Tuesday, October 12, 2010

A book review

Vil Mirzayanov’s self-published autobiography, State Secrets: An Insider’s Chronicle of the Russian Chemical Weapons Program, is a reminder of how complicated and contrary a creature human beings can be. Mirzayanov is best known as the brave chemical scientist who went public in September 1992 with what he knew about Russia’s ongoing and clandestine efforts to develop a new and decidedly more lethal class of binary nerve agents code-named Novichok. He says he spoke up primarily out of concern for the environment and the health of Russian citizens who were being unwittingly exposed to chemical toxins at concentration far exceeding acceptable limits. Tasked to capture environmental samples outside facilities where Novichok agents were being tested and produced, work being undertaken for counter-intelligence purposes not public protection, Mirzayanov was in position to know the harm being visited upon his fellow citizens.

Coming just as Russia was poised to sign the Chemical Weapons Convention, these revelations should have caused a widespread stir. They didn’t. As Mirzayanov describes it, “The only result was I lost my job”. The KGB would have dearly loved to throw the book at him, but no such book existed. Given the Supreme Soviet’s 1990 declaration that unpublished regulations (including unpublished lists of state secrets) were unlawful, the KGB’s hands were effectively tied.

When the determined Mirzayanov co-authored “A Poisoned Policy”, in the Moscow Times and provided an in-depth interview to the Baltimore Sun in January (September – V.M.)1992, the result was somewhat more dramatic. This time, having convinced Prime Minister Chernomyrdin to sign a retroactive secret decree providing a detailed list of information considered state secrets, Mirzayanov’s opponents thought they had he means to prosecute him. They believed this despite the new Russian Constitution’s prohibition against use of secret decrees as the basis for criminal charges. Mirzayanov was thus arrested for revealing state secrets and incarcerated at Lefortovo prison in Moscow, where many political dissidents have spent time. But, if state prosecutors thought Mirzayanov would meekly accept his fate, they had another thing coming. Turning a Kafkaesque situation to his favor, Mirzayanov understood that, in accusing him of treason, Russian authorities were essentially admitting they have something to hide, that these agents existed. Arguing that he could not have possibly revealed state secrets, as the existence and composition of the agents was already publicly known, due in no small part to his earlier publication, Mirzayanov – backed by an equally tenacious lawyer and a growing international following – eventually won his freedom. For his courage, Mirzayanov was honored by the American Association for the Advancement of Science in 1995.

But State Secrets also reveals a less noble side to Mirzayanov, who now resides in Princeton, New Jersey. Frustrated that his activism has thus far failed to push Novichok precursor chemicals onto the Chemical Weapons Convention Control List, Mirzayanov decided that he needed to draw attention to the issue by including purported Novichok formulas in his book. On his blog, Mirzayanov dismisses those who say publicizing these formulas is tantamount to putting chemical weapons in the hands of terrorists. Noting the ghastly fates of some of his Soviet colleagues, he argues that – even with the right facilities, equipment, and know-how – developing, manufacturing, and weaponizing chemical weapons is beyond the reach of existing terrorist groups. Point taken. But what about proliferator states that have sufficient facilities and equipment or who are willing to sacrifice lives along the way? By Mirzayanov’s own account, Russia certainly wasn’t overly preoccupied with the well-being of its scientists.

Even if no real harm has been done, one cannot help but question what has been accomplished.

Does Mirzayanov really believe that the failure to place controls on these substances, which have legitimate civilian applications, is down to a lack of insight into their potential weaponization? There are many possible reasons why controls have not yet been placed on these chemicals or the facilities where they are produced. One obvious one may be that the scale and expense of verification may completely eclipse any arms control value of the measure. As Jonathan Tucker points out in his excellent, War of Nerves: Chemical Warfare from World War I to al-Qaeda, the Soviets did not feel the need to stockpile Novichok-5 precursors. Their plan was to mobilize the production lines of existing civilian facilities in wartime. More importantly, Tucker suggests the United States and Britain have thus far refrained from adding Novichok compounds to the CWC’s declarable chemicals due to fears that proliferation or terrorists could exploit this knowledge (p. 380).

Overall, this book is worth reading but the reader must be patient with the author’s tendency to wax on about petty office politics (although fellow bureaucrats will be amused to find they have so much in common with their Soviet/Russian counterparts) and bigotry against Tartars (Tatars – V.M.) (Mirzayanov hails from the Republic of Tartarstan (Tatarstan – V.M.). No doubt, State Secrets reveals more than its author probably intended.

Journal of Slavic Military Studies, v.23, 2010, pp. 537-539.

Holly Porteous

Library of Parliament, Canada

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