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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Russia's Poison Stockpiles

One of the many complicated problems waiting for Duma deputies upon their return from summer recess was the ratification of the 1993 international convention banning chemical weapons. The deputies' problems have been compounded by the recent actions of many of Russia's generals, who have been waging an active media campaign to justify the further existence of the country's military-chemical complex.

The generals' main argument has been that Russia does not have the necessary funds to undertake the large-scale destruction of the country's chemical weapons, of which there are more than 40,000 tons scattered from Kaliningrad to Vladivostok. Therefore, it is hardly likely that Russia will be able to meet the convention's deadlines even if the Duma ratifies it. The convention states that all such weapons must be destroyed by 2005.

It is hard to counter this argument. It will indeed be difficult to find even the $2 billion needed for the preliminary stages of the work. However, it is easy to imagine the irreversible effects that the continued existence of these weapons will have for the ecology of Russia and of the entire world. Most of them, for technical reasons, cannot be stored safely for more than 50 years at any rate. Even experts cannot predict what might happen once some of them begin to decay. While not denying any of this, Russia's military has so far not taken any practical steps to initiate a discussion of these financial and ecological problems either domestically or in any international forum.

The military has also argued that Russia, as a major military power, cannot afford to be without chemical weapons without compromising some of its strategic interests. This view is held by a number of highly placed figures in the Defense Ministry's organs controlling Russia's nuclear, chemical and biological weapons. During the last Duma discussions of this topic in March, a representative of Vladimir Zhirinovsky's Liberal-Democratic Party argued exactly this position, and his speech completely undermined the constructive approach that the hearings had demonstrated up to that point. Afterwards, the deputies were unable to reach any decisions.

In the opinion of Lev Fyodorov, a leading scientist and the president of the Russian Union for Chemical Security, this "great power" approach is a mistake. He points out that as soon as Russia developed the hydrogen bomb and the ballistic missiles to deliver it, chemical weapons became strategically obsolete. That is why chemical weapons do not play any role in Russia's newly declared military doctrine.

"Why is it that we have thousands of tons of poisonous substances," Fyodorov asks, "that are capable of killing everyone on earth several times over, when we also have so many nuclear missiles that are much more effectively able to defend Russia's interests? Paradoxically enough, nuclear weapons are considerably more environmentally friendly than chemical weapons and are much easier to transport and store."

During the race to create Russia's chemical weapons during the 1930s, several tens of thousands of people were killed or injured. I recently spoke to some of the 3,000 people who worked at a chemical weapons plant in Novocheboksarsk during the 1970s and 1980s. They told me how they would spend four hours each day dressed in rubber suits pouring poisonous substances into bombs. After each shift they would pour more than a liter of sweat out of their boots. Their bodies were completely dehydrated, and they continue to suffer from the effects of this experience.

One-thousandth of a gram of the substance they dealt with is enough to fatally poison someone. Although there were practically no reported accidents at this plant, virtually everyone who worked there is now considered an invalid and receives a state pension. Many have serious neurological disorders. The only facility in the country capable of treating these people in the St. Petersburg Institute of Pathology, but it has limited space and a month of treatment there costs about 2.5 million rubles. Fyodorov estimates that there are currently between 10,000 and 15,000 people in Russia who urgently need medical help because of their exposure to these chemicals, most of them living near the places were the weapons are stored. The Russian government would do well to keep this in mind when calculating the expense of destroying its chemical weapons.

Biological studies of the town of Chapaevsk near Samara, where chemical weapons were stored from the 1930s through the 1950s, have revealed that the level of dioxins there is often hundreds of times more than is considered safe. Dioxins have been discovered in the river, in the soil, on the roofs of the buildings and in mother's milk. Wells that were tested were found to have arsenic concentrations six to ten times above acceptable levels. And this is in a town where there have been no weapons stored for more than 40 years. Who knows what might be found in other cities in Russia and the countries of the near abroad where these weapons were (and in many cases continue to be) stockpiled?

"We have already proposed our plan for safely destroying chemical weapons," says Fyodorov, "but it seems that the military is more interested in its own long-term survival."

This position will most likely become clear during the upcoming parliamentary hearings on chemical weapons. Moreover, to a large extent these hearings will determine whether or not Russia will ratify the international convention on chemical weapons. They will also determine how long Russians will have to "coexist" with the terrible side effects of these chemicals. Just a reminder: More than 130 countries have signed the convention, and it must be ratified before January 13, 1995.

Igor Gritsenko is a reporter for Izvestia. He contributed this comment to The Moscow Times.