MOSCOW -- Even as Russia joined other countries last week in presenting to the United Nations a treaty that would forever ban the production of chemical weapons, research on new, more powerful poison nerve gases continues here, in a top-secret program code-named Foliant.
Scientists at the high-security laboratory in Moscow where research on chemical weapons is carried out say they have never stopped their quest for the most effective nerve gas.
They say they believe they have developed poisons that are more lethal than any in the U.S. arsenal.
In seeking the abolition of chemical weapons at the United Nations while sponsoring research into their development in Moscow, the Russian government is following in the footsteps of its predecessor, the Soviet Union.
Beginning in 1987, the Soviet government of Mikhail S. Gorbachev repeatedly called for an international ban on chemical weapons and announced on several occasions that it had unilaterally stopped production of its own poison gases.
L But secret scientific research into new gases never wavered.
That research has come to light only because scientists at the lab have taken the extraordinary step over the past month of meeting with a Western correspondent to talk about their work there -- deadly work that they themselves would now like to see brought to a halt.
Ultimately, economic considerations rather than principle may finally accomplish just that. Funds for research on chemical warfare are being slashed by the government of President Boris N. Yeltsin, which has urgent priorities elsewhere, and sources suggest that research at the lab may wind down by the end of the year.
But throughout the era of Mr. Gorbachev's perestroika, when reform was sweeping through the top layers of Soviet society, when an era of good feeling toward the West, and the United States in particular, was dawning, little at the lab was changing. Researchers spent those dramatic years conscientiously pursuing new ways of killing people.
The State Union Scientific Research Institute for Organic Chemistry and Technology, at No. 23 Highway of the Enthusiasts, was described by one its top officials in a recent interview as "the leader in the technology of chemical destruction."
Secret program began in 1982
Breakthrough research on a new class of nerve gases, under the top-secret program, began at the institute in 1982. Five years later, when Mr. Gorbachev first renounced the use of chemical weapons, scientists produced a binary nerve gas they nicknamed "Novichok [Newcomer] No. 5."
Today, scientists at the lab are working on Novichok Nos. 8 and 9.
These are highly toxic substances that are absorbed through the skin or lungs and that shut down the nervous system. On a battlefield, they would kill men in much the same way that pesticides kill beetles, cockroaches and other pests.
The existence of the institute was revealed only on Sept. 16, by Vil Mirzayanov, a former researcher there. Articles in Moskovskiye Novosti and The Sun reported that a new nerve gas had been developed there as recently as last year. Since then, scientists have said that research has never stopped.
U.S. experts in the field say the United States is unlikely to be searching for a more toxic agent because, as one knowledgeable source put it, "the U.S. has never thought we would need a more toxic agent." The research here is more likely to be toward a "more controllable technology," said another source.
Gordon Burck, a chemical engineer engaged as a consultant on the Chemical Warfare Convention, said that to determine whether research at the Moscow lab was out of line "you'd have to look at the dividing line between what is offensive and defensive."
"Defensive work will always continue," he said.
But he added: "If work on a chemical agent was going on in the back room, I should think Yeltsin would be unhappy."
"Sooner or later the Russians are going to have to realize they can't have it both ways," said a Western military analyst in Moscow.
The Soviet research lab occupies a nondescript concrete building marked by faded curtains and a dirty lobby floor.
The only sign outside the building is for a cancer clinic that occupies a corner of the first floor -- on the public side of the elaborate gate-pass system.
Inside, according to Eduard L. Sarkisian, was once a world of discipline, purpose and privilege. A toxicologist, he came to the lab 13 years ago and liked what he saw.
It was a "yashik," or box, as Russians called it -- a closed part of the vast Soviet military-industrial complex. The money was good, the extra privileges were good, and the sense of working for a good cause was bracing.
Several projects were carried out at the lab, operating under the highest secrecy classification. Scientists needed a pass simply to walk from one floor to another. In those days, the government provided the best materials available for research, hired the most promising young chemists, physicists and biologists, and coddled them with food and consumer goods unobtainable in public stores.
Tests used animals
Dr. Sarkisian's job was to inspect the tissues of animals killed in tests of new gases. These were on-site tests, but more elaborate trials took place in Shikhani, near Volgograd, and in the Nukus region of Uzbekistan.
Dr. Sarkisian is vice chairman of the council of the workers' collective -- a sort of professional association within the lab -- and confirms that research into chemical weapons is continuing there. He is the only scientist still working at the lab who agreed to be identified for this article.
Neither Mr. Yeltsin's government nor Mr. Gorbachev himself concedes that there is anything improper in poison-gas research.
In a statement delivered to The Sun, Aleksandr Likhotal, a spokesman for Mr. Gorbachev, drew a distinction between normal production of chemical weapons and scientific research on and development of new weapons. Normal production did indeed stop in 1987, he said. But at no time, he added, did the Soviet Union ever agree to halt research and development, and no treaty forbids it.
Mr. Gorbachev's position is supported by Sergei Kisselev, head of the chemical-weapons disarmament office of the Russian Foreign Ministry, who said, "Development in my opinion stands very small in relation to production."
Gen. Anatoly Kuntsevich, the former vice commander of Soviet chemical forces and now an adviser to Mr. Yeltsin on biological and chemical disarmament, made the same argument: "The Soviet Union never assumed obligations not to develop chemical weapons."
In the early 1980s, General Kuntsevich was an outspoken critic of U.S. nerve-gas production. But, at the same time, his own work on Soviet chemical weapons so pleased Mr. Gorbachev that two years ago he was named a Hero of Socialist Labor and a winner of the Order of Lenin.
No sign of Novichok
General Kuntsevich and Mr. Kisselev pointed to reams of information that have already been exchanged with the United States in bilateral talks -- but all of it concerns previously known chemical weapons.
The Novichok series of gases is not included in any of the information exchanges, because they were not stockpiled.
"We played the game under the agreed-upon rules," General Kuntsevich said.
While the game was being played, Mr. Gorbachev's government was publicly proclaiming its desire to rid the world of chemical weapons.
In 1987, the Soviet government announced that it was unilaterally halting production.
In 1989, in Paris, Eduard A. Shevardnadze, then the Soviet foreign minister, said the Soviet Union had abandoned the production of poison gases "altogether" and that it was no longer "seeking to shield enterprises and stockpiles from prying eyes."
Mr. Gorbachev himself called for the elimination of chemical weapons in 1988.
In a speech to the United Nations, he said of relations with the United States in general, "For too long, they were characterized by confrontation, and at times by hostility -- sometimes open, sometimes concealed.But in the past few years, the whole world has been able to breathe a sigh of relief."
Neither Mr. Gorbachev nor Mr. Shevardnadze, nor any of their associates, ever talked about the continuing scientific research on poison gases.
Fed by memories
Those weapons hold a particular horror. They were used extensively during World War I, inflicting heavy casualties on both sides. They are cheap and easy to manufacture.
"Chemical weapons are political weapons," said General Kuntsevich, "which have a powerful moral and psychological effect."
The Russian army suffered 425,000 casualties from chlorine and mustard gas attacks by the Germans during World War I, and the memory of that disaster kept the Soviet chemical weapons program alive over the next 74 years.
Chemical weapons were not widely used during World War II, but after the war, research and development in the United States and the Soviet Union moved ahead, concentrating on a new type called nerve gases.
Their use in warfare would be devastating. Scientists at the Moscow lab told the story of one man who was exposed to Novichok No. 5 in 1987.
He was a physicist at the lab, and one day the ventilator broke down in the room where he was working.
He staggered out of the room, his vision seared by brilliant colors and hallucinations. He collapsed, and the KGB took him to a hospital.
By the time he arrived his breathing was labored. In another hour, his heart would have stopped. His entire nervous system was gradually ceasing to function.
nTC The physicist was lucky. The hospital he was taken to, the Sklifosovsky Institute, includes the nation's top center for poison treatment.
There, Dr. Yevgeny Vedernikov saved his life.
But the scientist was at the edge of death, unaware of his surroundings, for 10 days. He couldn't walk for six months. He was dogged by depression and an inability to concentrate. He found it difficult even to read. To this day his arms are still weak, and he has never been able to return to work.
Although he survived, the gas left him with permanent disabilities.
Dr. Vedernikov said that saving one man, though difficult, was not impossible. But if a nerve gas were used on a battlefield, he said, there would be thousands of casualties.
"I would be too late with everyone. If I were right there, I could
help one or two. After an hour, everyone else would be in an acute state. All I could do would be to forgive their sins."
Today's nerve gases are made of chemicals called organophosphorous compounds. They inhibit the action of a substance called acetylcholinesterase, which plays a vital role in the transmission of nerve impulses.
Death comes quietly
"Gas poisoning is very quiet," Dr. Vedernikov said. "There's no shouting. You just fall asleep. That's why military men like gas so much. That's the dreadful thing about it. And each death only costs a few kopecks."
Typically, arsenals are stocked with so-called binary nerve gases. This means simply that the components of the gas are kept separate until ready for use on the battlefield.
In fact, the components are easily enough made that large stockpiles are unnecessary.
"And the complication is that production of binary weapons is very difficult to detect," General Kuntsevich pointed out. "I don't know of any mechanism of control."
Research is even less detectable, but Russia's hard economic times seem likely to end the days of scientific glory at the lab.
Morale is at rock-bottom over cuts in financing, perceptions of mismanagement and a general belief that the work no longer makes any sense -- especially considering Russian support for the proposed treaty banning chemical weapons, which was drafted in Geneva Sept. 3.
"I believe the poor Russian state shouldn't throw away money on these things," Dr. Sarkisian said, although he argued that scientific research into the means of counteracting chemical weapons should continue.
"Such research should be open and all materials published," he said. "I think Russia has the right to conduct such research. It is also a superpower, and there's great creative potential here."
The managers of the lab, meanwhile, are trying to expand its civilian operations. They would like to turn to the manufacture of medicines, and have tried to find foreign partners for a joint venture. Already, the lab is working on chemical luminescence compounds, anti-freeze, rat poison and a handy spray-on antidote to mustard gas and other mundane battlefield poisons.
Dr. Sarkisian is leaving the secret lab to go into business with a relative as a trader in merchandise -- a new Russian, out for money. "I have no future career as a toxicologist," he said.
After an interview in which he had talked at length about the
highly sensitive military lab, he was asked what kind of trading he planned to do.
"Now that," he said, "that is a secret."