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Asking Questions About Ukrainian Biolabs

Why is the Biden administration trying to hide an open secret?

Since the Russian invasion of Ukraine began, the Biden administration—aided by its allies in the media and tech—has been particularly focused on shutting down any questions regarding U.S.-funded biohazard research in a number of Ukrainian laboratories. Their breathless denials have been curious.

Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Victoria Nuland did not appear to get the memo. During a Senate Committee on Foreign Relations hearing Tuesday, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Florida) asked Nuland about the existence of U.S.-funded biolabs in Ukraine. Rubio, who appeared to be lobbing up what he thought was a softball for Nuland to rebut Russian disinformation, asked, “does Ukraine have chemical or biological weapons?”

Rather than simply saying no, Nuland replied, “Ukraine has biological-research facilities, which, in fact, we are now quite concerned 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.”

After receiving this apparently unexpected answer, Rubio teed a new ball up for Nuland, so she could take another swing.

“I’m sure you’re aware that the Russian propaganda groups are already putting out there all kinds of information about how they’ve uncovered a plot by the Ukrainians to release biological weapons in the country with NATO’s coordination,” the Florida senator asked. “If there is a biological or chemical weapon incident or attack inside of Ukraine, is there any doubt in your mind that 100 percent, it would be the Russians that would be behind it?”

“There is no doubt in my mind, Senator,” Nuland replied. “And it is classic Russian technique to blame on the other guy what they’re planning to do themselves.”

The U.S. government claims it has been working with former Soviet countries to clean up installations from Soviet nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons programs. If this was the extent of official U.S. government efforts, and any other work by the labs was supposed to be secret, then it’s one of the worst kept secrets in Washington. In fact, the U.S. embassy in Kiev felt it acceptable to devote an entire page on its website to the United States’ biohazard activities in Ukraine.

The Defense Threat Reduction Office (DTRO), a subagency of the Defense Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA), an offspring of the Manhattan Project, is responsible for a number of programs in Ukraine, one of which is the Biological Threat Reduction Program.

The Biological Threat Reduction Program, according to the U.S. Embassy in Kiev, “collaborates with partner countries to counter the threat of outbreaks (deliberate, accidental, or natural) of the world’s most dangerous infectious diseases. ” To mitigate biohazards, the embassy claims, the program fosters “a bio-risk management culture; international research partnerships; and partner capacity for enhanced bio-security, bio-safety, and bio-surveillance measures.” The following sentence in the embassy’s description of the program’s activities is particularly striking:

The Biological Threat Reduction Program’s priorities in Ukraine are to consolidate and secure pathogens and toxins of security concern and to continue to ensure Ukraine can detect and report outbreaks caused by dangerous pathogens before they pose security or stability threats.

In other words, while the aim of the program is to contain bio-threats, these laboratories house and work with dangerous pathogens and toxins. Downloadable fact sheets posted on the embassy’s webpage for just over a dozen different laboratories and institutions across Ukraine show that the primary donor for 12 of these laboratories and institutions is the U.S. Department of Defense. One other fact sheet, for the Dnipropetrovsk State Regional Diagnostic Veterinary Laboratory, names the DRTA (which is under the Department of Defense), as its primary donor. In eight cases, the Ukrainian Ministry of Health was listed as the recipient of these donations on the fact sheets, and the Ukraine State Veterinary and Phytosanitary Service was listed as the recipient on four.

Furthermore, every single laboratory with a fact sheet listing donors and recipients names Black & Veatch, a large engineering firm based in Kansas City, as the head contractor. Previously, Black & Veatch was tasked with building Ukraine’s first Biological Safety Level 3 (BSL-3) lab in Odessa. BSL-3 laboratories are allowed to work with dangerous toxins and pathogens like anthrax and HIV.

Jonathan Askonas, an assistant professor of politics at the Catholic University of America, explained the history of the U.S. biolab program in Ukraine and other former Soviet countries to The American Conservative via email:

After the fall of the Soviet Union, the United States was extremely concerned about what would happen to Soviet WMD programs: nuclear, chemical, and biological. In the waning days of the Soviet Union, American officials learned that the Soviet biological weapons program, in particular, was even larger than they had previously understood. This led to, with bipartisan consensus, the Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction (CTR) program, overseen by the Defense Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA). The US spent tens of billions of dollars helping former Soviet governments (including the Russian government above all) secure and destroy WMDs, in programs run by or with those governments and paid for by the US.

About ten years ago, the Russian government sharply curtailed and then eliminated its participation in CTR programs. As a result, DTRA increased its activities in peripheral countries of the FSU. Ukraine was particularly attractive—it has a lots of skilled STEM workers (including, I suspect, veterans of the Soviet bioweapons program) and had by this point a US-friendly government. It is my understanding that the laboratories in Ukraine are DTRA facilities designed to study and understand the pathogens which the Soviet bioweapons program had specialized in (including weaponized anthrax and plague).

While the program was commonly understood to be focused on cleaning up former Soviet programs, the 12 fact sheets show that the United States had invested more than $21 million in the construction and operation of various facilities located in cities scattered across Ukraine, such as Lviv and Karkiv. Each have or are in the process of obtaining a “permit for working with Pathogens.” The operation seems extensive and relatively long-lasting for simply a clean-up effort, which would have likely destroyed these biohazards or brought them to a more secure laboratory, outside of a country that has been relatively unstable for the last decade.

Certainly, Russia has spread its share of war-time propaganda, and Russian state media’s insinuations about the Ukrainian labs are likely so distorted as to be effectively false. But the U.S. government’s refusal to provide clear information and label non-Russian claims about possible biohazards in Ukraine “disinformation” or “conspiracy theories” when details on such programs are widely available has been peculiar. 

One of the earliest fact-checks of this claim, dated Feb. 24, the first day of the Russian invasion, from Snopes, fact-checked a tweet from a Twitter user with the handle @WarClandestine, which said “I am seeing speculation” that Russian missiles were hitting targets “that could include U.S. installed biolabs. At first I was like no way. Then I started digging.” The thread continues with two maps: one that showed supposed Russian missile strikes, the other showing alleged U.S. biolabs in Ukraine. Five green circles were drawn on each of the maps, indicating a strike that occurred near one of these alleged labs.

Prior to revealing whether or not the U.S. has biolabs in Ukraine, Snopes prefaced its findings with the following: 

Conspiracy theories are very often built on top of one another. The claim that the U.S. is operating biolabs in Ukraine, for example, is built on the false notion that the United States (or, according to similar theories, China) intentionally started the COVID-19 pandemic with a human-made bioweapon. Once you buy into that rumor, you can be sold the next: that Russia is invading Ukraine to stop the next pandemic.

There are a number of inconsistencies with Snopess  characterization of the Covid-19 lab-leak theory. The first is that those who believe in the lab-leak theory don’t necessarily believe that U.S.-funded laboratories in China purposefully released the agent. It’s more likely, they argue, that the virus was able to escape because of shoddy safety procedures in the labs in question, which has been a topic of concern for biohazard experts for well over a decade. Here, Snopes’s “fact-checkers” use the word “intentionally” to disguise any potential culpability the United States may have had in a number of other plausible lab-leak scenarios. It also should be noted that no one, not even the Russians, has argued that the primary purpose of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is to prevent the next pandemic.

Further, it’s now a matter of public record that the National Institutes of Health (NIH) subsidiary National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) led by Dr. Anthony Fauci gave grants worth more than $3 million over the span of five years to explicitly research how to make coronaviruses more transmissible in humans. About $600,000 of that funding was given to the Wuhan Institute of Virology. Linking the Covid-19 lab-leak theory with U.S.-backed activities in Ukraine is not the supportive context Snopes thinks it is.  

The Snopes fact check goes on to say that “conspiracy theories are often fashioned from a small morsel of truth. In this case, the rumors are a distortion of the fact that the Ministry of Health of Ukraine and the Department of Defense of the United States of America entered into an agreement in 2005, while Republican U.S. President George W. Bush was in office, to ‘stem the threat of bio-terrorism by placing safeguards on deadly pathogens dating from a Soviet-era biological weapons program.’”

Snopes adds that “while the U.S. Defense Department’s Biological Threat Reduction Program provided some funding to upgrade biolabs in the Ukraine, these facilities are operated by the Ukrainian government under guidelines set under Ukrainian law.” Nevertheless, thanks to their clever framing of the questions at hand, and because these labs were not necessarily “installed” by the U.S., Snopes concluded, “there’s no evidence that Russia was targeting ‘U.S. biolabs’ when they launched a full-scale attack on Ukraine in February 2022.”

The Twitter user @WarClandestine has since been banned from Twitter for spreading misinformation.

The next day, USA Today published a fact-check of a Facebook post, which they said garnered a whopping 400 interactions, that made similar claims as @WarClandestine. The USA Today fact-checkers also said the August 2005 treaty sought to “‘moderniz[e]’ state laboratories in the Odesa, Kharkiv, Lviv, Kyiv, Vinnytsia, Kherson and Dnipropetrovsk regions,” and “prevent the proliferation of dangerous pathogens and related expertise and to minimize potential biological threats.” Based on this evidence, the fact-checkers concluded the claim was “FALSE” and “the posts misrepresent a treaty between the United States and Ukraine aimed at preventing biological threats.” Why did they come to this conclusion despite evidence that could prove the contrary? Because “the Security Service of Ukraine and the U.S. Embassy in Ukraine have said the claim is false.”

As the invasion continued, other media outlets, such as the New York Times, Foreign Policy, and Business Insider, published pieces likening claims that the U.S. is backing biolabs in Ukraine that may be or have been targeted by the Russians to the views of QAnon and other real and perceived conspiracy theorists to cast guilt by association. The theory was effectively sidelined. Even those who believe American elites are grossly incompetent were hesitant to believe the establishment would place sensitive and dangerous research in a geopolitical area as contentious as Ukraine.

“The United States does not have chemical and biological weapons labs in Ukraine,” the State Department tweeted soon after the Nuland exchange with Rubio—with “FACT,” in all caps and a colon preceding the message. The State Department attached a statement to the tweet that read, “The U.S. is in full compliance with its obligations under the Biological Weapons Convention and does not develop or possess chemical and biological weapons anywhere.” This statement and other denials across the U.S. government, such as White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki’s tweet thread, were so definitive in tone yet so so vague in their language that they further piqued public interest.

If what the State Department said is true, then why is one of its top officials concerned that these materials would fall into Russian hands? If what was happening in these labs was purely defensive in nature, then why haven’t they been used as other conventional defensive deterrents, which are often flaunted to discourage potential adversaries from launching bioattacks? 

Fox News’s Tucker Carlson forwarded these questions to the State Department, which provided Carlson with a statement he discussed on the air Wednesday.

“The U.S. Department of Defense does not own or operate biological laboratories in Ukraine. Undersecretary Nuland was referring to Ukrainian diagnostic and biodefense laboratories during her testimony, which are not biological weapons facilities. These institutions counter biological threats throughout the country,” the State Department statement read.

“So, that means nothing,” Carlson went on to say. “You could describe our nuclear stockpile correctly as defensive. Our nuclear weapons are not designed to preemptively kill anybody. They’re designed to prevent other people from killing us, but they’re still nuclear weapons. So, when you stop lying and telling us what’s going on here and why don’t you more specifically tell us why you didn’t secure these materials? So, yes, we’re funding secret bio labs in Ukraine, but they are diagnostic and biodefense laboratories that counter biological threats.”

Carlson’s skepticism is merited. While the American public is already disposed to distrust claims coming out of Moscow, just last year the U.S. government was caught lying about funding gain-of-function research in Chinese labs from which Covid-19 may have escaped.

“What I don’t understand for the life of me is why the U.S. government has been denying this so shoddily,” Askonas told TAC. “CTR is not a secret program, and there were press releases and announcement when some of these facilities were opened. Unfortunately, this seems of a piece with the elite media response to COVID, where instead of government and media actors leveling with the American people about a complex reality, they engaged in a shameful and self-defeating coverup under the guise of ‘fighting misinformation.'”

Indeed, it’s unusual for people to lie when they have nothing to hide.



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