. Nuclear weapons will hardly deter militias such as the Taliban, or terrorists such as those who attacked New York, Washington, London, Madrid and Mumbai in recent years. The terrorists and militias seek to frighten and damage a more powerful foe. So far they have employed conventional weapons—bombs, grenades, assault rifles and hijacked airliners—but they also want to get their hands on more potent weapons of mass casualty. Driven by intense zeal, they are not intimidated by a nuclear arsenal, nor deterred by fear of death. A lone suicidal terrorist carrying anthrax bacteria or nerve agents in a plastic pouch is not an appropriate target for a nuclear-armed missile. And while nuclear weapons worked as a reliable deterrent for leaders in the Kremlin and the White House, two experienced adversaries, they may not work so well if one of the protagonists is an untested nuclear power, nervous and jittery.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the United States twice reexamined its nuclear weapons policies and deployments in formal studies, known as the Nuclear Posture Review. Both times, in 1994 and 2002, the reviews acknowledged that the world had changed after the Cold War, but neither report was followed by radical change. The main reason was fear of the future; nuclear weapons were needed as a “hedge” against uncertainty. At first, the uncertainty was the chaos in the former Soviet Union, and later it was the prospect of some other nation or terrorist group obtaining nuclear weapons.

But the arsenals of the last war seem a poor hedge against new threats. Four elder statesmen of the nuclear age issued an appeal in 2007 to take action toward “a world free of the nuclear threat.” They were Sam Nunn, Chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee 1987–1994; George Shultz, Secretary of State 1982–1989; Henry Kissinger, Secretary of State 1973–1977; and William J. Perry, Secretary of Defense 1994–1997. Gorbachev soon joined them. All were intimately involved with decisions about the nuclear balance of terror. The time has come to listen to them.1

One of their recommendations is to eliminate the short-range battlefield or tactical nuclear weapons left over from the Cold War. The United States has five hundred of these weapons deployed, including two hundred in Europe. They were originally intended to deter a Warsaw Pact invasion; the Warsaw Pact is history. Little is known about the disposition in Russia of the thousands of tactical nuclear weapons removed from Eastern Europe and the former Soviet republics after the 1991 Bush-Gorbachev initiative. They may be in storage or deployed; they have never been covered by any treaty, nor any verification regime, and the loss of just one could be catastrophic.2

Another step would be to take the remaining strategic nuclear weapons off launch-ready alert. When Stanislav Petrov faced the false alarm in 1983, launch decisions had to be made in just minutes. Today, Russia is no longer the ideological or military threat the Soviet Union once was; nor does the United States pose such a threat to Russia. Americans invested much time and effort to assist Russia’s leap to capitalism in the 1990s—should we aim our missiles now at the very stock markets in Moscow we helped design? Bruce Blair has estimated that both the United States and Russia maintain about one-third of their total arsenals on launch-ready alert. It would take one to two minutes to execute the launch codes and fire Minuteman missiles in the central plains of the United States, and about twelve minutes to launch submarine-based missiles. The combined firepower that could be unleashed in this time frame by both countries is approximately 2,654 high-yield nuclear warheads, or 100,000 Hiroshimas. Procedures could easily be put in place that would de-alert the missiles and create deliberate launch delays of hours, days or weeks to prevent a terrible mistake. And it would be wise for Russia to disconnect and decommission Perimeter, the semiautomatic command system for nuclear retaliation. The Doomsday Machine was built for another epoch.3

After these steps, the United States and Russia could begin working—ideally in a renewed partnership—toward the goal of total, verified elimination of nuclear weapons around the globe. The United States and Russia together hold 95 percent of the world’s warheads. The Moscow Treaty of 2002, signed by President George W. Bush and President Vladimir Putin, called for between 2,200 and 1,700 warheads “operationally deployed” on each side by the year 2012. Neither nation would suffer from radical reductions from this level. In today’s world, thousands of nuclear warheads on each side do not provide thousands of times more deterrence or safety than a small number of warheads. A drive toward liquidation of the arsenals would be a fitting way to bury the Cold War. So would a determined effort to halt the spread of nuclear weapons and fissile materials elsewhere, as well as ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. We should remember the wisdom of Bernard Brodie, the pioneering early thinker about atomic weapons, who wrote that they are “truly cosmic forces harnessed to the machines of war.” The war is over. It is long past time to scrap the machines.

In 1992, Senators Nunn and Lugar took a gamble with history. Back then, skeptics suggested it would be best to let the former Soviet Union drown in its own sorrows—to go into “free fall.” Nunn and Lugar did not agree. They helped Russia and the other former Soviet republics cope with an inheritance from hell. The investment paid huge dividends. In the years that followed, Kazakhstan, Belarus and Ukraine completely abandoned nuclear weapons. A total of 7,514 nuclear warheads, 752 intercontinental ballistic missiles, and 31 submarines were deactivated.4These were required by arms control treaties, but Nunn-Lugar provided the resources that made dismantlement a reality.

Many of the facilities with unguarded fissile material in the mid-1990s underwent security upgrades. By 2008, more than 70 percent of the buildings in the former Soviet Union with weapons-usable nuclear materials had been fortified, although the uranium and plutonium were still spread across more than two hundred locations.5 After Project Sapphire, highly-enriched uranium was removed, often quietly, from an additional nineteen research reactors and sensitive installations around the former Soviet bloc.6 The International Science and Technology Center, started after Baker’s visit to Chelyabinsk-70, made grants over fourteen years that benefited, at one time or another, about seventy thousand scientists and engineers involved in building weapons.7 The anthrax factory at Stepnogorsk was destroyed, including the giant fermenters in Building 221. On Vozrozhdeniye Island, eleven graves where anthrax was buried were pinpointed; the substance, pink with a texture of wet clay, was excavated and the pathogens neutralized.8 On the steppe near Russia’s southern border, a $1 billion factory has been constructed that will destroy the huge stockpiles of chemical weapons, including sarin, stored in the nearby warehouses. At the Mayak Chemical Combine in the city of Ozersk, a massive fortified vault was built by the United States at a cost of $309 million to store excess Russian fissile materials. With walls twenty-three feet thick, the Fissile Material Storage Facility answered the need so starkly evident after the Soviet collapse—a Fort Knox to guard uranium and plutonium.

It was never going to be easy for a country so turbulent as Russia to accept the hand of a rich and powerful rival, and it wasn’t. Suspicions, delays, misunderstandings and errors were abundant in the years after the Soviet collapse.9 But overall, given the immense size of the Soviet military-industrial complex and the sprawling nature of the dangerous weapons and materials, the Nunn-Lugar gamble paid off. The world is safer for their vision and determination. It was also a bargain. The yearly cost for all facets of Nunn-Lugar was about $1.4 billion, a tiny sliver of the annual Pentagon budget of more than $530 billion.10

In a cemetery in Yekaterinburg, the city that was Sverdlovsk in Soviet times, on a cold snowy December day, I found a cluster of graves amid tall pines and birches. Wilted roses lay upon some of the tombstones, while others showed signs of neglect. What they all shared were the same dates of death: April and May 1979. These were the victims of the anthrax outbreak, their names a roll call from a long-forgotten battlefield of the Cold War. Andrei Komelskikh was sixty-seven years old when he died April 13. He was a grandfather. “You are always in our hearts, from your wife, children and grandchildren,” his headstone was inscribed. Neither Andrei nor the other victims knew why they died in those horrific weeks of 1979. Except for a brief, one-sentence comment by Yeltsin, neither the Soviet Union nor Russia has ever admitted, either to the families or to the world, how or why the biological weapons disaster occurred.

On February 10, 2005, I was admitted to the once-secret Biopreparat headquarters at No. 4a Samokatnaya Street in Moscow. This was the same building where Ken Alibek worked as first deputy director. I went to the second floor to interview Valentin Yevstigneev, the retired lieutenant general who once headed the 15th Main Directorate of the Ministry of Defense, which supervised germ warfare. Yevstigneev was part of the old guard that had participated in the cover-up of Biopreparat activities in earlier years. Now wearing a business suit in a modern office, he handed me his card: first deputy general director of a privatized company, Biopreparat, a commercial enterprise. On a table, I picked up a glossy brochure about the new Biopreparat, containing photographs of test tubes, syringes and pills, describing the company’s activity manufacturing medicines and medical technology. There was no mention of the pathogens of the past.

When I asked Yevstigneev about the anthrax outbreak in Sverdlovsk in 1979, he repeated the story that it was spread by contaminated meat. Then he suggested it was caused by sabotage or terrorists from outside the Soviet Union. This was another line of disinformation that had been floated by the military in earlier years.11

Telling the whole truth about the Sverdlovsk outbreak would be a good first step toward putting the terrible secret history of Biopreparat to rest.

The truth matters. Deception is a tool of germ warriors. The same disguise that concealed the Soviet biological weapons program as civilian research could be used today to hide a dangerous germ warfare program anywhere. The anthrax letter attacks in the United States in 2001, the outbreak of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome in 2003 and the dramatic advances in biosciences have all underscored the destructive nature of biological agents. The National Academy of Sciences concluded in a report in 2009 that closed cities like Obolensk with a relatively large footprint are no longer necessary to house an illicit biological weapons program. A dangerous pathogen, say a virus, could be spread with no discernible signature. The workspace of a biological weaponeer or terrorist could be safely nestled inside a university or commercial laboratory, impossible to discover by satellite reconnaissance. People are the key, as Vladimir Pasechnik demonstrated by following his conscience and revealing Soviet misdeeds. To detect such dangers in the future requires human contacts, networks, transparency and collaboration, the painstaking building of bridges that Andy Weber pursued.

In the 1990s, Russia seemed vulnerable and desperate, but starting in the year 2000, a surge of oil wealth fueled a new sense of independence. Also, Russia was led into another period of authoritarianism under President Putin, during which it grew hostile to outsiders. Under Putin, Russia increasingly shut down cooperation with the West on biological weapons proliferation. Russian officials have insisted that since the country has no offensive biological weapons program, there is no need to cooperate. But it also appears Russia is reverting back to Soviet-era habits. Putin’s security services went on a hunt for suspected spies among scientists, which put a chill on joint projects with the West.

Russia has long refused to open the doors of three military biological research facilities. To this day, it is unknown how far the Soviet Union went in creating warheads and bombs from the bacteria and viruses that were developed at Obolensk and Vector. Did the Soviet scientists produce a super-plague resistant to antibiotics? Did they create a cruise missile capable of disseminating anthrax bacteria spores? Or warheads for an intercontinental ballistic missile to carry smallpox? And if they did these things, all in violation of an international treaty they signed in 1972, should the details at last be brought to light?12 A string of Russian antiplague institutes and stations that once fed into the germ warfare program also remain closed to Western cooperation. If there are no weapons, no offensive program, as Russia claims, then what is behind the closed doors? What formulas for weaponization remain in the military laboratories? And most importantly, what has become of the scientists with know-how to create pathogens that can be carried in a shirt pocket?

What are they working on today?

If it wasn’t worrisome enough that Russia was weak and vulnerable after the Soviet collapse, another jolt came in the 1990s: terrorists and cults were in search of weapons of mass destruction. The people who would commit mass terror lacked the resources or industrial base of a government or military, but they burned with the ambition to kill in a large and theatrical way. Terrorism certainly wasn’t new, but terrorists in possession of the arsenals of the Cold War would be devastating.

In 1995, the Aum Shinrikyo cult released the deadly nerve agent sarin on three Tokyo subway trains, killing twelve people, injuring over one thousand and causing mass panic. Technical problems, leaks and accidents plagued the cult. But the Tokyo subway attack showed what only a small amount of dangerous material could do. The Tokyo calamity resulted from 159 ounces of sarin. By contrast, in Russia, in a remote compound near the town of Shchuchye in western Siberia, there are still 1.9 million projectiles filled with 5,447 metric tons of nerve agents.13

Osama bin Laden was reportedly impressed with the Tokyo subway disaster and the chaos it generated. In 1998, Al Qaeda leaders began to launch a serious chemical and biological weapons effort, code-named Zabadi, or “curdled milk” in Arabic. Details of the effort were later revealed in documents found on a computer used by the Al Qaeda leadership in Kabul. Ayman Zawahiri, the former Cairo surgeon who that year merged his radical group, Islamic Jihad in Egypt, with Al Qaeda, noted that “the destructive power of these weapons is not less than that of nuclear weapons.”14 In 1999, Zawahiri recruited a Pakistani scientist to set up a small biological weapons laboratory in Kandahar. Later, the work was turned over to a Malaysian who knew the 9/11 hijackers and had helped them, Yazid Sufaat. He had been educated in biology and chemistry in California, and spent months at the Kandahar laboratory attempting to cultivate anthrax. George Tenet, the former CIA director, said the anthrax effort was carried out in parallel with the plot to hijack airplanes and crash them into buildings.15 He believed, he said, that bin Laden’s strongest desire was to go nuclear. At one point, the CIA frantically chased down reports that bin Laden was negotiating for the purchase of three Russian nuclear devices, although details were never found. “They understand that bombings by cars, trucks, trains, and planes will get them some headlines, to be sure,” Tenet wrote. “But if they manage to set off a mushroom cloud, they will make history … Even in the darkest days of the Cold War, we could count on the fact that the Soviets, just like us, wanted to live. Not so with terrorists.”16

It is difficult to build a working nuclear bomb, but less difficult to cultivate pathogens in a laboratory. A congressional commission concluded in 2008 that it would be hard for terrorists to weaponize and disseminate significant quantities of a biological agent in aerosol form, but it might not be so difficult to find someone to do it for them. “In other words,” the panel said, “given the high-level of know-how needed to use disease as a weapon to cause mass casualties, the United States should be less concerned that terrorists will become biologists and far more concerned that biologists will become terrorists.”17

The tools of mass casualty are more diffuse and more uncertain than ever before. Even as securing the weapons of the former Soviet Union remains unfinished business, the world we live in confronts new risks that go far beyond Biopreparat. Today one can threaten a whole society with a flask carrying pathogens created in a fermenter in a hidden garage—and without a detectable signature.

The Dead Hand of the arms race is still alive.

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