The United States is working to prevent Russia from taking control of Ukraine’s “biological research facilities,” according to a U.S. official.
At a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on March 8, Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Victoria Nuland was asked by Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) whether Ukraine has chemical or biological weapons.
“Ukraine has biological research facilities, which in fact we are now quite concerned that Russian forces may be seeking to gain control of, so we are working with the Ukrainians on how they can prevent any of those research materials from falling into the hands of Russian forces, should they approach,” Nuland said.
Rubio said: “I’m sure you’re aware that the Russian propaganda groups are already putting all kinds of information about how they’ve uncovered a plot by Ukrainians to release biological weapons in the country and with NATO’s coordination.
“If there’s a bio or chemical weapon incident or attack inside Ukraine, is there any doubt in your mind that 100 percent it would be the Russians that would be behind it?”
Nuland replied: “There is no doubt in my mind, senator.”
“It is a classic Russian technique to blame on the other guy what they’re planning to do themselves.”
Russia has repeatedly perpetuated the accusation that U.S.-funded laboratories in Ukraine are developing biological warfare weapons, but the United States and Ukraine maintain that the laboratories seek to prevent bioweapons and pathogens.
The Russian Ministry of Defense issued a statement on Telegram accusing Ukraine of having destroyed pathogens being studied at a lab in Ukraine that the ministry says is funded by the U.S. Department of Defense.
“During a special military operation, the facts of the Kiev regime’s emergency cleanup of traces of a military biological program funded by the U.S. Department of [Defense] implemented in Ukraine were revealed,” the Russian Ministry of Defense said in its March 6 statement.
The statement says that the Russian ministry received documents that showed the Ukrainian Ministry of Health “sent an instruction to all biological laboratories” on Feb. 24 to urgently destroy the “stored stocks of dangerous pathogens,” including plague, anthrax, tularemia, and cholera.
In a separate statement on March 7, the Russian ministry claimed that Ukraine “has united a chain of more than 30 biological laboratories” ordered by the Defense Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA), an agency within the U.S. Department of Defense.
The Chinese regime also appeared to repeat Russia’s allegations about the biological laboratories on March 7. A U.S. State Department spokesperson told The Epoch Times that the allegation is “Russian propaganda and total nonsense.”
“Such Russian claims have been debunked conclusively and repeatedly over many years,” the spokesperson said. “As we’ve said all along, Russia will invent false pretexts to justify their horrific actions in Ukraine.”
Such allegations from Russia were being aired on state-run media weeks prior to its invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24.
“Since the end of February there has been a notable intensification of Russian accusations that Ukraine is developing nuclear or biological weapons,” the British Defense Ministry said in a March 8 statement. “These narratives are long-standing but are currently likely being amplified as part of a retrospective justification for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.”
US, Ukraine Say Labs Seek to Prevent Bioweapons; Documents Say Pentagon is ‘Donor’ of Labs
The DTRA previously said in a video posted in January that a program it runs—the Cooperative Threat Reduction (CTR) program—”does not develop biological weapons.”
In the same video, Chris Park, a State Department official, told the U.N. that Russia’s and China’s allegations of “suspicious activity” at laboratories in Ukraine is “pure disinformation.”
One component of the CTR program is the Biological Threat Reduction Program (BTRP). The U.S. Embassy in Ukraine in April 2020 issued a statement that said the BTRP “works with the Ukrainian Government to consolidate and secure pathogens and toxins of security concern in Ukrainian government facilities while allowing for peaceful research and vaccine development.”
The program also works “to ensure Ukraine can detect and report outbreaks caused by dangerous pathogens before they pose security or stability threats,” according to the statement. “Our joint efforts help to ensure that dangerous pathogens do not fall into the wrong hands,” it reads.
The U.S. Embassy in Ukraine states that the BTRP “has upgraded many laboratories for the Ministry of Health and the State Food Safety and Consumer Protection Service of Ukraine, reaching Biosafety Level 2.”
Fact sheets featured on the U.S. Embassy of Ukraine website, found via Internet Archive, link to several documents detailing what appears to be U.S. government investments for select laboratories in Ukraine.
The fact sheet (pdf) for the Kharkiv Oblast Laboratory Center, for example, has a paragraph that reads: “USG Investment – Total cost of laboratory: USD$1,638,375 (USD$1,195,398 for Design & Construction; USD$442,977 for lab equipment and furniture).” Another line reads “Donor—the Department of Defense of the United States of America.”
Fact sheets for the other 10 laboratories have similar paragraphs.
The Pentagon didn’t respond to a request for comment by press time.
The CTR Program was started shortly after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. One of its goals was to reduce the threat of existing weapons of mass destruction programs in the former Soviet Republics.
Under the program, Ukraine and the United States partnered in two agreements: one in 1993 and one in 2005. Ukraine’s main security agency, the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU), elaborated on the agreements in a May 2020 Facebook post.
“Since 1993 there is an agreement to provide assistance to our state in eliminating strategic nuclear weapons and preventing the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. One of [the] points is the timely detection and prevention of outbreaks caused by dangerous pathogens,” the post reads.
In 2005, Ukraine’s Ministry of Health and the U.S. Department of Defense signed a framework agreement (pdf) to prevent the “proliferation of technology, pathogens, and knowledge that could be used in the development of biological weapons,” the SBU stated.
Within the framework of the 2005 agreement, a number of state laboratories in the Ukrainian cities of Odessa, Kharkiv, Lviv, Kyiv, Vinnytsia, Kherson, and Dnipropetrovsk “have been upgraded” through certain repair projects or the updating of equipment, the SBU said.
There are “no foreign biological laboratories in Ukraine,” the SBU also declared, adding that the laboratories involved are owned and funded by the Ukrainian government. “We emphasize that these laboratories are funded from the state budget subordinated to the Ministry of Health and the State Service of Ukraine on food safety and consumer protection.”
Meanwhile, the 2005 document states that “the total cost to the U.S. Department of Defense of all material, training and services provided pursuant to this Agreement and the associated expenses shall be up to fifteen (15) million U.S. dollars.” The document says the assistance from the Pentagon to Ukraine’s Ministry of Health includes “cooperative biological research, biological threat agent detection and response, and improving biological material protection, control and accountability.”
Andrew Weber, a senior fellow at the Council on Strategic Risks and a member of the Arms Control Association board of directors, also told AFP on March 3 that the Pentagon “has never had a biological laboratory in Ukraine.”
Weber told PolitiFact that the CTR Program “has provided technical support to the Ukrainian Ministry of Health since 2005 to improve public health laboratories” and that the mission of the health labs “is analogous to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.” The labs “have recently played an important role in stopping the spread of COVID-19,” he said.
Michael Washburn contributed to this report.
Update: This article has been updated to include further information from the U.S. Embassy of Ukraine website.