In an ominous replay of the bad old days, Russian security agents have swooped in and arrested three Moscow scientists and charged one of them with revealing state secrets to a reporter for The Sun and to a Moscow newspaper. The alleged crime: Blowing the whistle on clandestine Russian research to develop a nerve gas even more lethal that those in existing superpower stockpiles.
This is an embarrassment for the Russian government and perhaps an unwelcome complication for the Bush administration. It comes at a time when both nations are supposed to be taking world leadership in the signing of a landmark Chemical Weapons Convention next January.
At present, international treaties place no inhibitions on chemical weapons research. But such research, if in pursuit of deadly new gases for offensive military purposes, would be contrary to the spirit of seeking a worldwide ban on chemical weapons. As of next January, provided Russia signs on, it would be in violation of the new United Nations treaty prohibiting "the development, production, stockpiling and use" of chemical weapons. [Italics ours.]
Three reports filed since mid-September by Will Englund, Moscow correspondent of The Sun, have outlined with great specificity what the three Russian whistle-blowers allege. One scientist, Dr. Vil Mirzayanov, was charged and held at Moscow's notorious Lefortovo Prison. Two others, who corroborated much of what he revealed about on-going development of a binary nerve gas said to be ten times more powerful than any in the U.S. arsenal, were also arrested and then released as witnesses.
Whether such strong-arm intimidation methods have been approved by Russian President Boris Yeltsin or are the handiwork of hardline elements in the Russian Security Ministry, successor agency to the old Soviet KGB, is yet to be determined. The reform-minded Yeltsin regime is under increasing pressure from Communist reactionaries. Its control over various elements of a once-coddled military complex is tenuous at best.
Dr. Mirzayanov and his colleagues, who question the wisdom, necessity and environmental dangers of ever-more lethal chemical weaponry, are counting on U.S. pressure to support their cause. We hope it is forthcoming. Unless the United States and Russia are front-and-center in the campaign to rid the world of these horrible killing agents, there is little prospect that the proliferation of chemical weapons to more and more countries can be stopped. The treaty, effective when 65 nations are signatories, will be hard to implement in the best of circumstances, what with its daunting requirements for a massive inspection and verification system.
Mr. Yeltsin could establish his bona fides on this issue by becoming a whistle-blower himself -- a leader who will not tolerate insubordination by militarists bent on policies that contravene the stated peaceful intentions of the Moscow government.