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Russia's secret weapons

Biological Espionage: Special Operations of the Soviet and Russian Foreign Intelligence Services in the West

Greenhill: 2005. 192 pp. £12.99, $19.95 1853676462 | ISBN: 1-853-67646-2

In 1992, President Boris Yeltsin admitted that the former Soviet Union had supported a secret biological-warfare programme, in violation of the Biological Toxin and Weapons Convention, which the Soviet Union ratified in 1975. Some of the researchers and officials who operated the programme, such as Ken Alibek, Igor Domaradskii and Serguei Popov, have provided personal accounts that shed light on the clandestine system. However, the compartmentalization and secrecy so prevalent in the former Soviet Union mean that such accounts describe only a fraction of the nation's bioweapons programme. Almost nothing is known about the biological-warfare activities of the Soviet ministries of defence, health and agriculture, the security agencies and the national academies.

As a result, any new information on the roles of these agencies in the Soviet bioweapons programme is welcomed by those who are concerned about whether Russia is continuing with its bioweapons programme. This is the backdrop to the publication of a book by Alexander Kouzminov, a former KGB agent, who claims to provide new and important information about the role of the KGB in the Soviet bioweapons programme. So, what do we learn from it?

In the dark: the bioweapons programme run from KGB headquarters has remained largely secret. Credit: AP PHOTO/A. ZEMLIANICHENKO

Kouzminov describes himself as a former employee of the top-secret Department 12 of Directorate S, the élite inner core of the KGB First Chief Directorate, which was responsible for operations abroad. One of the responsibilities of this department was to oversee ‘illegals’ — Russian intelligence operatives masquerading as Western nationals. Illegals were deployed to spy on Western biodefence activities, procure microbiological agents of interest for Soviet bioweapons research and development, and to perform acts of bioterrorism and sabotage. Kouzminov was a case handler for several illegals, including some that allegedly worked in a UK institute and at the World Health Organization (WHO). He repeatedly asserts that these illegals provided the Soviet Union with “significant” information.

Kouzminov does provide some information on his agency's work. He describes how Westerners were targeted for recruitment by the KGB, and discusses the recruitment process and the means whereby data collected by agents and illegals were transported from the West to the Soviet Union. These procedures have previously been described by defectors and students of the Soviet intelligence system, and Kouzminov's book adds little to the story already in the public domain. Disappointingly, it provides almost no information on how the KGB transformed the data into intelligence, and how this was then used.

According to Kouzminov, individuals were deployed in the West and given numerous objectives related to spying on national programmes. For example, he describes a husband-and-wife team who, while operating a mock medical practice in Germany, were told by the KGB “to establish the locations of all NATO installations; their command personnel...air-force bases, and cruise-missile and rocket sites”. It is doubtful that two individuals could accomplish all this. And Kouzminov's explanation that the KGB placed agents in the WHO to obtain information about the “development of vaccines against the most dangerous human and animal viral diseases” seems rather lame, given that anyone could obtain this information simply by telephoning WHO representatives.

The author further alleges that around 1980 a KGB agent was placed inside the US Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases at Fort Detrick, Maryland, and that another agent was employed by an unnamed British institute (probably the National Institute for Biological Standards and Control, which was not engaged in biodefence). What did these agents do? Did they provide information about US and UK defensive efforts that might be used by the Soviet bioweapons programme? Did they inform their superiors that neither country actually had an offensive programme? Perhaps they provided information on the development of vaccines that might have been useful to the Soviet defensive programme?

In fact, Kouzminov provides little information on the accomplishments of these and other agents in the biological field. Nor does he identify the Soviet research institutes with which the KGB allegedly collaborated in an effort to create more potent bioweapons, despite the fact that many of them are known today to Western security and academic communities.

Kouzminov describes himself as a biophysicist with a microbiological background, so it is surprising how many technical mistakes he makes. For example, he misidentifies the bacteria Bacillus anthracis and rickettsiae as viruses, and misspells agents such as Francisella tularensis and Yersinia pestis.

Some of Kouzminov's claims are reiterations of stories that have been told before and have yet to be substantiated. For example, he alleges that the Soviets used B. anthracis and F. tularensis against German troops in the Second World War — an often-repeated story that has not been verified but has been discounted by microbiologists on the basis of epidemiological analyses. Kouzminov also asserts that Soviet agents obtained marburgvirus samples by exhuming victims of the first recorded outbreak of marburgvirus disease in Germany in 1967. But documentation of the official exchange of marburgvirus strains between German and Soviet microbiology institutes is publicly available.

Other claims, especially those in the final chapter, seem bizarre. If Kouzminov is to be believed, almost every outbreak of a new or emerging infectious disease in the past 15 years — including the outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease in Britain in 2001 and the severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) pandemic in 2003 — may have been either a deliberate bioweapons attack or an accidental release of a genetically engineered microbe from a bioweapons facility. He also implies that the causative agents of hantavirus pulmonary syndrome were genetically engineered specifically to attack Native Americans. That allegations such as these would be made by a professional scientist in the face of a huge body of literature that seems to contradict them is astonishing.

It seems surprising that an insider can write a book about the special operations of Soviet foreign intelligence services in the West and provide so little about their achievements. At best, Biological Espionage is the personal memoir of a former Soviet employee who writes about the practices of Soviet and Russian intelligence agencies in the biological field but provides little evidence of their accomplishments. Why was it written in the first place? If not to inform, then perhaps to misinform?

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Kuhn, J., Leitenberg, M. & Zilinskas, R. Russia's secret weapons. Nature 436, 628–629 (2005).

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