Reported by DYLAN HOUSMAN | HEALTHCARE REPORTER | March 14, 2022
Russia has asserted numerous justifications for its invasion of Ukraine, and one of them is finally gaining traction with some observers: the allegation that the United States was developing bioweapons at labs in Ukraine to use against Moscow. It’s true that there are bioresearch facilities in Ukraine, some of which are partnered with the Department of Defense, as Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Victoria Nuland admitted to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee last week. But there is no evidence that the labs were being used to develop biological weapons, or that Russia was under such direct threat from them that they needed to invade Ukraine.
Russian President Vladimir Putin used the Kremlin’s media machine to try to justify his war in Ukraine in multiple ways. First, Moscow said it needed to protect ethnic Russians in the Donbas region who were facing a “genocide” from Kyiv. They also claimed that they needed to “de-Nazify” Ukraine, a country led by a Jewish president and home to more than one million Holocaust victims. There was also the claim that the war was really about NATO expansion, as well as an alleged false flag attack to frame Ukraine as the aggressors against Russia.
Those narratives, with some exception for the NATO complaint, largely failed to gain traction in the West. However, after the war had already began, Putin pivoted to the bioweapons claim. According to the Kremlin, the United States wants to use bioweapons created in Ukrainian labs to attack Russia, including by infecting birds with them and releasing them into Russian territory.
The narrative isn’t new. The same Russian Ministry of Defense spokesman who said the U.S. is creating chemical weapons to selectively target Slavs said years ago that the U.S. was funding bioweapons research in Georgia, which Russia invaded in 2008. (RELATED: Yet Another Shortage Looms Over Biden’s Presidency — It Might Be The World’s Biggest)
In 2005, the United States and Ukraine reached an agreement to work together to dismantle or secure Soviet-era bioweapons left behind at facilities in Ukraine. The Pentagon’s Cooperative Threat Reduction Program (CTR) has been working with former Soviet republics for 30 years to clean up biohazards left behind in their countries, from places like Ukraine to Uzbekistan.
The day after Russia invaded Ukraine, Robert Pope, the head of the CTR, did an interview with the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. This occurred before Moscow’s propaganda campaign about Ukrainian labs ramped up again. Pope explained that he was concerned Russian attacks could knock out power leading to security breaches at biolabs in Ukraine, or that Russia could take over some of the labs and gain access to dangerous pathogens inside them.
“I would say from every facility that we have worked with them in, we have confidence that as long as the electrical power is turned on and the people we have trained are present at the facility, the biosafety officers, that these pathogens are safe and secure to international standards,” Pope said. “Should these facilities be damaged by onflict, that could change.”
“Should Russian forces occupy a city with one of these facilities, we are concerned that Russia will fabricate ‘evidence’ of nefarious activity in an attempt to lend credibility to their ongoing disinformation about these facilities.”
Pope said there are various activities happening at the 26 labs in Ukraine the U.S. partners with, six of which receive direct support from the Pentagon. Some are destroying or securing former Soviet bioweapons. But some are simply used to conduct vaccine and disease research on pathogens. He did make clear that there is no new bioweapons research occurring at any of the facilities and said any claim that there is is a lie: “There is no place that still has any of the sort of infrastructure for researching or producing biological weapons.”
“Scientists being scientists, it wouldn’t surprise me if some of these strain collections in some of these laboratories still have pathogen strains that go all the way back to the origins of that program,” Pope said. He added that the CTR and Ukraine, before the war started, had been working toward an agreement for Ukraine to reduce the amount of dangerous pathogens it was studying for safety reasons.
The World Health Organization recently told Reuters that it, too, had told Ukraine to destroy some of the pathogens it was researching in its biolabs due to safety concerns. (RELATED: Fox News’ Benjamin Hall Injured Outside Of Kyiv, Anchor Announces)
According to the Pentagon, Russia took control of two Ukrainian labs in 2014 when it made its initial incursion on Crimea and the Donbas. Now, American intelligence officials are reportedly concerned that Russia will gain control of more labs and potentially get access to the dangerous pathogens inside some of them. If they do, there are worries that Russia will stage a false flag attack to frame the United States and Ukraine as chemical weapons users.
A similar concern about a false flag attack was shared by the Biden administration before the invasion of Ukraine began. The State Department alleged that Russia could produce a video framing Ukraine for an attack on Russia or the Donbas, justifying a Russian response.
Russia deployed this same tactic in Syria, where it supports the regime of dictator Bashar Al-Assad. When Assad used chemical weapons on civilian populations, Russia sometimes claimed that it was rebel groups using chemical weapons on themselves, not Assad.
The debate about the biolabs, and the spread of misinformation by some, has sparked an intense debate within American politics. Some on both the right and left have spoken about the issue, from raising legitimate concerns about the potential for a lab-leak during the war to parroting Russian allegations of bioweapons activity. Others have called them conspiracy theorists.
Republican Utah Sen. Mitt Romney accused former Democratic Hawaii Rep. and presidential candidate Tulsi Gabbard of spreading treasonous lies and parroting Kremlin propaganda. Gabbard tweeted a video in which she said there should be a ceasefire in Ukraine until international authorities can secure 25+ U.S.-funded biolabs in Ukraine and destroy the dangerous pathogens within.
Republican Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and Democratic Virginia Sen. Mark Warner, the top officials on the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, have been working together to debunk falsehoods that the U.S. is funding bioweapons research in Ukraine.
Some have added the claim that the biolabs in Ukraine were “secret,” or that the United States had been covering up its involvement in the facilities. But that isn’t true either. The 2005 agreement between CTR and Ukraine was public, as are various other documents published by the Pentagon since outlining the work being done at the labs and the funding provided for some of it by the United States. The government has also addressed the allegations of bioweapons research before; in 2020, the U.S. Embassy in Ukraine put out a release to “set the record straight” on bioresearch collaboration between the two countries.
It was Rubio who asked Nuland about the biolabs during the Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing, sparking much of the controversy being dealt with now. Critically, Nuland confirmed that there are biolabs in Ukraine with dangerous pathogens in them that could be exploited by Russia.
Rubio also asked Nuland if there is a biological weapons attack were to take place in Ukraine, potentially stemming from one of these facilities, if Russia would be responsible. “There is no doubt in my mind, Senator. And it is classic Russian technique to blame on the other guy what they’re planning to do themselves.”