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US blacklists Russian entities for chemical, biological weapon research

Russian troops in gas masks. (Kremlin photo/Released)

This article was originally published by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and is reprinted with permission.

U.S. authorities have imposed “blacklist” restrictions on three Russian military and civilian scientific facilities, citing their alleged involvement in chemical and biological weapons research.

Those targeted by the U.S. Commerce Department include one Russian Defense Ministry facility that is involved in Russia’s attempts to develop the world’s first COVID-19 vaccine.

In a notice published on August 27 in the Federal Register, the Commerce Department’s Bureau of Industry and Security said it was blacklisting a total of 60 entities in Russia, China, France, Switzerland, and elsewhere. It said their activities were “contrary to the national-security or foreign-policy interests of the United States.”

Formally, the move imposes new licensing restrictions on U.S. companies that seek to do business with the blacklisted companies in Russia or elsewhere.

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The measures are considered less stringent than other U.S. sanction programs, such as better-known U.S. Treasury Department financial sanctions.

Still, it is expected to have a dissuasive effect on firms that might otherwise do future business with the blacklisted entities.

The blacklisted Russian facilities include the Defense Ministry’s 33rd Central Research and Testing Institute, near Saratov, as well as the 48th Central Research Institute and its facilities in Yekaterinburg and Sergiyev Posad.

Russian officials have said the 48th Central Research Institute has been collaborating with another civilian facility, the Gamaleya National Research Center for Epidemiology and Microbiology, in Russia’s push to develop a coronavirus vaccine.

The 48th Central Research Institute was where two groups of volunteers, including Russian enlisted personnel, received the first tests on humans in June under the Russian vaccine development program.

Earlier this month, President Vladimir Putin announced that Russia had approved a vaccine.

Putin claimed the vaccine was safe and effective. But Russia has not publicly released any data about its limited human tests.

Medical experts have expressed skepticism and concern about Putin’s claims because the Russian vaccine has not gone through crucial Phase III testing upon thousands of people — a necessary step to ensure it is safe and effective for wide distribution.

The Gamaleya National Research Center was not blacklisted.

Russia’s blacklisted civilian facility is the State Research Institute of Organic Chemistry and Technology.

During the Soviet era, it was responsible for developing the military-grade nerve agent known as Novichok.

Novichok was identified by British authorities as the toxin used in the 2018 near-fatal poisoning of Russian double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter, Yulia.

Two Russian military intelligence agents were charged by British law enforcement with committing the attack. A British woman also died after she accidentally exposed herself to the toxin used in the poisoning attack against the Skripals.

In a statement posted on the Facebook page of the Russian Embassy in Washington, Ambassador Anatoly Antonov rejected the allegations in the Commerce Department’s blacklist announcement.

“It seems confusing to us. Especially since no evidence were presented. Familiar vague terms are used such as ‘there is a reasonable cause to believe,'” Antonov said. “We would like to receive some clarifications from our colleagues regarding these groundless allegations.”

Both the United States and Russia previously had some of the world’s largest chemical-weapons arsenals, and both have been gradually destroying their remaining stocks, though experts say the process has been slow.

The other foreign companies blacklisted by the Commerce Department are alleged to be involved in activities like illegally shipping U.S. aircraft parts to Iran, performing “unsafeguarded nuclear activities,” and helping China build island structures in order to make territorial claims over disputed waters of the South China Sea.