In the Russian government lately, there’s been some careless talk about biological weapons.

Prime Minister Vladimir Putin published a series of essays about the country’s problems as part of his bid to return to the presidency. An essay on national security, published in Rossiiskaya Gazeta on Feb. 20, argued that Russia needs to prepare for threats of the future.

“The military capability of a country in space or information countermeasures, especially in cyberspace, will play a great, if not decisive, role in determining the nature of an armed conflict,” Putin wrote.

Then he added:

“In the more distant future, weapons systems based on new principles (beam, geophysical, wave, genetic, psychophysical and other technology) will be developed. All this will, in addition to nuclear weapons, provide entirely new instruments for achieving political and strategic goals.”

Putin said Russia needed to be prepared “for quick and effective responses to new challenges.”


Putin seemed to be making the general point that weapons which are based on genetically engineered pathogens — biological weapons — could be a future threat. Many others have expressed fears about this as well.

Then, last week, Putin gathered some of his leading cabinet ministers to talk about implementing the ideas in his essays. The Russian government has published a transcript of the session.

Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov pledged to come up with a plan to implement 28 tasks set by Putin. Among them, he said:

“The development of weapons based on new physical principles: radiation, geophysical, wave, genetic, psychophysical, etc.”

Putin did not react, but he should have stopped this loose talk. “Genetic” weapons — and more broadly, all biological weapons — are banned by the 1972 Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention. Russia has insisted that it is in compliance and is not working on biological weapons of any kind. (The Soviet Union, in earlier decades, built a massive biological weapons program in violation of the treaty, which it had signed.)

Last December, at the Seventh Review Conference of the treaty in Geneva, the Russian Federation vowed that it “fully and unwaveringly carries out its obligations” and “does not develop, produce, stockpile, acquire or retain” biological or toxin weapons.

Perhaps someone needs to remind the defense minister and the re-elected president.

David E. Hoffman is a Pulitzer Prize-winning author and a contributing editor to Foreign Policy.

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