The UN security council met on Friday at Russia’s request to discuss Moscow’s claims that the US is funding “military biological activities” in Ukraine – in other words, secretly developing biological weapons in Ukrainian laboratories. The event saw some heated discussion. The Russian ambassador to the UN, Vasily Nebenzya, evoked the terrifying specter of an “uncontrolled spread of bio agents from Ukraine” across Europe. His American counterpart, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, warned that Russia’s claim could be a pretext for it launching its own biological weapons attack on Ukraine.
So what is the dispute all about, and what is actually happening inside Ukraine?
How did “bio labs” become the latest front in the Ukraine information war?
Last Sunday the Russian ministry of foreign affairs posted to tweet accusing the US and Ukrainian governments of running a secret “military-biological programme” inside the stricken country. Moscow claimed that its invading forces had discovered evidence of an “emergency clean-up” to hide the programme.
Moscow went on to claim that it had found documents related to the secret US operation in laboratories in the Ukrainian cities of Kharkiv and Poltava.
The allegations were quickly amplified by China, which supported the claims during Friday’s UN security council debate. The theory also took on a life of its own on social media under the hashtag #usbiolabs, and found a welcome home among rightwing outlets in the US including the war room podcast of Donald Trump’s former White House adviser Steve Bannon and the Fox News primetime show hosted by Tucker Carlson.
How hasSee the US and Ukrainian governments responded?
Both the US and Ukraine have categorically denied that they are developing any biological weapons inside the country. At Friday’s meeting, the US ambassador to the UN, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, said: “I will say this once: ‘Ukraine does not have a biological weapons program.’” She went on to turn the accusation back on Moscow. “It is Russia that has long maintained a biological weapon program in violation of international law.”
Ukraine’s ambassador to the world body, Sergiy Kyslytsya, used more colorful language. He called the idea being advanced by Russia “a bunch of insane delirium”.
What are independent world bodies saying?
The World Health Organization (WHO) has said it is unaware of activity by Ukraine violating any international treaty, including the ban on biological weapons.
The UN high commissioner for disarmament, Izumi Nakamitsu, confirmed that the UN was not aware of any biological weapons programs in Ukraine. Nakamitsu pointed to the Biological Weapons Convention, which has prohibited the development and use of biological weapons since 1975. The convention was backed by then president Richard Nixon, who in 1969 also put a stop to the US developing its own offensive biological weapons.
So do bio labs exist inside Ukraine, and is the US supporting them?
Yes, and yes. Ukraine does operate biological laboratories which receive US funding. The US undersecretary of state Victoria Nuland affirmed those facts in a Senate foreign relations committee hearing this week in which the Republican senator Marco Rubio asked her directly whether Ukraine had biological weapons.
Nuland did not answer the question head on. “Ukraine has biological research facilities,” she replied, adding that there was concern that Russian forces were trying to gain control of the labs. “We are working with the Ukrainians on how they can prevent any of those research materials from falling into the hands of Russian forces.”
Nuland’s comments were seized upon by far-right commentators as further evidence of a secret US-Ukraine plot. In fact, US funding to the laboratories had its roots in the fall of the Soviet Union after which money was pumped into Ukraine and other former Soviet countries to help them transfer scientific skills away from weapons programs towards public health initiatives.
The scheme was originally known as the Cooperative Threat Reduction (CTR) program, but is now more commonly referred to as the biological engagement programme. It has been successful in supporting former Soviet and other countries to fulfill public health obligations.
“This is one of the best things that we do,” Dr Gigi Gronvall, senior scholar at Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, told the Guardian.
Most of the work of the Ukraine labs today, Gronvall said, involved surveillance of diseases in animals and people as an early-warning system for illnesses such as African swine fever, which is endemic in the region. “We know pathogens don’t respect borders, so helping to put out public health fires before they become too big is an advantage to all of us,” she said.
Do the Ukraine laboratories store biological dangerous agents?
Yes, it appears so. As part of their work researching diseases the bio labs do seem to hold dangerous pathogens. We know that because WHO is urging Ukraine to destroy any highly dangerous agents in its laboratories to avoid the risk of a disastrous outbreak should one of the labs be hit under Russian attack.
“As part of this work, WHO has strongly recommended to the ministry of
health in Ukraine and other responsible bodies to destroy high-threat
pathogens to prevent any potential spills,” the UN health agency said.
The WHO has worked in Ukraine for several years helping the bio labs improve their safety and security, so it knows what it is talking about.
If Russian claims of a secret bioweapons program are fake news, does that mean there is nothing to worry about?
No. In addition to the threat of pathogens held in Ukrainian labs leaking out or falling into the hands of Russian forces, there is the threat of Russia potentially launching its own biological weapons attack. The assessment of the US state department is that Russia continues to maintain an offensive biological weapons program in violation of the convention that it has signed.
Earlier this week, the White House press secretary, Jen Psaki, accused Russia under Vladimir Putin of having a “long and well-documented track record” of using chemical weapons, pointing to the poisoning of the opposition leader Alexei Navalny and Russia’s support of the Syrian regime while it deployed chemical weapons. She went on to warn that Moscow’s claim of a secret biological weapons program in Ukraine could in fact be laying the foundations for a Russian chemical or biological weapons assault inside Ukraine.
That possibility leaves even seasoned experts rattled. “I hope that this is more of a disinformation talking point than an actual thing,” Gronvall said. “I guess we shall see.”
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism