On Friday, March 11, the U.N. Security Council met at the request of Russia to discuss unsubstantiated and spurious claims that the United States is supporting biological and chemical weapons laboratories in Ukraine—the latest action in a long-running Russian disinformation campaign aimed to sow confusion and undermine trust in the United States and partner nations. The labs that Russia is referencing serve no nefarious purposes—rather, their work is focused on monitoring and responding to infectious disease outbreaks, much like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in the United States.
The United States ended its former biological weapons research and chemical weapons program decades ago, as it worked with other nations to help lead the world toward an end to such weapons. The United States has been fully compliant with both the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC) since 1972 and the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) since 1993. After signing the latter, the United States has been destroying its legacy chemical weapons stocks, work that is nearing completion and conducted with full transparency of the OPCW.
Ukraine does not possess biological or chemical weapons either. Moreover, it has long been a champion of nonproliferation, including giving up one of the world’s largest nuclear weapon arsenals that was on its territory after the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Its peaceful biological research work has included study of diseases endemic to the region, detection and tracking of disease trends, and other public health and biodefense work.
As CSR Senior Fellow and former Assistant Secretary of Defense for Nuclear, Chemical, and Biological Defense Programs Andy Weber pointed out, the research facilities in question are “totally open, transparent laboratories.” Weber noted that he has “visited them many, many, many times as have international visitors and the World Health Organization (WHO) routinely,” to show that they do not house a concealed bioweapons program.
The United States has supported laboratories and health facilities in Ukraine since 2005 through the Biological Threat Reduction Program, which is implemented by the Defense Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA). These labs continually monitor disease outbreaks and seek to improve public health. In fact, they have been instrumental in mitigating the spread of COVID-19 in Ukraine. The United States supports these labs, along with a network of facilities in thirty countries worldwide, to advance global health and enhance biosecurity.
Russia’s disinformation campaign on this matter is a clear ploy to sow distrust toward the United States and Ukraine.
This week’s events are part of a strategy that has been ongoing for decades. In 2018, Russia made claims that the United States was operating a bioweapons lab in Tbilisi, Georgia, a claim that was fully debunked. Russia has long made similar claims regarding biological defense and health cooperation with Kazakhstan, Ukraine, and others in attempts to pressure these nations not to collaborate with the United States.
This history goes back to the Cold War as well. In the mid 1980s, a Soviet disinformation campaign pushed the lie that HIV was produced by the Pentagon to serve as a bioweapon. Russian propaganda made numerous claims that the United States was developing and deploying bioweapons, all of which are demonstrably false.
Just as Russia has used misinformation to justify malicious actions in the past, this propaganda may be a method that Russia uses in an attempt to claim justification for the atrocities it is committing in Ukraine.
In addition to eroding trust in the United States, Russia’s disinformation campaign may be a false flag operation, designed to cover up a Russian biological or chemical weapons attack and place blame on the United States. United Stated intelligence officials are deeply concerned about the prospect of a bioweapons attack in Ukraine or elsewhere—U.S. State Department assessments have concluded that Russia has a functioning, offensive bioweapons program. As Andy Weber noted, “The USSR had the largest biological weapons programme the world has ever known and parts of it have continued uninterrupted since the break-up of the Soviet Union.” Additionally, “Russia has three military biological facilities that have never, to our knowledge, been visited by non-Russians.” The Soviet Union admitted to violating the BWC for decades. Russia’s disregard for the Chemical Weapons Convention is also cause for concern. Blatant use of chemical weapons in the attempted assassinations of Sergei Skripal in 2018 and Alexei Navalny in 2020 reveal a willingness to defy norms against WMD.
If Russia does commit such atrocities, “There would be a very strong and united international response to any use of chemical or biological weapons, both of which are banned by the chemical and biological weapons conventions,” Andy Weber emphasized.
The spread of this disinformation is incredibly dangerous for Ukrainian civilians, military, as well as international volunteers within Ukraine. It can give Russia false cover for illegally using biological or chemical weapons inside Ukraine, especially if the Putin regime feels it can get away with blaming that use on the United States or Ukraine. This disinformation may also feed Russian justifications for committing other atrocities in Ukraine, as well as raise strawman justifications for invading in the first place.