It’s no secret the Soviet Union had trouble keeping up with the United States in terms of heavy weapons during the Cold War. Even though the United States claimed there was a significant so-called “missile gap” between the US and the USSR, the reverse was actually true.
In reality, though the Soviet Union kept a large number of intercontinental ballistic missiles, it preferred to spend on other weapons of mass destruction. The main reason was cost. Until the oil boom of the 1970s, the Soviet Union wasn’t as flush with cash as we tend to believe.
The USSR was looking for ways to be competitive in the arms race, but without the hefty price tag the United States military was paying to develop, build, and maintain its arsenal of nuclear ICBMs.
According to defectors, the Soviets employed tens of thousands of scientists and workers to create alternative weapons of mass destruction, like chemical weapons but especially biological weapons. One Soviet scientist told the New York Times that biological weapons were very cheap, especially compared to nuclear and chemical weapons.
Judging the weapons efficiency by how much it would cost to kill half the population of one square kilometer of the United States, there was just no comparison to biological warfare.
“We calculated to achieve an effect [of killing half the population] in one square kilometer it cost $2,000 with conventional weapons, $800 with a nuclear weapon, and $600 with chemical weapons and $1 with biological weapons,” the scientist said.
The Soviet Union created entire secret cities dedicated to developing biological weapons, often disguised as anti-biological weapons research stations. Even after signing onto the United Nations Biological Weapons Convention of 1972, the USSR continued to experiment with anthrax, tularemia, Q-fever, brucellosis, glanders, the plague, Crimean-Congo fever, typhus, botulism, Venezuelan equine encephalitis and smallpox.
Many of these toxins were engineered to also be resistant to antibiotics and other common treatments for the diseases, forming “super” versions of the strains.
It could also mass produce all of the biological agents on an industrial scale, even though it wasn’t necessary. Biological agents are difficult to weaponize for use against a military target. The Soviets had to keep its own weapons handlers from getting sick and spreading the pathogen, they had to deliver the weapons and then ensure it was resistant to treatment.
By far the most horrifying examples of the effects of biological weapon use comes from the Soviet Union itself. In 1971, a smallpox weapon test accidentally infected the city of Aralsk in what is today Kazakhstan. It was powerful enough to be resistant to the smallpox vaccine and killed six people. In 1979, experimental anthrax spores escaped from a research facility in Sverdlovsk, killing 19 people before the virus was contained.
The Soviets may have even used biological weapons in Afghanistan. In a 1999 book, former Soviet scientist Kenatjan Alibekov charges that the USSR sprayed glanders, bacteria found in horses that can be lethal to humans, on Taliban rebels there.
While weaponization is the most difficult step, it doesn’t take a lot of the pathogen to introduce it to a civilian population. As we have seen throughout the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic, just a small introduction can have catastrophic effects on a population. Fallout from the spread of a disease can include hundreds of thousands of deaths, along with crippling production and economic consequences long before the pathogen is contained.