131. Telegram From the Department of State to the Embassy in the Soviet Union1

182944. Geneva for Ambassador Flowerree. Subject: Earle-Dobrynin Meeting on BW, July 11.

1. Secret—Entire text.

2. Summary: ACDA Director Earle called in Dobrynin to present him with a paper expressing our dissatisfaction with Soviet responses [Page 281] to our previous démarches on BW and urging consultations of Soviet and US experts. He stressed that we were open to Soviet suggestions as to how serious and meaningful consultations could be carried out. Dobrynin recalled that the Soviet Government had given a formal reply2 to our earlier démarches and reviewed the previously stated Soviet arguments. However, he promised to forward our démarche to Moscow and said that either he or the Soviet Chargé would get back to Ambassador Earle with a reply. End summary.

3. In a meeting on July 103 Acting Secretary Christopher emphasized to Dobrynin the seriousness with which the US Government approaches the Sverdlovsk incident and our dissatisfaction with the failure of the Soviet Government to cooperate. He stressed that failure to resolve the issue could not only propagandize the Biological Weapons Convention itself, but also the prospects for making progress in other arms control areas. The Acting Secretary told Dobrynin that Ambassador Earle would contact him to pursue the matter in more detail, and he urged Dobrynin to see Earle despite Dobrynin’s crowded schedule prior to departure for Moscow.

4. Ambassador Earle, referring to Dobrynin’s meeting the previous day with Acting Secretary Christopher, said he had a statement to convey to Dobrynin on the BW question. He stressed that this was an unwanted problem for us and that our purpose was to clear up ambiguities in a responsible fashion, not to make propaganda. Ambassador Earle then read the following statement: Begin text:

—On several recent occasions, the United States Government has raised with the Soviet Government the matter of an extensive outbreak of anthrax in Sverdlovsk in the spring of 1979 pursuant to Article V of the Biological Weapons Convention.

—The United States Government has studied carefully explanations which were provided to US earlier by the Soviet Government. As well as information contained in a May 1980 article in a Soviet scientific journal.4 The explanation that the reported cases of anthrax were of the gastrointestinal form and were caused by consumption of meat from anthrax-infected cattle has left the questions of the United States Government unanswered and consequently our earlier concerns remain.

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—In this situation, it is clear that our two governments continue to face a significant unresolved problem having important future ramifications for both of our countries.

—The United States ascribes great importance to this issue and to achieving a mutually satisfactory resolution of the problem. I wish to state categorically that the United States seeks a serious and responsible resolution which will enhance confidence in the Biological Weapons Convention by ensuring the full realization of its undertakings, since failure to achieve such a result would both undermine the Convention and unavoidably result in complications for future US–Soviet cooperation in the vital sphere of arms control. The United States believes this should be a common objective for both the Soviet Union and the United States.

—To achieve a satisfactory outcome, it is essential that the key parties concerned, the United States and the Soviet Union undertake cooperative steps which assist each other in solving this problem. Such consultation and cooperation must involve serious and meaningful dialogue so that concerns can be examined carefully. That is clearly what is called for in the provisions for consultation contained in Article V of the Biological Weapons Convention. The circumstances surrounding the outbreak of the disease at Sverdlovsk raise questions within the context of the Biological Weapons Convention. The United States government is aware that outbreaks of anthrax occur naturally in the Soviet Union. However, there is information available to us which causes concern regarding the outbreak at Sverdlovsk. This information indicates that:

During the first weeks of April 1979, a number of people died in Sverdlovsk from a disease with symptoms characteristic of inhalation, as distinct from intestinal or cutaneous, anthrax. The inhalation form of anthrax is extremely rare and reported incidents involve only a few cases. (In the past, the anthrax organism has been widely considered a potential biological warfare agent in part because of its potential for causing casualties among those who inhale airborne spores.)

The number of deaths appears to have been large and far greater than would be expected for a natural outbreak of any form of anthrax;

The initial victims resided or worked in the immediate vicinity and downwind from a heavily secured military facility in Southwest Sverdlovsk, known as Cantonment 19;

The facility includes animal pens, suggesting it is engaged in activities involving effects on living organisms;

Revetted structures which appear to be suitable for the storage of explosives are also present within the facility;

The section within the Soviet military which is responsible for chemical and biological programs is associated with a facility in Sverdlovsk;

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At a certain stage in the outbreak, civilian medical personnel were excluded from the hospital where victims were being treated and the military assumed exclusive control.

—The United States Government believes that the concerns based on this information make it necessary for the US and USSR to consult in accordance with the provisions of Article V of the Biological Weapons Convention.

—In an effort to clarify the circumstances surrounding the spring 1979 anthrax outbreak, and in accordance with Article V of the Biological Weapons Convention, the United States Government proposed on March 23 that confidential bilateral discussions be held in which Soviet and American scientific and medical specialists would participate. This proposal was based on the proven value of discussions among experts in resolving questions of great complexity and sensitivity in the SALT Standing Consultative Commission. The United States Government continues to believe that confidential consultations on this problem, similar in nature to those conducted in the Standing Consultative Commission, would provide the best approach for resolving this matter in a mutually satisfactory manner.

—The United States Government envisages that such consultations would include consideration of the following subjects, together with appropriate documentation:

The nature of the disease involved;

The cause of the outbreak;

The number of people affected, the geographical extent and the duration of the outbreak;

Background information, particularly with respect to normal incidence of anthrax in Sverdlovsk.

—The United States Government recognizes that arrangements for consultations must be worked out in a mutually agreeable fashion. For this reason, we would be open to your suggestions as to how these serious and meaningful consultations could be carried out.

—The United States Government is mindful of the fact that our two countries were leaders in negotiating the Biological Weapons Convention and encouraging worldwide adherence. The Convention now has more than 80 parties who share a stake in the successful realization of its objectives, including the implementation of its provisions for cooperation and consultation.

—It is therefore now incumbent upon the United States and the Soviet Union to demonstrate that our two countries are able cooperatively to resolve a serious problem, as they have undertaken to do in the Biological Weapons Convention. In view of the importance the United States Government attaches to this matter, the Soviet Government [Page 284] should understand that the United States will pursue this issue until a satisfactory resolution can be achieved, either through bilateral consultations or any other means which may be necessary to meet our responsibilities, including those to the other parties to the Convention. The United States Government prefers to pursue this matter through bilateral consultations and cooperation. To this end, it has approached the Soviet Government on this matter a number of times. If the possibility of resolving this bilaterally is to be preserved, the United States and Soviet Governments must begin consultations without further delay.

—A cooperative resolution of this problem would not only strengthen the Biological Weapons Convention itself, but would be a positive development for arms control and disarmament. The United States Government looks forward to hearing the views of the Soviet Government on how their two countries may best go about seeking a mutually satisfactory resolution of this important matter. End text.

5. After he had read the statement (a copy of which we handed Dobrynin), Ambassador Earle said he wished to stress several points: first, this was not an issue which would go away. He noted that resolutions had been passed in both houses of Congress which, while not legally binding on the President, constituted a serious expression of congressional concern. Ambassador Earle noted that the uncertainty regarding what had really happened in Sverdlovsk would be a festering sore on all arms control accords and negotiations until this problem was resolved. The situation was bad enough without having the additional burden of the suspected BW violation.

6. Ambassador Earle stressed that we were open minded on the form which discussions might take. We preferred that they be private and on a bilateral basis. In any event, we were open to Soviet suggestions. He noted the similarity between our proposal for consultations on BW and the SCC established in the ABM Treaty and read the text of Article 5 of the BW Convention as well as the article on the SCC in the ABM Treaty to prove his point that they envisaged essentially the same kind of arrangement. He noted that the work of the SCC had been effective and helpful. What we wanted was a dialogue along these lines. In effect it would be an ad hoc consultative group. We were prepared to begin meeting as early as the first week of August. The longer the present ambiguous situation continued the greater would be the damage to arms control and to our relations. Ambassador Earle concluded his presentation by noting that if we were able to resolve the BW problem, we could come out of the entire situation with a net plus for arms control in general. In any case our intention was positive. We certainly had no desire to undermine arms control.

7. Dobrynin replied that the Soviets had explained their position many times both here and in Moscow. He thought it was not necessary [Page 285] to quote all the arguments. The Soviets felt that our raising of the issue was artificial and did not have anything to do with the aim of the BW Convention. Dobrynin claimed that during the congressional hearings one of the witnesses called as an expert could not even explain the symptoms of anthrax.

8. Ambassador Earle noted that the witness in question was not one that we were responsible for and that nothing in our statement today had as its basis the report of the Aspin committee.5

9. Continuing, Dobrynin claimed there was no hard evidence of any violation. All was hearsay. The Soviets could manufacture such hearsay themselves if they wanted to. He asked what a commission to investigate the problem could usefully do. When Ambassador Earle suggested that, for instance, it could establish how many casualties there had been, Dobrynin argued that they had already given these facts to US. They said there were very few but we claimed there were more, several hundred in fact. With SALT, verification could be carried out with satellites. This was not possible with BW. Agreeing that there were indeed different kinds of anthrax, Dobrynin nevertheless argued that the head of the America desk at the Foreign Ministry in Moscow, Viktor Komplektov, who was a very responsible official, on the presidium of the MFA in fact, had given US a complete official explanation. Our persistence was undermining confidence in the adherence to treaties. Dobrynin challenged US to document that the Soviets had violated any treaties in the past. He further argued that the leaks which followed the raising of the issue by the administration showed our propaganda purpose.

10. When Ambassador Earle continued to stress the utility of resolving our concerns through consultation, Dobrynin recalled that the Soviets had invited American scientists to Moscow to examine the radiation problem at the US Embassy.6 Our scientists had gone to Moscow but they had refused to join in a statement with the Soviets on their common conclusions. Dobrynin asked what could be usefully discussed in the present case. The Soviets had given their explanation already.

11. Ambassador Earle noted that this was not the case. The Soviets had given US conclusions, not facts. When Dobrynin pressed him to give an example, Ambassador Earle suggested that evidence and documents might be examined to resolve the disparity over how many people had contracted anthrax. Again stressing that the problem was a [Page 286] genuine one which would not go away by itself, Ambassador Earle pressed the argument that the Treaty itself provided for a cooperative resolution to problems such as the one we were faced with.

12. Dobrynin repeated that the Soviets had already replied. He claimed we were pressing the issue for propaganda purposes. Ambassador Earle denied that this was true and said that he was quite pleased that news accounts of his meeting with Dobrynin had speculated that they were talking about TNF, not BW. He said he hoped that this meant that the real purpose of their meeting would remain confidential. He again emphasized the considerable care we had taken in drawing up the points in our statement. We had reviewed the Soviet statements but were left with concerns which we wanted to resolve, if possible, by a low-key, confidential discussion of the matter among experts.

13. Dobrynin, noting for one last time that the Soviets had already given US their official views on the matter said he would nevertheless report our statement to Moscow and promised that either he or, in his absence, Chargé Vasev, would get back to Ambassador Earle with a reply.

14. Septel will provide instructions for briefing allied governments.7

  1. Source: Carter Library, National Security Council, Institutional Files, Box 110, SCM 137, Mini-SCC Sverdlovsk, 7/29/80. Secret; Priority; Nodis. Sent for information to the Mission in Geneva, USNATO, London, Bonn, Paris, and the White House. Printed from a copy that indicates the original was received in the White House Situation Room.
  2. See Document 116.
  3. See Document 130.
  4. See footnote 3, Document 128.
  5. Reference is to the Aspin Committee Report, otherwise known as “Report of a Subcommittee of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence: Soviet Biological Warfare Activities, June 1980,” in Documents on Disarmament, 1980, pp. 220; 239–243.
  6. Not found.
  7. The Department of State informed the Allies of the démarche in telegram 187763 to USNATO, July 16. (National Archives, RG 59, Central Foreign Policy File, P880026–1535)