As part of its latest attempts to justify its invasion of Ukraine, Russian officials are once again pushing a false narrative that the Eastern European country is developing biological weapons with the assistance of the US
On March 6, the Russian Defense Ministry claimed it had obtained evidence Ukraine and the US had collaborated to develop biological weapons.
The claim was made by Major General Igor Konashenkov and widely reported in Russian media. Konashenkov alleged that pathogens for deadly diseases such as the plague, anthrax and cholera were being created to be used for biological warfare in Ukrainian laboratories funded by the US Department of Defense.
“Obviously, with the start of a special military operation, the Pentagon had serious concerns about disclosing the conduct of secret biological experiments on the territory of Ukraine,” Konashenkov said, as reported by the Russian news agency TASS.
This follows on from previous false claims peddled by Russia ahead of its invasion of Ukraine that the country was planning on developing so-called “dirty bombs.”
According to a February 24 report by fact-checking website Snopes, Russian propaganda claiming the planned attack of Ukraine was actually to target secret US biolabs in the country was also being widely shared on social media.
As noted by Snopes, the false claim that there exists US-funded labs in Ukraine developing germ warfare capabilities has been pushed by Russia since 2018, and remerged in the wake of the outbreak of the coronavirus.
In May 2020, as the coronavirus had fully spread across the world, the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) issued a statement urging politicians to stop spreading misinformation about the existence of US military biological labs in Ukraine.
“No foreign biological laboratories operate in Ukraine. Statements recently made by individual politicians are not true and are a deliberate distortion of the facts,” the statement said.
In April 2020, the US Embassy in Ukraine also issued a statement saying they want to “set the record straight” regarding disinformation surrounding US-funded biological warfare laboratories in Ukraine.
The statement explained that the US and Ukraine have had a partnership since 2005 to prevent the threat of outbreaks of infectious diseases, as well as allowing for peaceful research and vaccine development
The partnership between the US Defense Department and the Ukraine Ministry of Health is part of the Cooperative Threat Reduction Program, which began in 1991 with the aim of reducing the threat of weapons of mass destruction following the fall of the Soviet Union.
As explained by Andy Weber, member of the Arms Control Association board of directors and former assistant secretary for nuclear, chemical, and biological defense programs, this partnership doesn’t mean that there are US military-run labs in Ukraine.
In fact, the US Defense Department has never had a biological laboratory in Ukraine.
“Rather, the US Department of Defense Cooperative Threat Reduction Program has provided technical support to the Ukrainian Ministry of Health since 2005 to improve public health laboratories, whose mission is analogous to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC),” Weber told PolitiFact.
“These laboratories have recently played an important role in stopping the spread of COVID-19.”
Filippa Lentzos, a bioweapons researcher and faculty member at King’s College of London, also told the Agency France-Presse news agency that there are no indications that these labs in Ukraine are being used to develop biological weapons and actually aim to prevent disease outbreaks.
“These are public health labs like those of the CDC or the European Center for Disease Prevention and Control,” Lentzos said.
Just weeks before the Russian invasion of Ukraine, falsehoods about the US having biological laboratories in Ukraine were once again emerging.
In January the Department of Defense released a five-minute video to combat the “false allegations” being targeted at its Cooperative Threat Reduction program, including stating that its biological laboratories are “owned, operated and managed by host governments to meet local needs.”
Speaking to Politifact, Weber said that there has been a “Soviet-style disinformation campaign promoting such lies” regarding US-owned biological laboratories for decades.
“It harkens back to the Soviet KGB ‘Operation Infection’ disinformation campaign to spread the total fabrication that HIV/AIDS originated in a US military lab,” Weber said.