For weeks, Russia has been spreading misinformation about the existence of U.S.-controlled biological weapons facilities in Ukraine. On Friday, the Russians took that false information to the U.N. Security Council.
Russia’s U.N. Ambassador Vassily Nebenzia said his country had proof that Ukraine has at least 30 biological laboratories carrying out “very dangerous biological experiments,” and that the work “is being done and funded and supervised by the Defense Threat Reduction Agency of the United States.”
It’s a narrative the Russians have been spinning since the first days of the war: that biological labs in Ukraine are in fact run by the U.S. military for the purpose of producing biological and chemical weapons.
The Pentagon has “built two biological war labs [in Ukraine] and they have been developing pathogens there, in Kiev and Odessa,” foreign minister Sergei Lavrov said this week. “And now they are concerned that they may lose control over these labs.”
“Utter nonsense,” said Britain’s U.N. Ambassador Barbara Woodward at the Security Council Friday. “Russia is sinking to new depths.”
The U.S. accused Russia of “lying and spreading disinformation” as part of a potential false-flag operation for the use of chemical or biological agents in Ukraine.
“The intent behind these lies seems clear, and is deeply troubling,” said U.S. Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield. “We believe Russia could use chemical or biological agents for assassinations, as part of a staged or false-flag incident, or to support tactical military operations.”
As with much disinformation, there’s a kernel of truth to the Russian story: The United States does fund biological facilities in Ukraine, but they are for disease research and prevention. As Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association, told Grid, the notion that they are used for weapons purposes is “complete hogwash. Utter hogwash.”
Russia, China and Tucker Carlson
While the U.S., its NATO allies, U.N. officials, scientists and watchdog groups have joined in debunking the claims, Russia has found a pair of allies for this conspiracy theory: right-wing media in the U.S. and the government of China.
China has been at least somewhat measured in its support for Putin’s war — but in the misinformation war, it has gone all in.
This week China’s foreign ministry demanded that the U.S. “give a full account of its biological military activities at home and abroad and subject itself to multilateral verification.”
Chinese state media outlets published stories parroting the Russian charges. Many of those stories trended on the Chinese social media platform Weibo.
According to Doublethink Lab, a Mandarin-language media watchdog, those stories drew heavily from an article by a Russian think tank aligned with the Russian ministry of foreign affairs.
“To the extent that the biological weapons narrative provides a justification for Putin’s invasion, and also an opportunity to tarnish the United States and dent its global soft power, this is a game that China’s been happy to play,” Jessica Brandt, a fellow in the Center for Security, Strategy and Technology at the Brookings Institution, told Grid.
It’s a level of linked messaging between the two countries that’s unlike anything observers have seen, Brandt added.
“Russia and China have very different long-term goals and interests. But in the near term, they both want to tarnish the appeal of the United States; they both want to sort of undermine the salience and the moral authority of liberal institutions like NATO.”
China has a recent history of spreading anti-U.S. disinformation — most notably when the government said in March 2020 that the U.S. military might have brought the covid-19 virus to Wuhan, and claimed that research at Fort Detrick, Maryland, might have been at the root of the pandemic.
As for American media, the Ukraine weapons lab conspiracy theory has found a home in recent weeks among far-right American political figures and groups. Glenn Greenwald, a journalist critical of American military power and security agencies, said the theory could be true. And on Wednesday, Fox News’ Tucker Carlson ran with the Russian line, saying that Victoria Nuland, the U.S. undersecretary of state for political affairs, had confirmed the existence of U.S.-backed bioweapons labs in Ukraine.
“Nuland just confirmed that the Russian disinformation they’ve been telling us for days is a lie and a conspiracy theory and crazy and immoral to believe is, in fact, totally and completely true,” Carlson said on his show, which was broadcast on Russian state TV the next day.
In fact, what Nuland said was that the U.S. is concerned that Russian troops would gain control of biological research facilities. Nothing about weapons.
Labs in Ukraine: the facts
This much is true: Since 2005, several Ukrainian labs have participated in the U.S. Biological Threat Reduction Program (BTRP), an initiative run by the Department of Defense. The program aims to “counter the threat of outbreaks (deliberate, accidental or natural) of the world’s most dangerous infectious diseases” around the world by partnering with local labs. In total, the U.S. has invested about $200 million in 46 labs, health facilities and diagnostic sites across Ukraine. But the U.S. does not run the facilities, and they are not “weapons labs.”
During the Cold War, the Soviet Union operated bioweapons labs, and the BTRP has been a decades-long effort to demilitarize Soviet facilities, but none of those were in Ukraine, said Andrew Weber, a senior fellow at the Council on Strategic Risks. “The laboratories in Ukraine were not directly part of the biological weapons program of the Soviet Union.”
“The labs are not secret,” Filippa Lentzos, a senior lecturer in science and international security at King’s College London, said in an email to the Associated Press. “They are not being used in relation to bioweapons. This is all disinformation.”
The Ukrainian labs are no different than the sorts of labs found in many countries. “They are normal public health labs, sort of like CDC labs, where they do research on diseases endemic to the region,” said Gigi Gronvall, an immunologist at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security and former member of the Defense Department’s Threat Reduction Advisory Committee. For example, many of the labs monitor and try to prevent diseases like African swine fever, a virus that wreaks havoc on pig farms, or Crimean Congo hemorrhagic fever, a viral tick-borne illness first discovered in Crimea that can spark deadly outbreaks. During the covid-19 pandemic, labs that were part of the BTRP helped study SARS-CoV-2 and track its transmission.
It’s in the U.S.’s interest to fund such research, Gronvall said. “Infectious diseases don’t respect borders,” she added. “Programs where you engage with scientists around the world and learn about new public health threats as they come up help us, they help our security.”
There are fears that fighting might inadvertently release some of the pathogens stored in these laboratories for study, which include pathogens on the U.S. Select Agent list, such as anthrax. The World Health Organization reportedly advised Ukraine to destroy any high-threat pathogens housed in refrigerators or freezers that could be disrupted during an attack and potentially released into the public. “I think that’s a prudent measure,” Weber said. Most of these Ukrainian labs are biosecurity level 2 (BSL-2), which means they study human pathogens, but not exceptionally dangerous or exotic ones. BSL-2 labs handle pathogens that present a moderate danger to human health. (The highest lab biosecurity rating level is 4; labs at that level around the world study highly dangerous pathogens for which there are no treatments.)
Still, the Ukrainian labs would be “well advised to destroy [samples] before they come under Russian control,” he said.
The history — and the danger
While the U.S. and other countries fume over the false narrative, security officials are worried about that false-flag possibility: namely, that Russia will carry out a chemical or biological attack and then rely on its well-seeded disinformation to blame the U.S. for it.
Russia’s chemical and biological weapons capabilities are not what they once were, though it likely has the capability to launch some sort of attack.
The Russian Federation inherited the Soviet Union’s chemical weapons program and as recently as 20 years ago, it had the world’s largest declared stockpile of these weapons — 40,000 metric tons of them including nerve agents like sarin and VX, blister agents including mustard gas, and the World War I-era choking agent phosgene.
Russia also inherited a significant biological weapons program from the Soviets, including weaponized anthrax, smallpox and other disease. According to a 2021 U.S. State Department assessment, Russia has not “satisfactorily documented the complete extent of its programs and whether the items of these program … were completely destroyed.” The U.S. assessment is that Russia “maintains an offensive biological weapons program,” though the extent of the program is unclear.
Russia began the process of destroying its chemical stockpile in 1997, when the global Chemical Weapons Convention came into effect. (Under the same process, the U.S. has destroyed more than 90 percent of its own large chemical weapons arsenal and is due to complete the process next year.) In 2017, after several delays, the Organization for the Prevention of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) certified that Russia’s stockpile had been completely destroyed, calling it a “major milestone.”
The celebration may have been premature. On March 4, 2018, Sergei Skripal, a Russian former spy, and his daughter, were poisoned in Salisbury, England, with what the OPCW later concluded to be Novichok, a Soviet-developed nerve agent. In addition to the Skripals, three other people were hospitalized by the Novichok, and one British woman died. The British government said it was “highly likely” the Russian government had ordered the attack, which the Kremlin denied. Novichok was also found to have been used in the 2020 poisoning of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny.
These individual poisonings are very different from what are typically thought of as chemical weapons attacks — horrific massacres such as Saddam Hussein’s mustard gas attack on the Kurdish city of Halabja in 1988 or Bashar al-Assad’s sarin attack on Ghouta, Syria, in 2013—but they do indicate Russia retains at least small traces of its former capability. It’s enough to raise serious concerns given what the U.S. alleges Russia is planning, the Arms Control Association’s Daryl Kimball told Grid.
“Is there going to be a large-scale chemical weapons attack launched by Russian forces on Ukrainian civilians or soldiers? There is no military reason to do that,” he said. “I think what we’re looking at is the possibility that there’s a limited use of some sort of chemical agent in a way that is designed to make it look as though Ukrainian forces [are attacking].”
Russia has also been accused of enabling the widespread use of chemical weapons by the government of Syria. In the wake of the Ghouta attack, which killed more than 1,400 people, Russia and the U.S. reached a deal under which Moscow agreed to ensure that its Syrian ally would refrain from using these weapons and work to destroy its stockpile under international oversight. But the Syrian regime continued to use chemical weapons, including the Sarin attack on the town of Khan Shaykhun in 2017 and an attack using chlorine on Douma in 2018. The U.S. accused Russia of hindering international investigations of these incidents.
The Syrian examples also show why, beyond the immediate danger these weapons themselves pose, they could dramatically transform the Ukraine conflict. The U.S. government has tended to treat instances of chemical weapons use with particular gravity, even compared to other wartime atrocities. Barack Obama’s administration nearly launched a military intervention in Syria after Assad crossed his infamous “red line” with the Ghouta attack, and Donald Trump’s administration did launch retaliatory missile strikes after Khan Shaykhun and Douma. Thus far, the Biden administration has stood firm on its vow to avoid escalatory steps like putting U.S. troops into Ukraine or imposing a no-fly zone over the country. Chemical weapons attacks have a way of changing those calculations.
Meanwhile, two weeks into the war, the Russian false narrative about bioweapons has injected two fresh concerns: The immediate worry is the false-flag scenario that U.S. and European diplomats laid out Friday. The other — a longer-term concern — is the involvement of China. At their Beijing summit last month, Putin and Xi Jinping said there were “no limits” to their friendship. A misinformation alliance aimed at the West would be a particularly disturbing example.