After launching an invasion of Ukraine, the Kremlin promptly intensified its information warfare and research laboratories in Ukraine have become targets of disinformation.
On 6 March 2022, the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs published a statement on Twitter about “military-biological” laboratories in Ukraine financed by the US Department of Defence. Moscow claims that during the course of the “special military operation,” they found evidence that Ukraine carried out an emergency eradication of traces of ongoing programmes in these laboratories.
The official spokesperson of the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Maria Zakharova, soon stated that the Ukrainians had to promptly destroy particularly hazardous pathogens in order to make sure that facts of the violation of Article 1 of the Biological Weapons Convention were not detected and brought to public light.
On 15 March 2022, the Russian Minister of Foreign Affairs, Sergey Lavrov, spoke about the deadly hazards posed by the American biological laboratories. As stated by Minister Lavrov, the identified facts revealed vast boundaries of US illegitimate actions which aim to expand the network of the American military-biological laboratories worldwide.
On 17 March 2022, General Igor Kirilov, Head of the RCB Defence Troops of the Russian Armed Forces, stated that official documents at their disposal clearly show that components of biological weapons were in fact produced in Ukraine. A few days before, General Kirilov also spoke about Georgia’s Lugar Laboratory and stated that swine flu, which spread massively in 2007, was man-made precisely in the Lugar Laboratory according to his information.
On 23 March 2022, the Kremlin spokesperson, Dmitry Peskov, stated that is strong evidence that the US creates biological laboratories in different countries around Russia, including ones in Ukraine. Mr Peskov also stated that Russia no longer possesses chemical or biological weapons dating to 2017 whilst those biological laboratories, secretly run by the US, are very dangerous.
On 24 March 2022, the Russian Ministry of Defence spokesperson, Major General Igor Konashenkov, stated to the journalists that Russia planned to unveil original documents in the near future that would confirm that the Pentagon approved the UP2 project, envisioning an analysis of Ukraine’s endemic and most hazardous infections. This ostensibly also included manufacturing new variants of anthrax. Major General Konashenkov also strongly emphasised that the Pentagon’s experiments were not confined to manufacturing hazardous infections alone. According to him, a pharmaceutical company which signed a contract with US Department of Defence had an agreement with the Ukrainian Ministry of Defence to produce and test non-registered drugs on Ukrainian service members.
The Kremlin’s official statements about US biological laboratories in Ukraine were preceded by disinformation on Facebook, disseminated by unidentified profiles. On 24 February 2022, the day when Russia started war against Ukraine, it was reported on the social network that Russia invaded Ukraine because of secret American biological laboratories (link 1, link 2). This disinformation set the ground for major false narratives pushed by the Kremlin: “The ‘special military operation’ in Ukraine is legitimate because chemical and biological weapons are created next to Russia with US aid.”
According to the information of the Alliance for Securing Democracy, a German Marshal Fund project which analyses Twitter data, Russian and Chinese diplomats, as well as their state media, used the words “biological laboratory” 500 times between 24 February and 24 March 2022. However, the disinformation campaign against US biological laboratories is not a novelty. Russia has been speaking for years about the hazards posed by those chemical and biological pathogens which were ostensibly created in laboratories located in different post-Soviet countries. This issue has resurfaced regularly during different crises.
Origins of Accusations in Ukraine and Georgia
The first disinformation narratives about Ukraine’s biological threat reduction programmes and research facilities appeared in 2015. Of note is that the need for the programme’s implementation was stipulated as a result of Ukraine’s inheriting of illegal biological weapon projects developed by the Soviet Union. Until 2014, Ukraine used to have close cooperation with Russia to ensure the safety of the hazardous pathogens. Russian laboratories were also involved in the project. However, after the change of government in Ukraine and as a result of Russia’s war on Ukraine since 2014, the cooperation ended although the disinformation became more robust. The fact that Russia never voiced such accusations before 2015 is a clear indication that these accusations are fabricated and have no other objective except for being used as an instrument of manipulation. It is illogical to blame those programmes and research centres for producing biological weapons when Russia itself was their partner before the war.
One of the first who voiced allegations about biological laboratories in Georgia and Ukraine was the former MP of the Russian State Duma and the former Chief Sanitary Inspector, Gennady Onishchenko. In 2015, Mr Onishchenko stated that the laboratory in Odessa is part of a system which the US builds around Russia. He also stated that it has been a long time since the US established control over the surveillance of the spread and the circulation of especially hazardous infectious diseases.
In addition to Russian officials, pro-Russian Ukrainian politicians also promoted disinformation about the laboratories. In 2020, the head of the Ukrainian Choice party, Viktor Medvedchuk, together with a party member, Renat Kuzmin, published a statement on the party’s website saying that the biological laboratories in Ukraine were carrying out illegal activities which posed a threat to the life and the health of people. They claimed that the medical centres were involved in the creation of weapons of mass destruction. The statement also alleged that there have been outbreaks of several serious infections in the country as a result of the work of the laboratories and that there is a danger that they will happen again.
The author of the first allegation against the biological laboratory in Georgia was the same former Russian State Duma MP, Gennady Onishchenko. As early as in 2011, Mr Onishchenko claimed that Georgia pursued the economic sabotage of Russia’s southern regions by deliberately spreading the swine flu virus. In turn, he said that the spread of the virus was linked to the US-financed Lugar Laboratory in Georgia.
Later, the so called Secretary of the Security Council, Muhammed Kilba, blamed the Georgian laboratory for producing biological weapons near Abkhazia’s border. He also assumed that the mass poisoning of children in Tkvarcheli in 2013 as well the swine flu cases were linked to the activities of the laboratory.
In 2018, the former Georgian Minister of State Security, Igor Giorgadze, stated at his press conference in Moscow that clandestine experiments on humans took place in Georgia’s Lugar Laboratory. He also claimed that a US military-medical group of biologists and American private contractors could have been involved in these crimes. After these statements, the Russian media became even more active against the Lugar Laboratory. However, when BBC News asked Mr Giorgadze to provide evidence, he acknowledged that he did not possess any facts that would confirm his statement. According to Igor Giorgadze, the information published on the website was not his own since he had not carried out any analysis himself and his conclusions were a summary of information reported by other sources. At the same time, clinical trials have never taken place in the Lugar Laboratory and, therefore, there could not have been someone who was a victim of “clandestine experiments.” As stated by Amiran Gamkrelidze, the Head of the National Centre for Disease Control and Public Health (NCDC), the Lugar Centre has nothing to do with the medical treatment of humans as well as with trials as stated by Igor Giorgadze and his allegations are also not confirmed by the documents he showed.
Simultaneously with the false statements of the Russian and pro-Russian public officials, the Kremlin-controlled media and affiliated journalists also promote disinformation about the biological laboratories. It was Igor Giorgadze’s statement in 2018 that was followed by the publication of the so-called investigation materials by a Bulgarian journalist, Dilyana Gaytandzhieva, entitled the Pentagon’s Bio Wars. Ms Gaytandzhieva regularly promotes different pieces of disinformation about laboratories in Ukraine and Georgia, including Project GG-21 which subjects soldiers to secret experiments and creates hazardous pathogens. The journalist brings multiple inauthentic “documents” as evidence, including forged documents of the Ministry of Healthcare of Georgia which were supposedly obtained as a result of a 2020 cyber-attack against the Ministry and which were manipulated. Another journalist having ties with the Kremlin is Jeffrey Silverman who promotes disinformation about the Lugar Laboratory across different platforms. Mr Silverman’s major claim is about cases of deaths of humans in the Lugar Laboratory and the origin of COVID-19. Mr Silverman has not produced any factual evidence to support his claims.
Real Activities of the Laboratories
Biological laboratories in Ukraine and Georgia function not to create and proliferate biological weapons but, on the contrary, to prevent these from happening. The activities of these laboratories involve carrying out epidemiological and laboratory surveillance on infectious and non-infectious diseases as well as the timely detection of disease cases, epidemiological outbreaks and other public health hazards. One of the objectives of these laboratories is to trace the origins of epidemiological outbreaks – whether it is a natural outbreak or a result of bioterrorism.
In fact, in Ukraine as well as in Georgia, biological laboratories were established on the basis of agreements of cooperation in the area of the prevention of the proliferation of technology, pathogens and expertise that could be used in the development of biological weapons. This agreement, in turn, was signed as a part of the biological weapons non-proliferation treaty (NPT).
Both Georgia and Ukraine fully comply with the international obligations set forth in the Biological Weapons Convention, including the Convention’s demands and provisions in regard to the operating of biological laboratories. According to the statement of the Georgian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the member states developed a mechanism for transparency and confidence-building as a part of the 7th Review Conference – the so-called peer exercise – which appears to be the only instrument for transparency.
In response to the Kremlin’s disinformation campaign, a group of experts, comprised of 22 experts and observers from 17 different countries, visited Georgia at Tbilisi’s request in 2018. Georgia also invited Russian experts, although Moscow “categorically rejected” this offer which clearly illustrates Russia’s false interest in the laboratory’s functioning. The visit aimed to assess how the laboratory was in compliance with the Biological Weapons Convention. According to the report of the mission, the experts visited all of the centre’s facilities and stated that the “facility demonstrated significant transparency about its activities” with the visiting team moreover having “observed nothing that was inconsistent with prophylactic, protective and other peaceful purposes.” In addition, the same report found that “all of the equipment and the infrastructure which were observed were relevant to the prophylactic, protective and other peaceful research and diagnostic purposes stated by the visited facility.” On 4-7 December of 2018, the UN Geneva Office hosted a meeting of the BTWC signatory states where the assessment of the international experts vis-à-vis the Richard Lugar Centre for Public Health Research earned full support and acclaim.
Disinformation N1: There are secret laboratories in Ukraine and Georgia and their existence was also acknowledged in the US Senate.
The claim that biological laboratories in Ukraine and Georgia were functioning secretly is false. The construction of the facility started in 2004 based on a framework agreement signed by the US and the Georgian Governments in 1997 as well as an agreement in 2002 between the US Department of Defence and the Ministry of Defence of Georgia on cooperation in the field of the prevention of the introduction of pathogenesis and experience related to biological weapons development. On the basis of a similar bilateral agreement, the US Department of Defence and the Ukrainian Ministry of Defence signed an agreement in 2005 as part of which biological laboratories and research centres were built in Ukraine. Within the scope of the biological threat reduction programme, many laboratories of the Ukrainian Ministry of Healthcare as well as the State Service of Ukraine on Food Safety and Consumer Protection were renovated and reached a 2nd level biosecurity. As part of that programme, two laboratories were built for Ukraine’s State Service of Ukraine on Food Safety and Consumer Protection – one in Kyiv and one in Odessa.
The documents have never been classified and have been open to the public since the day of their signing.
In regard to claim that US high-ranking officials admitted to the existence of US-financed secret biological laboratories in Ukraine and that work is in progress to produce weapons of mass destruction it is false. This disinformation followed the comment that the US Undersecretary of State, Victoria Nuland, made. At a US Senate hearing for Victoria Nuland on 8 March 2022, Senator Marco Rubio asked her whether or not Ukraine is in possession of chemical or biological weapons.
In her response, Ms Nuland did not confirm that there are biological laboratories in Ukraine where biological weapons are being produced. In fact, she said: “Ukraine has biological research facilities,” something which has never been a secret. These facilities are there not to produce and proliferate biological weapons but to prevent them. She also stated that Russia may use these allegations as a pretext for its future actions in Ukraine – the potential use of biological weapons – and blame Ukraine for this. For more details, see FactCheck’s article on disinformation about Victoria Nuland.
Disinformation N2: Biological laboratories in Ukraine and Georgia are controlled by the Americans
Laboratories in Ukraine were established with US support, although the claim that they are controlled by the Americans is false.
Since 2005, the United States has been contributing to the modernisation of Ukraine’s laboratories, they have research studies carried out and they are working to improve safety measures in order to prevent the spread of dangerous infectious diseases. In the course of the entire period of cooperation, the US invested USD 200 million to develop 46 laboratories and medical facilities in Ukraine. Despite the fact that the biological threat reduction programme supports numerous joint projects between US and Ukrainian scientists, the laboratories are fully under Ukraine’s control. The current executives of the aforementioned programme are the Ministry of Healthcare, the State Service of Ukraine on Food Safety and Consumer Protection, the National Academy of Agricultural Sciences and the Ministry of Defence.
In the same vein, the Lugar Centre and all of its equipment is fully under the ownership of the Government of Georgia. The Government of Georgia has also been providing the full funding for the Lugar Laboratory and the associated network of laboratories since 2018. Structurally, the Lugar Centre is a part of the NCDC and belongs to the institutions of the Georgian Ministry of Healthcare. All of the research and the activities carried out in the Lugar Centre’s infrastructure are done by only relevant experts in coordination with Georgia’s competent authorities. The American partners have no role and function in setting the goals of the Centre and they have no opportunity to carry out any type of independent studies.
Disinformation N3: Dangerous pathogens and chemical and biological weapons are created in the biological laboratories of Georgia and Ukraine
As mentioned earlier, Russia has not produced any evidence that would support its claim that dangerous pathogens as well as chemical and biological weapons are being created in Georgian and Ukrainian biological laboratories. The United States Department of State said the allegation was an outright lie and stressed that Russia is inventing false pretexts in an attempt to justify its own “horrific actions” in Ukraine.
Some of the projects of the Biological Threat Reduction Programme where Ukrainian and American scientists carry out joint work projects are as follows:
- Assessment of the risks of the spread of some particularly dangerous pathogens of avian influenza which are potentially transmitted by migratory birds in Ukraine.
- Research on Crimean-Congo haemorrhagic fever and hantaviruses in Ukraine as well as the potential need for a differential diagnosis of patients with suspected leptospirosis.
- Spread of African swine fever virus (ASFV) among domestic pigs and wild boars in Ukraine - building capacity to study how this virus is transmitted.
- Epidemiological surveillance of the African swine fever virus and regional risk assessment: field research.
The Georgian authorities have responded multiple times to baseless allegations about working on biological weapons in the Lugar Laboratory and creating the coronavirus. According to the official statement of the Georgian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Russian Federation has deliberately intensified its hybrid warfare tools against Georgia and constantly attacks one of the laboratories of Georgia’s National Centre for Disease Control and Public Health, the Richard Lugar Centre, with fabricated propaganda myths.
Three virology (poliomyelitis, influenza and measles) laboratories accredited by the World Health Organization (WHO) operate at the Centre. In addition, the following laboratories operate at the facility under international quality control: the diagnosis of the rotavirus, invasive meningitis, malaria, antibiotic resistance, diphtheria and salmonellosis. The Centre has an international ISO accreditation for clinical laboratory research.
The incomplete list of ongoing programmes at the Lugar Centre in the course of past several years is as follows:
- Characterising the causes of undifferentiated acute febrile illnesses in Georgia and other South Caucasus countries.
- Determining the prevalence of the norovirus and Enterotoxigenic Escherichia coli (ETEC) in US populations in Georgia and determining the antimicrobial resistance of ETEC isolates.
- Studying the causes of acute respiratory infections in Georgian personnel.
- Identifying accurate and practical biologic tools to estimate HIV incidence of newly diagnosed HIV 1/2/ cases in Georgia.
- Identifying mosquitoes (including invasive mosquitoes), sand flies and ticks present in Georgia and determining their distribution.
Disinformation N4: Once the “special military operation” was launched, an order was issued to destroy dangerous pathogens in order to ensure US clandestine activities in Ukraine were not brought to public light
Russia published photographs to claim that Ukraine destroyed pathogens in biological laboratories in order to ensure that their secret activities were not disclosed. In fact, it is impossible to verify the document they published, although even if such documents existed, it would be false to state that this was done to cover up a crime.
The WHO told BBC News that it had advised Ukraine to destroy high-threat pathogens stored in the country's public health labs. The aim of that step is to prevent "any potential spills" that would spread disease among the population. The WHO also stated that it had collaborated with Ukrainian public health laboratories for several years in order to enhance biosafety and biosecurity and help prevent an "accidental or deliberate release of pathogens."
The WHO did not say when the recommendation had been made nor whether it was followed up. However, the US said that Ukraine's health ministry had ordered the "safe and secure disposal of samples" after Russia's invasion in order to limit risk in the event of a Russian military attack. This threat has become credible after Russia attacked Ukraine’s nuclear power plants and research facilities.
Therefore, there is no evidence to corroborate Russia’s groundless claims about the production of chemical and biological weapons in Ukrainian laboratories. For years, the Kremlin has limited itself to only verbal allegations and the publication of false documents. The activities of the biological laboratories are fully in line with the biological weapons non-proliferation treaties. Pathogens stored in these laboratories are merely bacteria and viruses which are subjects of research instead of being components to produce biological weapons.
Russia’s allegations were called nonsense at the UN Security Council session on 18 March 2022. As stated by the UN Under-Secretary-General and High Representative for Disarmament Affairs, Izumi Nakamitsu, the UN is not aware of any biological weapons programme being conducted in Ukraine.
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