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Russia accuses U.S. of supporting a biological weapons program in Ukraine at U.N. Security Council meeting

U.S. and Ukraine vehemently deny the claim, warning that Moscow may be pushing disinformation as a prelude to its own use of such weapons

Sergiy Kyslytsya, left, Ukraine's ambassador to the United Nations, at a U.N. Security Council meeting on March 7 in New York. (Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images)
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Russia accused the United States at the United Nations on Friday of supporting a biological weapons program in Ukraine, a fact Moscow said it uncovered as its forces pressed deeper into Ukraine. The claim was vehemently denied by the United States’ U.N. ambassador, Linda Thomas-Greenfield.

Vasily Nebenzya, Russia’s U.N. representative, told the U.N. Security Council that Russia had discovered “truly shocking facts” related to what he said were at least 30 Ukrainian laboratories working on diseases including anthrax, cholera and “the plague,” with funding and oversight by the U.S. military.

He said the “reckless” activity included research related to diseases born by birds, lice and fleas. “We call on you to think about a very real biological danger to the people in European countries which can result from an uncontrolled spread of bio-agents from Ukraine,” he said.

Russia requested the meeting Thursday amid its allegations of U.S.-supported bioweapons research. U.S. officials have denied all such charges and suggested that Moscow may be making the allegations as a pretext for its own use of chemical or biological warfare in Ukraine.

Thomas-Greenfield said that Russia had asked the Security Council for Friday’s meeting “for the sole purpose of lying and spreading disinformation.”

“Russia is attempting to use the Security Council to legitimize disinformation and deceive people to justify President Putin’s war of choice against Ukraine and the Ukrainian people,” she said, adding that China has also been spreading disinformation supporting Russia’s claims.

“Ukraine does not have a biological weapons program, and there are no Ukrainian biological weapons laboratories supported by the United States — not near Russia’s borders, not anywhere,” she said.

White House warns Russia could use chemical weapons in Ukraine, rejects false ‘conspiracy’ of U.S. biolabs

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky also denied the Russian accusations in a video address to his war-torn nation, posted Thursday on Facebook. “No chemical or any other weapons of mass destruction were developed on my land,” he said. “The whole world knows that.”

“They accuse us … that we are allegedly developing biological weapons, allegedly we are preparing a chemical attack. This makes me really worried,” he added, noting that he is the father of two children.

“It is they who are capable of this,” he said, referring to Russia. “They have already done such things in other countries … and they will do so again,” he added.

Zelensky said laboratories in Ukraine were “engaged in ordinary science … not military technology.” He also warned that if Russia does deploy such chemical weapons, it should prepare for the “most severe sanctions response.”

“We’ve been repeatedly convinced — if you want to know Russia’s plans, look at what Russia accuses others of,” he added.

A U.S. defense official, speaking to reporters Thursday on the condition of anonymity under ground rules set by the Pentagon, said that Ukraine had five biological research centers that were focused on disease prevention and treatment.

How the right embraced Russian disinformation about ‘U.S. bioweapons labs’ in Ukraine

For years, Russia has been laying the groundwork for such allegations, claiming that the United States has installed biochemical labs in Ukraine and other former Soviet republics. This disinformation campaign, now being peddled by Russian authorities amid the Ukrainian invasion, has been endorsed by Chinese and Russian state media and notable far-right U.S. figures such as former Trump adviser Stephen K. Bannon and QAnon figure Ron Watkins.

Kremlin spokeswoman Maria Zakharova told reporters Wednesday that Russia had concluded that “in Ukrainian laboratories close to our borders, components of biological weapons were being developed.”

While China claims it has not taken sides in the conflict — neither denouncing the Russian invasion nor overtly endorsing it — state media and Chinese Foreign Ministry officials regularly echo Russian propaganda, and the Russian biolab claims have quickly spread online, racking up millions of views on the social media platform Weibo.

“This Russian military operation has uncovered the secret of the U.S. labs in Ukraine, and this is not something that can be dealt with in a perfunctory manner,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said Thursday, according to the Associated Press.

There are labs in Ukraine and other former Soviet republics that receive funds from the United States, and their existence is not a secret. After the Soviet Union collapsed, emerging republics with little expertise on how to handle biohazards found themselves in possession of sophisticated laboratories, thanks to the Soviet Union’s robust biological weapons program. The U.S. Defense Threat Reduction Agency was established in 1998, aiming at containing and destroying pathogens that can be used as biological weapons.

The program was extremely successful at “defanging the Soviet monster,” Thomas Moore, who worked with Sen. Richard Lugar (D-Ind.), one of the leaders of the initiative, said in an interview with Foreign Policy. The agency was able to destroy significant amounts of biochemical agents in former Soviet states.

Moore said that claims that the United States is supporting biohazard research close to Russia’s borders are not new and that the Kremlin has been asserting this for decades. The funding is aimed at destroying and controlling infectious diseases instead of creating them, Justin Ling writes in Foreign Policy.

Thomas-Greenfield said Friday that Ukraine owns and manages public health laboratories focusing on detecting and diagnosing diseases such as covid-19. “The United States has assisted Ukraine to do this safely and securely,” she said.

Stéphane Dujarric, a spokesman for the U.N. secretary general, told reporters Thursday that “the use of chemical weapons in any conflict, in any context, is a grave violation of international law.” A day earlier, Dujarric told reporters that the World Health Organization has been working with the Ukrainian government and is “unaware of any activity on the part of the Ukrainian government which is inconsistent with its international treaty obligations, including on chemical weapons or biological weapons.”

Elsewhere, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson also suggested Thursday that Russia’s accusations could be a “cynical” pretext for its own actions.

“The stuff that you’re hearing about chemical weapons, this is straight out of their playbook,” Johnson told Sky News. “They start saying that there are chemical weapons that are being stored by their opponents or by the Americans. And so when they themselves deploy chemical weapons, as I fear they may, they have a sort of a maskirovka, a fake story, ready to go.”

Talks between top diplomats of Ukraine and Russia on March 10 failed to reach an agreement on a cease-fire, while Mariupol, Ukraine, raced to bury the dead. (Video: Alexa Juliana Ard, Julie Yoon/The Washington Post)

The White House warned this week that Russia could use chemical or biological weapons in Ukraine.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki tweeted that Russia “has long maintained a biological weapons program in violation of international law” and cited its military intervention in Syria in support of President Bashar al-Assad’s regime and its suspected poisoning of Russian opposition figure Alexei Navalny in 2020 with a Novichok-like nerve agent.

Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba tweeted Thursday: “The manic obsession with which various Russian officials fantasize about non-existent biological or chemical weapons or hazards in Ukraine is deeply troubling and may actually point at Russia preparing another horrific false flag operation.”