Bioweapons

One of the more serious allegations to emerge out of the Ukraine-Russian conflict is that the U.S. was cooperating with the Ukraine to develop biological weapons. While the evidence is circumstantial and strongly denied by the U.S. government, there is reason for concern and for optimism.

Russian sources have claimed that there are US-funded biolabs in Ukraine that may be involved in biological weapons research. On Russian’s TV1, Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova stated that “Russia is demanding clarification from the United States about the activities at laboratories in Ukraine that appear to be producing biological weapons” and, based on evidence captured that was not made public, Russia had concluded that

…that in Ukrainian biolaboratories in the immediate vicinity of the territory of our country [Russia] the development of biological weapons components had been carried out. The urgent destruction of especially dangerous pathogens on February 24 was done to prevent the discovery of violations by Ukraine and the United States of America of Article 1 of the Convention on the Prohibition of Biological and Toxin Weapons. And can I ask another question? How was it all destroyed? Was it all destroyed? This was given by the Ministry of Health. And who led the Ministry of Health for many years? What country did this wonderful doctor come from? Remember? I remember very well – from the American continent. So, the question is open: have these biomaterials been destroyed or not destroyed now? And how can this be verified?[1]

According to the Russian media, Former CIA analyst Larry Johnson reacted to these reports stating “[t]here is no moral or national security justification” the suspected US biowarfare programme in Ukraine.[2] He continued that “[t]his now explains, at least to me, why the United States was so insistent on provoking this war with Russia. Covering up a bioweapons program is almost impossible.”[3] And University of Illinois College of Law Professor Francis Boyle has noted that “[j]udging from the incoming reports, it appears that the US carried out bio warfare programmes in Ukraine in violation of the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC) and the Biological Weapons Anti-Terrorism Act of 1989 (BWATA).”[4] According to Sputnik International Boyle also “noted that American neoconservatives, an influential political group Victoria Nuland is tied with, had long flirted with the idea of biological warfare weapons which could target specific genotypes and be used as a ‘politically useful tool’  …[and] … the Project for the New American Century (PNAC), a US major neocon think tank, openly discussed that in their manifesto ‘Rebuilding America’s Defenses’ (2000).’[5] Chinese and Syrian government officials have also alleged that the US had bio-military plans in Ukraine.[6]

The United States Department of State issued this statement to refute the claims. The statement is reproduced in its entirety:

The Kremlin is intentionally spreading outright lies that the United States and Ukraine are conducting chemical and biological weapons activities in Ukraine. We have also seen PRC officials echo these conspiracy theories. This Russian disinformation is total nonsense and not the first time Russia has invented such false claims against another country. Also, these claims have been debunked conclusively and repeatedly over many years.

As we have said all along, Russia is inventing false pretexts in an attempt to justify its own horrific actions in Ukraine. The United States does not own or operate any chemical or biological laboratories in Ukraine, it is in full compliance with its obligations under the Chemical Weapons Convention and Biological Weapons Convention, and it does not develop or possess such weapons anywhere. It is Russia that has active chemical and biological weapons programs and is in violation of the Chemical Weapons Convention and Biological Weapons Convention.

Finally, Russia has a track record of accusing the West of the very crimes that Russia itself is perpetrating. These tactics are an obvious ploy by Russia to try to justify further premeditated, unprovoked, and unjustified attacks on Ukraine. We fully expect Russia to continue to double down on these sorts of claims with further unfounded allegations.[7]

White House press secretary Jen Psaki called what she called Russia’s “false claims,” and seemed to deflect with statement about Russia’s “long and well-documented track record of using chemical weapons….”[8] Pentagon spokesman John Kirby, called the Russian accusations “absurd” and “laughable.”[9] United States news channel CNN agreed “that there are biolabs in Ukraine, that much is true,” but continued describing these biolabs as “not building bioweapons, “but to secure old Soviet weapons left behind in the former Soviet republics.”[10] A British Broadcasting Corporation fact-check, like the CNN, found that biolabs did exist in the Ukraine, but that there was “no evidence that they work to produce biological weapons.”[11]

Nevertheless, the U.S. government removed 15 links to documents about its cooperation with Ukraine on biolabs that appeared to be capable of working with dangerous pathogens from its Kyiv Embassy website on 9 March 2022.[12] These links were restored on 11 March 2022 after a Bulgarian reported them missing on 10 March 2022.[13] The disappeared documents indicated that the U.S. Department of Defense was funding a biolab under the authority of Ukraine’s Ministry of Health that was constructed under the authority of the private U.S. company Black & Veatch.[14] The twelve labs are located in Zakarpartska, Vinnytsia, Ternopil, Lviv, Luhansk, Kherson, Kharkiv and Dnipropetrovsk in Ukraine and had received US$21 million in funding from the U.S. Department of Defense. Based on its investigation, U.S. ally France’s Radio France International (RFI) came to the inclusion that “whatever the status of the biolabs, the war of words over them has no winner yet,” and noting that “[i]t is now up to the Americans to provide more transparency on the project.”[15]

Reuters, a news service based in the United Kingdom and owned by the Canadian Thomson Reuters Corporation reported on 11 March 2022 that

[i]n response to questions from Reuters about its work with Ukraine ahead of and during Russia’s invasion, the WHO said in an email on Thursday that it has collaborated with Ukrainian public health labs for several years to promote security practices that help prevent “accidental or deliberate release of pathogens.”

“As part of this work, WHO has strongly recommended to the Ministry of Health in Ukraine and other responsible bodies to destroy high-threat pathogens to prevent any potential spills,” the WHO, a United Nations agency, said.

The WHO would not say when it had made the recommendation nor did it provide specifics about the kinds of pathogens or toxins housed in Ukraine’s laboratories. The agency also did not answer questions about whether its recommendations were followed.[16]

Ukraine’s 2021 report required under the Convention on the Prohibition of Biological and Toxin Weapons.[17] This report indeed admits that Ukraine is the site of several biolabs dealing with dangerous pathogens, but it does not indicate that work on biological or toxin weapons was taking place,[18] but to do so would have been to admit a clear violation of the Convention. The Ukrainian report does indicate that “Microorganisms of III-IV groups of pathogenicity” are stored in its biolabs.[19] The World Health Organization’s Laboratory Biosafety Manual. defines these two groups of pathogens as follows

Risk Group 3 (high individual risk, low community risk): A pathogen that usually causes serious human or animal disease but does not ordinarily spread from one infected individual to another. Effective treatment and preventive measures are available. Risk Group 4 (high individual and community risk): A pathogen that usually causes serious human or animal disease and that can be readily transmitted from one individual to another, directly or indirectly. Effective treatment and preventive measures are not usually available.[20]

Although these types of pathogens could be employed for biological warfare, there mere existence is not evidence that the biolabs were doing so.

Neither the Russian allegations with only superficial evidence, nor the American retorts that appeared to be merely opinions, really help an observer to understand the truth. Both Russia and the US, and their respective state of corporate media seem to be willing to leave observers to believe who they trust most.

Past and Present Danger

Biological weapons programmes have existed in France, Japan, the UK, the USA and the former Soviet Union, according to Jeanne Guillemin at the Security Studies Program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the United States.[21] Guillemin also notes the “intense secrecy that surrounded offensive biological weapons programmes.”[22] She goes on to outline a long history of activities to develop biological weapons, led by the United States activities that included offensive as well as defensive uses.[23] Seumas Miller and Michael J. Selgelid, two Australian biosecurity experts, point out that regardless of how research is categorized “one and the same piece of scientific research sometimes has the potential to be used for harm as well as for good.”[24] As an example Miller and Selgelid the dilemma of research on the mousepox virus in Australia, noting that

[o]n the one hand, the research program on the mousepox virus should have been pursued since it may well have led to a genetically engineered sterility treatment that would have helped combat periodic plagues of mice in Australia. On the other hand, this research project should not have been pursued since it led to the creation of a highly virulent strain of mousepox and the possibility of the creation—by, say, a terrorist group contemplating a biological attack—of a highly virulent strain of smallpox resistant to available vaccines [internal footnotes omitted].[25]

Miller and Selgelid specifically cite the United States’ ‘Project BioShield’ as “an example of research aimed at providing ‘new tools to improve medical countermeasures protecting Americans against a chemical, biological, radiological or nuclear (CBRN) attack’….”[26] But they note that “some of the protective research would probably yield results that could assist in the development and delivery of biological weapons [internal footnotes omitted].”[27] The problem of dual use, regardless of initial intentions cannot be ignored.

The Ukraine, Russia and the United States are all party, together with 146 States, to the Protocol for the prohibition of the use in war of asphyxiating, poisonous or other gases, and of bacteriological methods of warfare. This treaty makes prohibition of “the use in war of asphyxiating, poisonous or other gases, and of all analogous liquids materials or devices, has been justly condemned by the general opinion of the civilized world” universally accepted as a part of International Law, binding alike the conscience and the practice of nations…”[28] Of these parties, however, only the United States has made a reservation preserving the right to no longer be bound by the provisions of this treaty “in regard to an enemy state if such state or any of its allies fails to respect the prohibitions laid down in the Protocol.”[29]

In the 1970’s, States negotiated the Biological Weapons Convention, or Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention,[30] a multilateral treaty that prohibits the development, production, and stockpiling of chemical and bacteriological weapons and calls for their elimination with effective controls. During negotiations of this treaty biological weapons were described as “those that depend for their effects on multiplication within the target organism, and are intended for use in war to cause decease in man, animals or plants.”[31] Article 1 of the treaty obliges each State Party to

never in any circumstances to develop, produce, stockpile or otherwise acquire or retain

(1) mjcrobial or other biological agents, or toxins whatever their originor method of production, of types and in quantities that have no justification for prophylactic, protective or other peaceful purposes;

(2) weapons, equipment or means of delivery designed to use such agents or toxins for hostile purposes or in armed conflict[32]

The use of biological warfare by the Ukraine, Russia or the United States will violate this treaty. The development or production of biological agents for weapons will also violate this treaty. Whether research concerning pathogens that have dual use would violate the treaty will depend on the circumstances of the research and how it is being used.

Beyond these legal and scientific considerations there are also undoubtedly issues of trust which have permeated a wide range of disarmament discussions. Truth has been an often dispensed with commodity by all three States. As Eric Alterman’s book Lying in State: Why Presidents Lie, and Why Trump Is Worse, points out all United States Presidents in recent times have lied.[33]

Captain Dahlia Andreadis, the Chief of Public Health Operations for the 673d Operational Medical Readiness Squadron at the Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson in Alaska in the United States has suggested that Russia (and China) might still be developing, testing, and producing biological weapons.[34] Academics, such as Martin Leitenberg, a senior research associate with the Center for International and Security Studies at Maryland within the School of Public Policy at the University of Maryland, have made a career of accusing the Soviet Union and then Russia of misleading statements about biological weapons.[35]

At the same time, the United States’ misinformation about biological weapons in the not too distant past has been documented.[36] In 2003, the United States had in 2003 claimed that “[t]here can be no doubt that Saddam Hussain has biological weapons and the capability to rapidly produce more, many more. And he has the ability to dispense these lethal poisons and diseases in ways that can cause massive death and destruction.”[37] This threat appeared to be false and was or should have been known to be false by the United States at the time it was made. Instead, it was a lie that launched a war killing as many as 1.2 million Iraqis as the consequences of an unlawful use of force.[38] And as Iraq allegedly deployed chemical weapons against Iran in November 1983, the United States knowing of this stood by and refused to act despite the fact that it knew “that Iraq has acquired a CW [chemical weapons] capability, primarily from Western firms, including possibly a U.S. foreign subsidiary.”[39]

Ominously both the United States[40] and Russia[41] are alleged to have developed biological weapons in the past and there has been no independent confirmation that either has definitively dismantled these programs, although both claim to have done so.[42] Two Israeli security strategists came to the conclusion in 2004 “that the Russian military still poses a potential menace, in terms of both stockpiled, probably deployable biological weapons, and prevailing production capacities.”[43] While the New York Times reported on 4 September 2001 that “[o]ver the past several years, the United States has embarked on a program of secret research on biological weapons that, some officials say, tests the limits of the global treaty banning such weapons” and that “[t]he projects, which have not been previously disclosed, were begun under President Clinton and have been embraced by the Bush Administration, which intends to expand them.”[44]

Conclusions

While it cannot be said with any degree of certainty that Ukraine, with U.S. assistance was developing biological weapons, this hypothesis, however far-fetched cannot be ignored because of the threat that it poses to civilian populations. In such a situation Russia, despite its own unlawful use of force, is acting appropriately to warn the international community of the possible danger from the release of pathogens by Ukraine and/or the United States in the context of the armed conflict between Ukraine and Russia. This action has no bearing on the legality of Russia’s use of force but has serious consequences for Ukraine, and potentially the United States, in respect of their obligations under international law forbidding the development of biological weapons. It is important to find out the truth about this credible allegation through independent means because failure to do so could send a signal to Russia and other countries, even non-State entities, that biological warfare is acceptable. That result would be dangerous for everyone. Conversely, allowing independent verification of the situation would be a welcome step towards ending recourse to biological warfare. It is hoped that the international community can come together on this matter. Doing so at this time—during an ongoing armed conflict involving the accusing State—might help to build the trust necessary to be=ring this armed conflict to an end. The concession by the United States—although a slightly embarrassingly concession to Russia—would be a huge step forward towards the common goal of ensuring biological warfare is banned.

[1] Russian TV1, “Russia demands clarification from the United States on the activities of biological laboratories in Ukraine” [translated from Russian by author with assistance of Google Translate, https://translate.google.com/] at https://www.1tv.ru/news/2022-03-09/422991-rossiya_trebuet_ot_ssha_raz_yasneniy_o_deyatelnosti_biologicheskih_laboratoriy_na_ukraine (9 March 2022, 15:07 Moscow time) (accessed on 10 March 2022).

[2] Sputnik International, “What’s Behind Washington’s Denial of Biowarfare Weapons Programme in Ukraine?” (12 March 2022) at https://sputniknews.com/20220312/whats-behind-washingtons-denial-of-biowarfare-weapons-programme-in-ukraine-1093810839.html (accessed 12 March 2022).

[3] Id.

[4] Id.

[5] Id.

[6] Robinson, O., Sardarizadeh, S., and Horton, J., “Ukraine war: Fact-checking Russia’s biological weapons claims” BBC Reality Check and BBC Monitoring (12 March 2022) at https://www.bbc.com/news/60711705 (accessed 12 March 2022) citing Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian accusing the US of using the facilities to “conduct bio-military plans.”

[7]  States Department of State, “Press Statement by Ned Price, Department Spokesperson ‘The Kremlin’s Allegations of Chemical and Biological Weapons Laboratories in Ukraine’” (March 9, 2022) at https://www.state.gov/the-kremlins-allegations-of-chemical-and-biological-weapons-laboratories-in-ukraine/ (accessed 12 March 2022).

[8] Reuters, “U.S. dismisses Russian claims of biowarfare labs in Ukraine” at https://www.reuters.com/world/russia-demands-us-explain-biological-programme-ukraine-2022-03-09/ (10 March 2022, 1:29 AM GMT+1) (accessed on 10 March 2022).

[9] Id.

[10] O’Sullivan, D., for CNN Business, “Analysis: Russia and QAnon have the same false conspiracy theory about Ukraine” at https://edition.cnn.com/2022/03/09/media/biolab-ukraine-russia-qanon-false-conspiracy-theory/index.html (10 March 2022, 07:49 GMT) (accessed on 10 March 2022).

[11] Robinson, et al, supra, note 8.

[12] Made, J. van der, “US-funded biolabs in Ukraine at the heart of ongoing propaganda war,” RFI (11 March 2022  12:31, modified 11 March 2022 12:53) at https://www.rfi.fr/en/international/20220311-us-funded-biolabs-in-ukraine-at-the-core-of-ongoing-propaganda-war (accessed 13 March 2022).

[13] Id.

[14] Id.

[15] Id.

[16] Rigby, J., and Landay, J., “Exclusive: WHO says it advised Ukraine to destroy pathogens in health labs to prevent disease spread,” Reuters (11 March 2022, 8:57 PM GMT+1) at https://www.reuters.com/world/europe/exclusive-who-says-it-advised-ukraine-destroy-pathogens-health-labs-prevent-2022-03-11/ (accessed 14 March 2022).

[17] Ukraine, Confidence Building Measure Forms (bwc_cbm_2021_Ukraine) submitted to the https://bwc-ecbm.unog.ch/ukraine/bwccbm2020ukraine (accessed 10 March 2022).

[18] Id.

[19] Id.

[20] World Health Organization (WHO), Laboratory biosafety manual (4th ed. 2020) citing WHO, Laboratory Biosafety Manual (3rd ed. 2004).

[21] Guillemin, J., “Scientists and the history of biological weapons: A brief historical overview of the development of biological weapons in the twentieth century,” 7 Science & Society 545 (2006). See also Balmer, B., “Killing ‘without the distressing preliminaries’: Scientists’ defence of the British biological warfare programme,” 40(1) Minerva

57-75 (2002) (documenting a long history of biological weapons programmes in the United Kingdom).

[22] Id.

[23] Id.

[24] Miller, S., and Selgelid, M.J., “Ethical and Philosophical Consideration of the Dual-use Dilemma in the Biological Sciences,” 13 Sci Eng Ethics 523, 524 (2007).

[25] Id.

[26] Id. at 526.

[27] Id.

[28] Protocol for the prohibition of the use in war of asphyxiating, poisonous or other gases, and of bacteriological methods of warfare, 94 LNTS 65 (1925).

[29] Reprinted in Schindler, D., and Toman, J., The Laws of Armed Conflicts 126 (1988).

[30] 1015 U.N.T.S. 163 (1972).

[31] Report of a WHO Group of Consultants, “Health Aspects of Chemical and Biological Weapons,” 12 (1970).

[32] Art. 1, supra, note 31.

[33] See, generally, Alterman, E., Lying in State: Why Presidents Lie, and Why Trump Is Worse (2020). See also The Conversation, “All American presidents have lied – the question is why and when,” (16 February 2022, 8.15pm GMT, updated version of an article first published on 17 September 2020) at https://theconversation.com/all-american-presidents-have-lied-the-question-is-why-and-when-176663 (accessed 12 March 2022).

[34] Andreadis, D., Cpt., “Biological Weapons Accountability” (10 May 2021) at https://www.airuniversity.af.edu/Wild-Blue-Yonder/Article-Display/Article/2596954/biological-weapons-accountability/ (accessed 12 March 2022).

[35] See, for example, Leitenberg, M., “Biological Weapons in the Twentieth Century: A Review and Analysis,” Critical reviews in microbiology 267 (2001); Leitenberg, M., “Aum Shinrikyo’s Efforts to Produce Biological Weapons: A Case Study in the Serial Propagation of Misinformation,” 11(4) Terrorism and Political Violence 149-158 (1999); and Leitenberg, M., “New Russian Evidence on the Korean War Biological Warfare Allegations: Background and Analysis,” Cold War International History Project Bulletin No. 11 (1998).

[36] Harris, S.H., Factories of Death: Japanese Biological Warfare, 1932–1945, and the American cover up (1994) (describing Project 112 after World War II). See also United States Government Accountability Office, “Chemical and Biological Defense: DOD and VA Need to Improve Efforts to Identify and Notify Individuals Potentially Exposed during Chemical and Biological Tests,” Report GAO-04-410 (May 2004) at https://www.gao.gov/products/gao-04-410 (accessed on 14 March 2022) (criticizing the US government for its failure to “identify such projects or tests” other than Project 112. Id. at 18).

[37] United Nations, “Briefing Security Council, US Secretary of State Powell Presents Evidence of Iraq’s Failure to Disarm” at pp. 2-17, p. in UN Doc. S/PV.4701, 4701st Meeting of the 58th year (5 February 2003, 10:15 a.m. EST)

[38] ORB International, “More than 1,000,000 Iraqis murdered since 2003 invasion” at http://www.zcommunications.org/more-than-1-000-000-iraqis-murdered-since-2003-invasion-by-orb (accessed 14 March 2022 via Internet Achive Wayback Machine at https://web.archive.org).

[39] Department of State, Bureau of Politico-Military Affairs Information Memorandum from Jonathan T. Howe to George P. Shultz, “Iraq Use of Chemical Weapons,” (1 November 1983) at https://nsarchive2.gwu.edu/NSAEBB/NSAEBB82/iraq24.pdf (accessed 14 March 2022).

[40] Croddy, E.C., Hart, C., and Perez-Armendariz J., Chemical and Biological Warfare pp. 30–31 (2002).

[41] Leitenberg, M., Zilinskas, R., and Kuhn, J., The Soviet Biological Weapons Program 698-712 (2012).

[42] Id. at 14 (claiming the Soviet Union ordered its biological weapons programs to stop) and Miller, J., Engelberg, S., and Broad, W.J., Germs: Biological Weapons and America’s Secret War 62-63 (2001) (citing U.S. President Richard M. Nixon’s “Statement on Chemical and Biological Defense Policies and Programs” in a speech to military personnel at Fort Detrick, Maryland in the United States (25 November 1969).

[43] Shoham, D., and Wolfson, Z., “The Russian Biological Weapons Program: Vanished or Disappeared?” 30 Critical Reviews in Microbiology 241 (2004).

[44] Miller, J., Engelberg, S., and Broad, W.J., “U.S. Germ Warfare Research Pushes Treaty Limits,” New York Times Sec. A, p. 1 (4 September 2001).

Dr. Curtis F.J. Doebbler is Research Professor of Law at the University of Makeni in Sierra Leone. His twelve books include Dictionary of Public International Law (Rowland Littlefield, 2018). He is a practicing international human rights lawyer and proprietor of The Law Office of Dr Curtis FJ Doebbler, which has offices in San Antonio, Texas, and Washington, D.C. in the United States of America. He has more that thirty years experience practicing international law, including advising and representing individuals, heads of States, non-governmental organizations, and governments.


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