Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov is scheduled to visit Yerevan on November 10–11, during which time, Russia and Armenia are expected to sign a bilateral memorandum on cooperation in biomedicine. Reportedly, the negotiated document will guarantee Russian specialists (including the military) access to an advanced biological research laboratory in Armenia that was built thanks to the support of the United States. Sources from the Russian and Armenian sides familiar with the talks told Kommersant that work on the memorandum is now largely complete. “The document is principally agreed upon, and what remains to be determined are the finishing touches,” said one of the interlocutors (Kommersant, October 25). Among those who will have access to the bio-research laboratories in Armenia will be specialists of the Ministry of Health and the Ministry of Defense of the Russian Federation (EADaily, October 25). Since the late 1990s, when the US first established partnerships in biological studies with several post-Soviet republics, Moscow has repeatedly suggested that such cooperation represents a threat to Russia.
These biological research facilities across the former Soviet space were built as part of the Nunn-Lugar Biological Threat Reduction program, named after its leading US Senators, Samuel Nunn, Jr. and Richard Lugar. The program sought to dismantle the former Soviet Union’s massive biological weapons research, development and production infrastructure. Moreover, it aimed to prevent the proliferation of expertise, materials, equipment and technologies that could contribute to the development of biological weapons. Under the program, the US Defense Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA) has carried out bio-threat reduction projects in Russia, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Georgia, Azerbaijan, Ukraine and Armenia (see EDM, April 17, 2018; Dtra.mil, Nap.edu, accessed November 1, 2019).
The main targets of scorn for Russian officials and experts have tended to be the so-called “Lugar laboratories” in Georgia, Azerbaijan, Ukraine and, recently, in Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. Last year, the commander of Russia’s Radiological, Chemical and Biological Defense Troops (RChBD), Lieutenant General Igor Kirrilov, claimed that “under the guise of peaceful research, the US is building up its military-biological potential” in biological laboratories in post-Soviet countries (see EDM, October 18, 2018). Moreover, President Vladimir Putin expressed concerns regarding unfounded accusations of Georgia’s former minister of state security, Igor Giorgadze (a KGB officer during the Cold War), about alleged bioweapons research going on at Lugar laboratories in the region (CACI Analyst, November 17, 2018): “these developments—if they are actually taking place—are very dangerous and are related to the latest achievements in genetics.” Although Putin did not judge whether the allegations were true, he stated that “it is about finding agents that can selectively affect people depending on their ethnic group, and over two or three generations; allegedly, they have used animals to conduct such experiments.” Putin also warned the West, “[E]veryone has to be aware that nothing comes from nothing and nothing disappears; every action has a reaction, or rather, an opposite […] if someone is developing this technology, they have to understand that others will be doing so as well. So it is better to sit at the negotiating table beforehand and develop unified rules of conduct in this very sensitive area” (Valdaiclub.com, October 18, 2018).
Lavrov, himself, repeatedly raised the “laboratory issue” at meetings with fellow ministers from the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) member countries. During a CSTO foreign ministerial meeting in Almaty on June 2018, Lavrov informed his Kazakhstani counterpart of Moscow’s concerns over US “biological laboratories” in the country (Kommersant, June 11, 2018).
Moreover, at a meeting of defense ministers of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) in April 2019, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu made assertions about the consequences of active US biomedical activity in the immediate vicinity of the Organization’s countries. According to Shoigu, “[U]nder the control of the Pentagon,” a number of diagnostic laboratories were created there, where “American military-biological programs are implemented and software systems are introduced that allow to remotely control the progress of research on pathogenic microorganisms (Rossyiskaya Gazeta, April 29).
Now, it appears Moscow has decided to officially begin a process of obtaining access to one of these laboratories, in Armenia. The preparation of the above-mentioned bilateral memorandum started several months before, dating back to this past summer (Kommersant, October 25). Meanwhile, Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan confirmed that, in 2018, Russian specialists were already allowed into these facilities to make sure they did not represent any threat to Russia. “They [‘Lugar laboratory’ facilities] generally have no military purpose—these are biological laboratories that are used purely for medical purposes,” Pashinyan said, adding, “I think our Russian colleagues were convinced of this” (Kommersant, October 29).
On March 10–13, 2019, a delegation led by RChBD commander Lieutenant General Kirillov visited Yerevan to participate in bilateral negotiations. The Public Relations Department of the Armenian Ministry of Defense stated that, on March 11, Major General Onnik Gasparyan, the first deputy chief of the General Staff of the Armenian Armed Forces, met with Kirillov to discuss issues of radiological, chemical and biological safety, along with the current state of Armenian-Russian cooperation in this area and prospects for further joint activities (Armenpress, March 11). Recently, Armenian foreign ministry spokesperson Anna Naghdalyan told Sputnik Armenia that Yerevan and Moscow are working on organizing a visit of the Russian foreign minister to Armenia: “The work to expand the Armenian-Russian legal formalization is an ongoing process,” Naghdalyan said. However, as to the specific document that will apparently be signed during Lavrov’s visit next week, the Armenian foreign ministry has, to date, declined to comment (Armeniasputnik.am, October 25). Prime Minister Pashinyan did note that the two sides are still working on finalizing the text of the memorandum: “The main purpose of this document is to comply with the interests of all parties, so that none of our partners have any concerns about these laboratories” (Kommersant, October 29).
Moscow will almost certainly continue to seek similar access in other neighboring republics. Particularly following the precedent with Armenia, Russia hopes the issue will be similarly resolved with Kazakhstan. This past summer, the Kazakhstani government organized a study tour of its bio-laboratory, but Moscow wants permanent access guarantees (Kommersant, October 25). Russia’s relations with Armenia and Kazakhstan are both on a similar level: these states are members of the Moscow-led Collective Security Treaty Organization and the Eurasian Economic Union. Signing similar agreements with pro-Western Georgia or Ukraine would be more problematic for Russia. But if it succeeds with Armenia, Russia will likely try to seek access to similar facilities in Azerbaijan.