Part 1: The threat

R.A. Norton, Ph.D.

Ever been hacked? Russians love to hack our systems, stealing whatever they can. The Russian government claims Russian criminals did the hacking; in truth, in many cases the government and the criminals are one and the same.

Russia is what the military labels as a “near peer” competitor. A “near peer” competitor is a nation that has not quite achieved the status of being a military, technological or economic peer but is clearly heading in that direction. Were a war to occur with Russia today, the costs in treasure and blood would be very high and protracted, although ultimately the United States and its allies would prevail.

Why is this important to the U.S. food and agriculture industries? Simple. Any nation that goes to war wants to win and will do what is necessary to prevail, and Russia has sometimes utilized methods of “prevailing” that are abhorrent to the West.

One of the most problematic programs of the past was Biopreparat, which translates to “biological substance preparation.” This 1970s Soviet Union program may have involved as many as 30,000 government and military scientists producing literally tons of biological weapons material, including anthrax, smallpox, Ebola, Marburg, Q fever, glanders and a host of other equally pathogenic bacteria and viruses. At the time, the Soviet Union’s military plans included simultaneously attacking civilian populations and animal and plant agriculture with weaponized cocktails of multiple pathogens.

The Soviet Union also had an equally massive chemical weapons programs, including one called “FOLIANT” that produced a number of wickedly deadly fourth-generation nerve agent compounds called “novichok.” The development criteria at the time were that novichok should be undetectable (in terms of then-current technology), capable of overcoming NATO chemical protective gear, be safer to handle than other nerve agents (and would be, because the compounds were to be binary, meaning two compounds would have to be mixed), and should circumvent the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) Arms Control Treaty, of which the Soviet Union was and is a signatory. The suspected nerve agent used in the recent UK attack on former agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia reportedly was a novichok agent.

Obviously, the Soviet Union no longer exists, and Biopreparat and chemical weapons programs like FOLIANT were supposed to have gone away. But did they? Technically, yes they did go away, but in some ways in name only. Soviet scientists squirted out of the nation when the money ran out, sometimes taking the pathogenic organisms and the chemical agents (read precursors) with them. Along with the evil stuff, scientists also took the formulas and know-how to build chemical, biological and perhaps even nuclear weapons.

It doesn’t matter whether Russia directly instigated this assassination effort or somehow a third party, unknown to the Russian government, obtained and used the nerve agent. Russia was responsible and somewhere along the line violated the CWC, either lying now (claiming they had no novichok agents) or lying in the past (not admitting that at some point they lost control of the agents, also a CWC violation).

This is important because of recent statements made by chief of the general staff of the armed forces of the Russian Federation, First Deputy Defense Minister Valery Gerasimov. Speaking at a conference to the Russian Military Academy of the General Staff, Gerasimov made a series of enigmatic statements that only make sense if you know Russian military history. First, he referred to “the possibility of the emergence of military conflicts.” Second, he said “information-control systems” would be “integrated” with weapons systems.

And finally, he said, “The improvement of the structure of the management bodies, the creation of special information support units, and the introduction of software and hardware complexes made it possible to reduce the time for preparing for the use of high-precision long-range weapons by 1.5 times…”[1]

That all sounds like a lot of boasting, but in many ways it isn’t boasting at all. Rather, it is a statement reflecting the Russian way of thinking. Russia either actually believes it can prevail on the battlefield, or Russia wants us to believe that. Russia is therefore trying to approach the U.S. as a near-peer-status nation on the battlefield—and to better ensure winning, plans to also target our economy. This is exactly where food and agriculture systems come into the picture. Throughout its history, Russia has known hunger many times over, and Russians know well the power of that weapon. Russia also knows the power of intimidation and is a master at hanging a sword over the head of an adversary it wishes to intimidate.

When Russia talks about adversaries, it means the United States and our allies. The U.S. has dominated the battlefield for decades through technology, and will stay ahead with innovation. What we are not very good at is defending ourselves against other kinds of attacks.

Ever been hacked? Russians love to hack our systems, stealing whatever they can. The Russian government claims Russian criminals did the hacking; in truth, in many cases the government and the criminals are one and the same.

Russia’s military plans include “Gibridnaya Voina,” which some military analysts call “hybrid war” and which includes more than bullets and bombs. Hybrid war includes “political war,” which seeks to divide, demoralize and distract Russia’s enemies through the use of spies, propagandists and spin masters, promoting the outcomes they seek. We are living the reality of political war now, as evidenced by the controversies surrounding social media and the last presidential election. The Russians are masters at using political war as a tool of statecraft.

Russia in time of war attacks its enemy’s economy. Given the likelihood that Russia still has chemical weapons (as evidenced by the attack in the UK), it is reasonable to speculate that they might also possess biological weapons (bacteria and viruses) that could be used not only on the battlefield but also against civilian populations and agriculture. In fact, that was the former Soviet Union’s plan. Vladimir Putin, president of the Russian Federation, grew up and served in the former Soviet Union spy agency, known as the KGB. The KGB was designed to gather Intelligence and, among other responsibilities, suppress internal dissent in satellite nations. Although different in some ways from Soviet-era leaders, Putin still retains some, dare I say many, of the same autocratic opinions, tendencies and practices from the bad old days.

As military writer Patrick Tucker wrote in a recent Defense One article, “In the event of war, Russia would consider economic and non-military government targets fair game…” Make no mistake, should that day ever come, Vladimir Putin would instantly revert to Soviet ways and attack the West’s food and agriculture systems, hoping to massively damage our economy to the point that it would impede our will and ability to wage war. He will want to both cause hunger and erode public trust in the safety and security of the food supply. Distrust of the food supply would foment distrust of the government.

This is where the aforementioned “information systems” would be utilized. If you think Russian trolls were active during the last elections, imagine magnitudes worse, aimed at scaring the public by fomenting distrust and fear of our food supply. In such a scenario biological weapons would also be expected to be used targeting people, animals and crops, not only killing them, but providing evidence that the food supply is indeed unsafe. This is biological and psychological warfare knit together—hybrid warfare.

In fact, the Russians are already pushing fake science. In March, it was reported that Iowa State University researchers had uncovered a massive propaganda campaign seeking to manipulate the American public’s perception of genetically modified organisms (GMOs), paid for by Moscow. The Russian-backed websites RT (formerly Russia Today) and Sputnik carried blatantly untrue articles such as this one: “GMO mosquitos could be cause of Zika outbreak.”  They’ve also tried to cause Americans to doubt the value of vaccines and fracking.

Given our increasing reliance on food originating beyond the United States and our dependency on ocean transport, we can also expect shipping lanes to be impacted. Transport on the high seas would certainly be fraught with risk not known since World War II. If this worst-case scenario were to become real, the situation would unravel rapidly, pushing us toward the precipice of World War III.

Will Russia attack the U.S. food supply or animal and plant agriculture? Not likely for the time being, since the risk of massive retaliation by the U.S. is currently too great. The use of biological weapons by them poses a serious risk of devastating counterattacks by the U.S., but the risk remains because of accidents or political miscalculations (like using a chemical weapon on people as witnessed in the UK, and don’t forget Syria).

Russia is not currently our peer on the battlefield, but that does not mean Russia is not a danger to us. They are in fact a very real danger to the U.S. and will continue to be so for the foreseeable future. They are a nuclear power and also have shown a willingness to reach out and kill. Should a serious shooting war break out on Russia’s border, the situation might deteriorate to a point where Russia would feel compelled to go totally over to the dark side and use chemical and biological weapons.

The current situation between Russia and the West is semi-stable but precarious. Some commentators have revived the use of the label “Cold War,” and we are certainly not on good terms. If the nerve agent attack was actually ordered by some Russian decision maker, it should be viewed as a massive and potentially catastrophic miscalculation and political error, where Soviet…sorry…Russian leadership failed to anticipate the UK’s and U.S.’s reaction.

The UK and the United States are furious, in a time when their leaders are very different from past administrations. The current U.S. administration has proven itself capable of hitting back hard, and expulsion of diplomats is only the beginning. Although Russia is classified by the World Bank as being a high-income economy because of its petroleum reserves, natural gas and military hardware exports, the Russian economy is currently not great because of increasing competition from U.S. petroleum exports. In fact, the Russian economy pales in comparison to both the U.S. and China, but money—and lots of it—is flowing in.

These facts could be viewed as a strength, but in the context of hybrid war might be seen as a liability because the U.S. has a very long reach. Money can just suddenly disappear in the cyber ether, which could cause a tit for tat reaction. Russia might then consider other means of warfare to achieve victory. These are interesting times.

Part II: Robust defenses

Robert A. Norton, Ph.D., is chair of the Auburn University Food System Institute’s Food and Water Defense Working Group ( He is a long-time consultant to the U.S. military, federal and state law enforcement agencies and is editor of Bob Norton’s Food Defense Blog ( He can be reached at  or by phone at 334.844.7562.



[1] Translated from:  Генштаб: особенностью конфликтов будущего станет применение роботов и космических средств. (General Staff: The peculiarity of future conflicts will be the use of robots and space vehicles):
TASS, 22 March 2018. Link:—