Syria's commitment to dismantle its chemical weapons and join the treaty outlawing those toxins has been hailed as a human rights and international security achievement by President Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin alike.
But beyond the language of the deal itself — the terms of which may or may not be enforceable — there's another reason for profound skepticism about whether the agreement is on the level: a powerful nation's illicit and opaque biological weapons program, which for generations existed in flagrant violation of international law.
That nation was the Soviet Union, the bulk of which is now Putin's Russia.
Make no mistake: the elimination of an entire category of Weapons of Mass Destruction from the Middle East would be a nonproliferation triumph. But Moscow's flagrant violation of the biological weapons treaty it signed in 1972 and its ongoing secrecy about its past and current germ research make Putin's role in promoting Syria's WMD disarmament dubious at best.
The former Soviet Union was among the first nations to ratify the Biological and Toxins Weapons Convention of 1972, initially proposed by President Richard Nixon. The treaty bans the development, production and stockpiling of germ weapons capable of spreading death and misery on a scale that could make Assad and Iraq's Saddam Hussein look like frat house pranksters.
The treaty ink was barely dry, however, when Moscow secretly accelerated the construction of the world's largest, most lethal germ weapons complex.
As my co-authors and I wrote in our 2001 book, "Germs," the Soviet Union produced and stockpiled mind-boggling quantities of pathogens that cause plague, smallpox and anthrax; it also studied some 80 other pathogens and prepared a dozen more for war in military-run programs whose annual budget approached $1 billion.
At its peak, the Soviet offensive bio-warfare program employed between 40,000 and 65,000 people at more than 100 facilities throughout the nation.
While the Kremlin signed agreements aimed at enhancing scientific exchanges and transparency, Russian scientists secretly genetically modified a strain of plague to prevent the West from identifying it through classical diagnostic methods.
In 1999, I stood on the parched ground of Vozrozhdeniye Island in the Aral Sea, atop the giant sand-covered pits where Soviet soldiers had hurriedly dumped between 100-200 tons of anthrax-producing spores a decade earlier to avoid discovery.
As Milton Leitenberg and Raymond A. Zilinskas report in their pioneering history of Moscow's bio-weapons effort, Russian scientists also developed new methods for large-scale production and aerosol distribution of a dry Marburg, the dreaded hemorrhagic fever virus.
During a half-dozen trips to Russia and the Soviet Union's former republics between 1998 and 2001, I visited Vector, once Russia's premier virology center. It was at this sprawling, now dilapidated lab in Siberia that I first heard about Nicholai Ustinov, a scientist working on Marburg who had accidentally injected himself with it and bled to death.
He then achieved a perverse immortality. His colleagues at Vector cultured the virus that killed him. Having mutated while passing through Ustinov's body, the new variant was particularly virulent. Vector's scientists weaponized it as a replacement for the original.
Yet over the course of many years, the C.I.A.'s analysts knew little about the scale and sophistication of this program. If not for the defection of two scientists in 1989 and 1992, the West might never have been able to confront Moscow with evidence of its massive treaty violations.
And many Russian scientists told me during my visits that their country's germ warfare program did not end with communism's collapse in 1991. Moscow denies this, but all but one of Russia's five anti-plague institutes remain virtually closed to outsiders. So, too, do the military's three main research centers.
According to a former senior American biodefense official, Russia's continuing secrecy is not only frustrating, but baffling — since many scientists believe that the lethal agents stockpiled in Soviet times no longer pose a weapons or health threat.
"Most would probably not have survived the power outages and lab budget cutbacks of the 1990s," the official says.
Perhaps one way of convincing President Assad to give up his illegal and repugnant chemical weapons is for Putin to come clean on his nation's biological weapons programs. Let's start with an honest, if belated Russian account of its past and potential present biological activities.