News

Russia dodges chemical arms ban

By Bill Gertz
THE WASHINGTON TIMES
Tuesday 04 Feb 97 page 1

Russia is producing a new generation of deadly chemical weapons using materials, methods and technology that circumvent the terms of a treaty it signed outlawing such weapons.

Under a program code-named "Foliant," a Russian scientific research organization has created a highly lethal nerve agent called A-232, large quantities of which could be made "within weeks" through covert production facilities, according to a classified Pentagon intelligence report.

A-232 is made from industrial and agricultural chemicals that are not lethal until mixed and that never had been used for poison gas.

"These new agents are as toxic as VX, as resistant to treatment as soman, and more difficult to detect and easier to manufacture than VX," the Military Intelligence Digest, labeled "secret," said in its Jan. 24 report.

VX, developed in the 1950s, kills rapidly by disrupting the central nervous system and remains for long periods in areas where it is used. Soman kills rapidly but is less persistent.

The report says A-232 and its delivery means have "passed Moscow's rigorous military acceptance testing and can be quickly fielded in unitary or binary form."

The report, written by James W. Poarch of the National Ground Intelligence Center, says A-232's "key components are not covered by the Chemical Weapons Convention's (CWC) Schedule of Chemicals."

Pentagon and CIA spokesmen declined to comment on the report, citing a policy of not commenting on intelligence matters.

David Johnson, a spokesman for the White House National Security Council, would not comment on the report but said the treaty would make it easier to investigate such problems. He said agents and components can be added to the treaty's schedule of banned chemicals.

"Without the CWC and the verification tools it provides, you don't have the means to get at problems like this. With CWC, you do," he said.

"Because of their concern that CWC inspectors would discover the activity, the Russians probably would not try to covertly produce the new agents at a declared chemical weapons production facility," the report says.

"Covert production at an undeclared facility therefore is the most likely scenario for accumulating a stockpile of these weapons. Maintaining a declared facility in a standby condition for emergency mobilization is also an option the Russians have planned for."

The report, which was circulated among senior policy-makers, comes as the Clinton administration is mounting a major effort to win Senate ratification of the CWC. A total of 160 nations have signed the treaty, including the United States and Russia. Sixty have ratified the pact, which goes into effect April 29.

A Pentagon official familiar with the report said it could undermine the treaty-ratification effort. "It clearly shows the Russians are circumventing the treaty," the official said.

The treaty bans the development, production and stockpiling of chemical weapons and requires signatories to destroy all stockpiles and production facilities.

Sen. Jesse Helms, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said yesterday he opposes any early Senate consideration of the convention. Mr. Helms, in a letter to Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott of Mississippi, said State Department and U.N. reform, arms treaty modifications, and missile defense legislation should be considered before the chemical weapons treaty.

"I am convinced that the CWC should not be considered for advice and consent until the aforementioned concerns are resolved," the North Carolina Republican said, noting that further hearings on the CWC are needed. Senate Republicans nearly defeated the treaty last year because of concerns its provisions can't be verified. They also said the treaty would create a U.N. bureaucracy that would burden U.S. businesses with inspections and reporting requirements.

The administration withdrew the treaty last year just before a Senate vote it feared losing.

The United States unilaterally decided to eliminate its chemical arms by 2004.

According to the intelligence report, under the Foliant program and a dual-component chemical arms program called Novichok, "the Russians have developed a new generation of chemical agents and the technology to produce them."

Russia's State Scientific Research Institute of Organic Chemistry and Technology created the agents and novel ways of making them to avoid detection by international inspectors. "By using chemicals not specified in the CWC schedules, the Russians can produce A-232 and its ethyl analog A-234, in unitary and binary forms within several chemical complexes," the report says.

The Russians can make the binary, or two-part, version of the nerve agent using a common industrial solvent, acetonitrile, and an organic phosphate compound "that can be disguised as a pesticide precursor."

In another version, soldiers need only add alcohol to form the agent, the report says.

"These various routes offer flexibility for the agent to be produced in different types of facilities, depending on the raw material and equipment available there," the report says. "They also add complexity to the already formidable challenge of detecting covert production activities."

The Russians can produce the new nerve agent in "pilot plant" quantities of 55 to 110 tons annually, the report says.

Several Russian plants are capable of producing the chemicals used in making A-232. One factory in Novocherboksarsk "is capable of manufacturing 2,000 to 2,500 metric tons of A-232 yearly."

Several pesticide plants "offer easy potential for covert production," the report says. "For example, substituting amines for ammonia and making other slight modifications in the process would result in new agents instead of pesticide. The similarity in the chemistry of these compounds would make treaty monitoring, inspection, and verification difficult."

Copyright 1997 News World Communications, Inc.