Suspicion in Sverdlovsk

Are the Russians violating the 1972 treaty outlawing the development, production, or stockpiling of biological warfare weapons? The Soviet Union says no. The United States is not sure. In the current climate of strained relations, it may be difficult to get at the truth. But, now that the question is raised, it will require a satisfactory answer if Americans are not to be left with more doubts about Soviet willingness to comply with international agreements.

The issue arises over an incident in the Urals city of Sverdlovsk in April, 1979. The US says it has amassed evidence of an anthrax epidemic there caused, perhaps, by an accident at a germ warfare plant. Hundreds reportedly died. Queried about the incident (just as the 1975 treaty was being reviewed in Geneva), the Soviet Union admitted to the outbreak of the disease but said it was due to tainted meat caused by improper handling of meat products, not to contamination by biological-warfare agents. Yet US officials continue to be skeptical that "natural causes" would have resulted in so many deaths. There are indications the Carter administration intends to press the soviets further.

Given the seriousness of the issue, it can do no less. If the Russians are storing more quantities of the anthrax agent than permitted under the treaty (only small research quantities are allowed), this would be a grave matter. But it also bears pointing out that Moscow is provoked over Washington's handling of the matter, first acting through private diplomatic channels and then publicizing the inquiry in the press and on Voice of America (along with unconfirmed reports that the Russians were using poison gas in Afghanistan) before the Russians could give their reply. Indeed it would appear that normal diplomatic rules were breached in what may have been political eagerness to put the Russians in a bad light at this particular time.

Of added concern is a Boston Globe report that the US did not bring up the issue when it first obtained evidence, as far back as 1975, that the Russians were not only not dismantling but were even expanding their germ warfare facilities. A desire not to spoil the climate of detente is said to have figured in the decision not to raise the issue. If this is so, it points to a flawed approach to detente, a policy that was meant to provide a framework for cooperation where this is possible -- but certainly not a smokescreen for Soviet violation of agreements. Only by vigorously calling the Russians on every suspicion of unlawful behavior could detente be made credible -- and failure to do this is perhaps why detente is in trouble today.

Taking gratuitous swipes at the Russians for political purposes, or treating them too kindly for political purposes -- both extremes are unacceptable. US diplomacy ought to rest on an honest, principled, consistent basis. And this is the approach which should govern further consideration of the Soviet anthrax affair. May the public not jump to a judgment until it is assured of the facts.

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