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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Putin's Bold Steps

A top Russian scientist issued a little-noticed warning last week that impoverished experts from Russia's former biological weapons programs may be up for sale to any terrorist organization willing to pay the price. As the United States mobilizes to develop defenses against bioterrorism, it urgently needs reliable intelligence on just what has happened to the people and materials that gave the Soviet Union the most frightening arsenal of biological weapons ever developed.

The scale and variety of the Soviet program were stunning. In a cynical betrayal of international trust, Moscow took the signing of a biological weapons convention in 1972 as the signal to start a clandestine crash program to expand its biological weaponry, not abandon such weapons as required. At its peak, in the late 1980s, the program involved a vast complex of production plants and research facilities, employed some 60,000 scientists and technicians and produced thousands of tons of anthrax and hundreds of tons of smallpox and plague, among some 50 biological agents that were studied as weapons.

Then, in a 1992 change of course, Russia announced that it was terminating its germ-warfare program and dismantling its production lines. Western experts were subsequently allowed in to inspect several of the sites. But no one knows for sure whether or not some of the lethal stocks were stolen and smuggled out of the country or whether some of the unemployed scientists and technicians have sold their services to rogue nations or even terrorist groups. There are credible if anecdotal reports of scientists going to Iran, Iraq and North Korea.

The United States badly needs more information on the whereabouts of key scientists, engineers and materials from the former Soviet biological weapons complex. That could help determine what biological dangers may be loose in the world and thus what threats require the most urgent attention in homeland defenses.

If Bush and Putin genuinely want to contain biological terrorism, it should be possible to craft a deal. For his part, Bush could expand a program that already awards grants for civilian research to scientists who worked in the Soviet chemical, biological and nuclear weapons programs. The goal is to prevent the drain of weapons talent from Russia to rogue nations or terrorist groups. Putin needs to open his last remaining biological warfare facilities to inspection and help determine whether any experts and materials have already escaped.

This comment first appeared as an editorial in The New York Times.