Russia’s Chemical Romance: The Secret Russian Biological Weapons Program
February 16, 2021
February 16, 2021
The clandestine ‘Project Toledo’ is identified in an OpenFacto report as a project linked to the 48th, 33rd, and 27th Central Research Institute. The 48th and 33rd institutions are under sanctions by the US for highly likely participation in the Russian Biological Weapons Program.
The 48th institute directly supplies the FSB military Unit 68240, a multi-purpose R&D body. UNIT 34435 or Lab NII-2, directly linked to Unit 68240, is hosting a clandestine Biological Weapons Program according to Bellingcat. Bellingcat investigated the unit in relation to the Navalny Novichok Poisoning.
UNIT 34435’s procurement supports biochemical research, with joint institutions researching rare/lethal pathogens such as Ebola and MERS.
Unit 68240 incorporates UNIT 35533 focuses on cyber capabilities and UNIT 44239, focusing on robotic explosives. As both units have alleged offensive capabilities, this may indicate the directorate of UNIT 34435, and possibly the nature of Project Toledo.
While previous Grey Dynamics articles analysed Russian hybrid warfare via Wagner PMCs and GPS spoofing, a secret Russian biological weapons program provides a new ‘dynamic’. In 2017, the last of Russia’s chemical weapons were allegedly disposed. This article will explore the ‘chemical romance’, heavily denied by Putin, brewing behind closed doors.
Project Toledo remains an unknown and elusive project, almost certainly by design. In 1958, the Spanish town of Toledo was ravaged by a plague. While in 1918, Toledo, Ohio, was devastated by the Spanish influenza epidemic. Inspiration for the project codename is pure speculation. The 48th Central Research Institute, led by Colonel Sergey Borisevitch, specialises in Ebola, MERS, Marburg virus, and anthrax.
The institute played a significant role in vaccine development during the Ebola crisis in Guinea, which is not part of the analysed Russian biological weapons program. The 48th is registered as a subsidiary incorporate records to the 33rd institute, allegedly responsible for developing Novichok agents used in the Navalny and Skripal poisoning. In August 2020, both institutes were sanctioned for involvement in a clandestine program. It was during 2015-2017, the Project Toledo link was identified.
Currently, there is no open-source intelligence that discloses what Project Toledo is. The project was requested by UNIT 68240, managed by UNIT 34435, and fulfilled by the 48th. Corporate registries provided evidence of the 17,000,000 rubles (180,000 euros) transaction that displayed the financial agreement with UNIT 68240. The defence-related projects of the other units, utilising offensive R&D, possibly indicates intent. UNIT 33445 is recognised as the host of a secret Russian biological weapons program. The corporate registries show that the unit is also ordering a significant number of live animals for test purposes (2100 mice and rats in 2012), and metal research with a request for ‘special magnets’. The 33rd, 48th, and 27th Central Research Institutes, and the defence sector linked Siberian Scientific institute, evidently have partnership activities with UNIT 33445. Despite evidence of ties within institutes and units, the project remains a mystery.
Russia’s military intelligence unit, the GRU, was allegedly behind the poisoning of Skripal. While the Federal Security Service (FSB), which focuses on domestic operations, allegedly poisoned opposition leader Alexey Navalny. Novichok agents were used in both operations. FSB agents for two years monitored Navalny before the poisoning. The agents were part of a unit specialising in handling chemical agents. Two of the three agents, Alexey Alexandrov and Ivan Osipov, are both registered as medical doctors. The third agent was Vladimir Panyaev, who joined the FSB’s Criminalistics Institute. An institute that officially focuses on forensics but unofficially focuses on clandestine chemical handling, in this case, poisoning for political purposes.
On October 15th, 2020, the EU imposed sanctions on Russian officials for the use of alleged novichok agents against Navalny. In 2017, Putin personally watched the destruction of the last of Russia’s chemical weapons, allegedly. The overhaul of the Russian Biological Weapons Program is the narrative for denying any clandestine operations. The 33rd Central Experimental Institute for Scientific Research of the Ministry of Defense and Scientific Institute for Organic Chemistry and Technology (“GosNIIOHT”) were identified by Bellingcat to be in constant communication leading to the Navalny poisoning.
Dr. Alexey Alexandrov, Dr. Ivan Osipov, and Vladimir Panyaev. Source: Passport files (Bellingcat)
Plausible deniability remains a common theme in Russia’s state-sponsored grey zone activities. While the nature of Project Toledo remains unclear, the units established in partnership with research institutes attract warranted suspicion. This is justified in correlating units that focus on offensive capabilities, as well as investigations linking the supposed dismantled Russian Biological Weapons Program to political poisoning. By camouflaging itself behind a mirage of research institutes and subsidiaries, it is highly likely that Russia maintains chemical warfare capabilities. The willingness to use chemical agents in the UK, and the institute’s Project Toledo is linked to, raises fears that this may be a codename for weaponised lethal pathogens. It is highly unlikely that the truth will be known in the near future.
Image: MyCentralOregon (link)
Eren Ersozoglu is an analyst / contributor intern at Grey Dynamics. A former history graduate from Coventry University with a focus on links between terrorism and organised crime studying an MA in intelligence and security studies at Brunel University.