The Heritage Foundation

Backgrounder #208 on Russia

September 3, 1982

September 3, 1982 | Backgrounder on Russia

Moscow's Poison War -- Update


(Archived document, may contain errors)

208 September 3, 1982 MOSCO WS POISON WAR--UPDA TE INTRODUCTION Co mpelling evidence keeps mounting that the Soviet Union and its proxies continue to use illegal chemical and toxin weapons in Southeast Asia and Afghanistan. Noted then Secretary of State Alexander Haig in a television inteniiew on February 14, 1982 every p assing day we get more incontrovertible evidence of the use of mycotoxins in Afghanistan, Laos and Kampuchea. We now even have specific evidence of casualties of noncombatants which are in the range of scores of aousands in all three target areas. There i s no question in our find that such weapons have been and are continuing to b.e used Max Kampelman, chief U.S delegate to the European Security Conference in Madrid, charged on. February 16 that the Soviets were operating twenty chemical and biological wea pons facilities in violation of international law.

In late March, the State DeDartment released a sDecial reDort. Chemical Warfare in Southeast Asia and Afghanistan, dbcumenting reDorts of 397 communist chemical attacks which killed over ten thbusand peopl e--6,300 in Laos 980 in Kampuchea (Cambodia) and over 3,000 in Afghanistan. These are minimum figures, based on eyewitness accounts. Other estimates of chemical warfare deaths range as high as 50,000 variety of sources-refugees, freedom fighters, communis t defectors, doctors in refugee camps Western journalists and The evidence presented in the report comes from a wide ABC "This Week," February 14, 1982; Western intelligence agencies. These human intelligence data were buttressed by photographic and electr o nic intelligence data as well as by scientific evidence based on the analysis of physical samples taken from.the sites of chemical attacks. According to the State Department Taken together, this evidence has led the U.S Government to conclude that Lao and Vietnamese forces, operating under Soviet supervision, have since 1975, employed lethal chemical and toxin weapons in Laos; that Vietnamese forces have, since 1978, used lethal chemical and toxin agents in Kampuchea; and that Soviet forces have used a var i ety of lethal chemical warfare agents including nerve gases, in Afghanistan since the Soviet invasion of that country in 1979.2 NEW EVIDENCE The report unveiled two new developments. First, it revealed that dead Afghan freedom fighters had been found lyin g in firing positions with their hands frozen on their rifles, indicating that they were victims of an extremely fast-acting lethal chemical or toxin not detectable by human senses. It apparently causes no outward physiological responses before death. This new weapon is grimly nicknamed "silent death As a second new development the State Department report confirmed charges made by the Com mittee for a Free Afghanistan that Moscow was using a chemical or toxin weapon that induced the flesh of its victims to decay extremely-rapidly after death. When the bodies of such victims are touched or moved, the skin often peels off in large sheets.

The U. S government continues to collect and analyze scores of. samples of lethal chemical and toxin agents used on Asian b attlefields. On May 13, the Department of State released con clusive evidence that tricothecene mycotoxins comprise at least some of the poisonous active ingredients of the mysterious "Yellow Rain" terror weapon Blood and urine samples' from four victims of a Vietnamese chemical attack in Kampuchea contained T-2 toxin.

Blood samples from control individuals of closely matched age and background who had not been exposed to the IIYellow Rain'' showed no trace of T-2 or other tricothecenes. Environmental cont rol samples of vegetation, soil, water, rice and corn in the. region also contained no tricothecenes. It is therefore highly unlikely that the victims of tricothecene poisoning were contaminated by substances found in their natural environment, as had bee n sug gested by some of those who ignored earlier reports of communist poisoned earth tactics United States Department 'of State, Special Report No. 98, Chemical Warfare in Southeast Asia and Afghanistan, March 22, 1982, p. 6 3 U.S. charges of Soviet chemi c al warfare activities have been officially supported by an independent team of Canadian investi- gators that visited Thailand in February 1982 to conduct on-site inspections, interview victims and analyze the pattern of myco toxin poisoning in the area. A c cording to the Canadians The events that are reported to take place at the time of alleged chemical warfare attacks cannot be explained on the basis of naturally.occurring diseases. Neither mycotoxicoses nor other diseases occur in Southeast Asia which mi g ht be able to cause the rapid onset of spptoms or the effects on all sorts of forms of life human, animal and plant life) that is reported to occur. Judging on the basis of eyewitness reports it appears that three different types of agents have been emplo y ed as warfare agents, one of them being IIYellow Rain THE SOVIET REACTION The initial Soviet strategy for dealing with allegations of illegal chemical warfare activities was to play down the i'ssue or confuse the argument by hollering--incorrectly--about A merican Ifbiological warfare attacks" and the use of Agent Orange in Vietnam As these attempts to distract Western public opinion failed, however, Moscow mounted a new propaganda offensive. On May 21, the Soviet mission to the United Nations issued a nine teen-page critique, I'Chemical and Bacteriological Weapons designed to refute Western accounts of Soviet and Vietnamese chemical warfare operations deadly tricothecene mycotoxins have been found in Southeast Asia but maintained that these toxins were prud u ced-.by the fusarium fungus which supposedly thrives in elephant grass that was artifi cially seeded from the air by American military aircraft during the Vietnam war I The Soviet tract conceded that the This explanation is dismissed as I'science fictionl l by Paul Nelson, one of the world's foremost authorities on the fusarium fungus. Nelson is' a plant pathologist at Pennsylvania State University who has catalogued-more than 6,000 isolates of fu sarium 300 of them toxin-producers. In all his extensive stu d ies, he never has encountered any references to a toxin-pro ducing fusarium fungus in Southeast Asia. Although the fusarium fungus grows naturally in nearly every part of the world, Nelson noted that it produces strong toxins only in cold and temperate H. B . Schiefer Toxicology Group, University of Saskatchewan, Study of the Possible Use of Chemical Warfare Agents in Southeast Asia, A Report to the Department of External Affairs, Canada 1982, p. i. climate origin of poisonous mycotoxins in Southeast Asia we r e plausible which they are not), what explains the presence of these same mycotoxins in Afghanistan, thousands of miles away from IfAmerican sowni1 elephant grass? In summary, Moscow has yet to offer a reasonable explanation to counter the charges that it has been waging poison warfare And even if the Soviet arguments concerning the TJ3F, UNITED NATIONS INVESTIGATES The U.N. investigation of communist biochemical warfare activities continues to dismay those concerned with getting at the truth of the matter . The investigation this year is pro ceeding at the same lethargic pace the U.N. set for itself in 19

81. The group of experts chosen by the U.N. to investigate these alleged violations of international law is headed by General Esmat Ezz of Egypt prominent role in his country's chemical weapons program during the 1960s when the Egyptians were associated closely with Soviet military advisers from Poland, Bulgaria, Kenya, Peru and the Philippines. As fine as these investigators may be, they have been thwarte d in their work. They have been forbidden, for example, to visit the alleged scenes of poison attacks by the pro-Soviet regimes of Afghanistan, Laos, Kampuchea and Vietnam. If these governments are truly innocent of biochemical warfare charges, as they pro fess to be, why do they not welcome U.N. experts? Instead, these nations and the U.S.S.R. have used every opportunity to block the investigation He is believed to have played a The staff of the investigative group is drawn President Reagan appealed to the Soviet, Laotian, and Viet namese governments to cooperate with the U.N. effort when he ad dressed the U.N. Special Session on Disarmament on June 17: Ifwe call upon them now to grant full and free access to their countries or to territories they control s o that U.N. experts can conduct an effective, independent investigation to verify cessation of these horrors.If So far there has been no response.

Although denied access to the attack sites, the U.N.'s real problem is less lack of evidence than lack of pol itical will to do anything about the evidence. This is hardly surprising since the U.N. investigation is overseen by U.N. Undersecretary General Viacheslav Ustinov, a Soviet official who has used bureaucratic inertia and delaying tactics to stall and smot h er the investiga tion. At one point, Ustinov even tried to pressure the team to use a laboratory of his own choosing to analyze samples of chemi cal agents. Despite the fact that the U.N. has had in its posses sion chemical warfare agents from Southeast A sia for many months it has yet to complete the laboratory analysis of these samples.

Indeed, this crucial evidence has been stashed in an unguarded U.N. freezer for months For an.excellen t analysis of the faulty reasoning behind the Sov'iet ".ele phant grass theory" see July 2, 1982 Yellow Rain: Filling in the Gaps Science 5 In February 1982, the U.N. group of experts visited Afghan refugee camps in Pakistan where it obtained eyewitness t estimony medical findings and physical evidence of biological warfare.

This information has been quietly shelved (some say suppressed presumably because Ustinov predictably preferred not to embarrass the Soviet Union at the U.N. Special Session on Disarmam ent in June. Eventually the evidence was made public when it was leaked to the Wall Street Journal, which published excerpts from the group's 36-page transcript of interviews with victims and eye witnesses of Soviet biochemical attacks in Afghanistan than just "Yellow Rain Afghan freedom fighters told of poisoned IIdumdunl' bullets and flechettes (steel darts) which caused blistering, swelling and sometimes death from relatively minor wounds. They told of I'black smoke" that rendered victims uncon scious o r paralyzed. They gave the U.N. team samples of con taminated wheat grains, poisoned bullets, a flechette, a gas mask part of a parachute from a chemical bomb and a fuse from a chemical hand bomb.5 To date, the U.N. has done little to analyze the evidence o f chemical munitions that Afghans and Southeast Asians have risked their lives to retrieve from remote battlefields. By engaging in what appears to be a coverup of Soviet chemical warfare attacks the U.N. is jeopardizing its own credibility and integrity as an international institution.

CONCLUSION According to these interviews, the Soviets were using more The challenge is now to the'U.N. The evidence, long persua sive is now undeniable. Even Moscow has been forced to admit the presence of same poison subst ance on the battlefields where its weapons are being used. For the United Nations, in the face of'all of this, to do nothing would be tantamount to legitimizing chemical warfare. It would also be tantamount to confirming m.at the U.N., which misses few op portunities to condemn the U.S. and other Western democracies, fears to point an accusatory finger at Moscow. And all the while, Moscow's poison weapons continue to rain upon Afghans and Southeast Asi.ans.

James A. Phillips Policy Analyst 5 "Chemical-Biological Warfare in Afghanistan Wall Street Journal, June 7 1982. 6 FOR E'URTHER INFORMATION Jack Anderson, W.N. Group Hit on Chemical Warfare Probe,"

Philip Boffey, ItSome Are Swayed on Chemical Warfare William Beecher, IIToxic Weapon Used on Chinese?Il Wil liam Branigin hmer Rouge Describe Chemical Attacks Washinqton Post, March 15, 1982 New York Times, March 28, 1982 Boston Globe, July 30, 1982 Washington Post, March 6, 1982 William Branigin, Itchemical Warfare: Laotian Accounts I Lend Support to U.S. Char ges Washinqton Post, April 18, 1982. i Ernest Conine, Where's the Outrage Over Yellow Rain Chemical and Biological Warfare Los Angeles Times, July 19, 1982 Can a Lid Be Kept On?"

I The Economist, July 24, 19

82. I Neil Kelly, "Battles' in Kampuchea Yield Evidence of Yellow Rain I The Christian Science Monitor, March 23, 1982 New York Times, editorial, March 29, 1982 New York .Times, Letters to the .Editor, March 16 1982 James Phillips lfM Poison War: Mountinq Evidence of I Battlefield Atrocities,It Herita g e Foundation Backgrounder #165 February 5, 1982 IA Rain 'of Terror in Asia," Time April 5, 1982 U.S. State Department, Special Report No. 98, Chemical Warfare In Southeast Asia and Afghanistan, March 22, 1982 U.S. State Department, IIPositive Identificati on of T2' Toxin and its Metabolite, HT2 in the Blood and Urine of Kampuchean Chemical Warfare Victims May 13, 1982 Bernard Wagner A Pathologist's Analysis of Yellow Rain,"

Wall Street Journal, editorials: March 11, May 20, May 28, June 71 Wall Street Journ al, June 17, 1982 June 11, and August 31, 1982 ItChemical-Biologica1 Warfare in Afghanistan Wall Street Journal, June 7, 1982 Yellow Rain: Filling in the Gaps Science, July 2, 1982.

About the Author

James Phillips Senior Research Fellow for Middle Eastern Affairs
Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign and National Security Policy

Related Issues: Russia