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Preventing Proliferation of Biological Weapons: U.S. Assistance to the Former Soviet States

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The former Soviet and subsequently Russian biological weapons program possessed capabilities far in excess of any such program known to have existed elsewhere. These capabilities included genetically-altered, antibiotic-resistant pathogens and sophisticated delivery systems. Approximately fifty biological research and production centers (BRPCs) throughout the former Soviet Union devoted either all or part of their work to the program. In the post-Soviet era, former Soviet states drastically reduced and in some cases eliminated funding for these BRPCs. Thousands of BW scientists became unemployed or underemployed, and the facilities, weapons technology, and thousands of strains of pathogens at these BRPCs became vulnerable to theft, sale or misuse.

In the mid-1990s, the United States began engaging BRPCs throughout the former Soviet Union in four kinds of cooperative projects aimed at preventing proliferation of BW capabilities. Collaborative research projects involve former BW scientists in projects with American scientists and seek to deter former BW scientists from selling their expertise to terrorist groups or proliferating states. Several U.S. government agencies are involved in collaborative research projects, most of which are funded through the international science centers. Biosafety enhancement projects are intended to make BRPCs safe places for collaborating scientists to work. In combination, collaborative research and biosafety enhancement projects give U.S. officials routine access to laboratories and facilities that were once used for BW research and production. BioSecurity projects consolidate and restrict access to pathogens. Dismantlement projects target excess infrastructure and BW equipment at BRPC sites for permanent dismantlement. Biosafety, BioSecurity, and Dismantlement projects are funded through and carried out by DOD's Cooperative Threat Reduction Program.

U.S. participants in these projects identify several lessons learned in the past few years. First, it has become clear that the infrastructure of the Soviet/Russian BW complex was more extensive than most analysts realized when the United States initiated its efforts to prevent proliferation of BW capabilities from former Soviet states. Cooperative projects at some BRPCs have helped open doors to other BRPCs, and since 1995, more than forty BRPCs have been involved in cooperative projects with the United States. Second, U.S. participants report that biosafety, biosecurity, and dismantlement projects require complex negotiations, complex engineering work, considerable project management support, and innovative solutions for problems specific to each BRPC. Consequently, they have learned that the United States may need to offer a long-term commitment if it wants to complete the effort. At the same time, the U.S. agencies with BW nonproliferation programs recognize the need to maximize the nonproliferation benefits of U.S. assistance in an environment with limited resources. Finally, U.S. participants have discovered that interpersonal and institutional relationships resulting from these cooperative efforts may play a powerful role in preventing proliferation of BW capabilities from former Soviet states.