269. Telegram From the Embassy in the Soviet Union to the Department of State1

4225. Department repeat Geneva for Ambassador Flowerree. Subj: Demarche on Sverdlovsk BW Issue. Refs: (A) Moscow 4211, (B) State 70023, (C) State 68654.2

1. (S-entire text.)

2. I made the demarche on the Sverdlovsk incident this morning to First Deputy Foreign Minister Korniyenko, reading and leaving with him as a non-paper the talking points from Ref C as amended by Ref B. In supplemental remarks I made the additional point that a simple denial would not advance the situation or serve our mutual interests.

3. Korniyenko responded to my presentation by stating that the Soviets would of course study the statement I had made, but that he would like to make a few immediate points. First of all, he said, in the case of the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC),3 as with all international agreements to which the Soviet Union is a party, the Soviet Union strictly complies with all requirements of the agreement. Secondly, in a number of instances US Government agencies have been compelled to admit publicly and officially that charges which have appeared from time to time in the US press about the alleged non-observance by the Soviet Union of this or that agreement were unjustified.

4. In the present case, Korniyenko continued, he could not but wonder why we were raising the matter and what the purpose of our statement was. He noted that Soviet, US, and British specialists, as representatives of the BWC depositories, had jointly worked on a report for submission to the BWC Review Conference and that no such questions had arisen during the preparation of the report. Now, all of a sudden, the US side was raising expressions of concern, asking for urgent consultations, and stating that it would inform the Review Conference that it had done so.

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5. Korniyenko then characterized the information I had provided about the incident itself as vague. He did not know, he said, on what it was based and added that it was not unheard of for there to be no basis for such allegations. Even assuming, Korniyenko went on, that some kind of illness did occur in the Sverdlovsk area, what relationship did this have to the BWC? He asked me to imagine how we would react if the Soviets today or tomorrow were to make such a representation to us, expressing concern about the “Legionnaires’ disease,” obliging us to enter into consultations under the BWC, and trying to bring that matter into the work of the BWC Review Conference.

6. In commenting on Korniyenko’s remarks, I stated that the US representation was occasioned by an interagency study of all available evidence of the unexplained incident in Sverdlovsk, some of it received fairly recently, and that what we were seeking was an explanation of the incident. As for his reference to the vagueness of the information, I told him that I thought it was spelled out rather clearly in the non-paper I had left with him but that if he could characterize what was not clear to him I would try to elaborate. Noting that the parties to the BWC are not permitted to have biological warfare stocks, I told him that if there was a sensible explanation for what had occurred in Sverdlovsk I hoped it could be provided to us quickly so it could be taken into consideration in the report we were required to make [garble].

7. Answering his question on how we would react if challenged about the Legionnaires’ disease, I said I thought I had a pretty good idea of what our procedure would be. We would in all likelihood invite the Soviets to send scientists to discuss the matter with our scientists and to visit the Communicable Disease Center in Atlanta to go over the records of what our investigation had shown thus far.

8. Korniyenko said he had nothing to add and would merely repeat that the Soviets would study our statement and provide a response. He stressed that he did not know whether anything had happened in Sverdlovsk or not and that it would require looking into and checking. But he was still struck by the fact that our experts had worked together for several months and that no such matter had been raised. Our raising of the question at this point could only give rise to feelings of apprehension on the Soviet side as to our good faith in doing so—particularly in view of the fact that the Soviets would do nothing which would violate the Convention.

  1. Source: National Archives, RG 59, Central Foreign Policy File, P880025–0580. Secret; Immediate; Nodis.
  2. Reference telegrams 4211 from Moscow, March 17, and 70023 to Moscow, March 16, both of which addressed the Sverdlovsk biological weapon incident, are in the National Archives, RG 59, Central Foreign Policy File, P880025–0584 and P880025–0585. For telegram 68654 to Moscow and Geneva, March 15, see Document 267.
  3. Article I of the BWC states that each party commits never to produce, stockpile or retain biological weapons, the intent of which is to cause harm.