Since its invasion of Ukraine, Russia has claimed Kyiv is developing biological weapons with support from the US and Germany. Experts familiar with laboratories in Ukraine say the accusations are groundless.
Is Kyiv developing biological weapons in secret laboratories with US support, or is this claim simply a pretext for Russia's war in Ukraine? In late April, Russian President Vladimir Putin cited a "network of Western bioweapons labs" in Ukraine as one of the threats facing Moscow and one it wanted to fight through its invasion of the country.
The Russian Defense Ministry, meanwhile, says it has proof that Kyiv is developing biological weapons "with the direct involvement of the Pentagon." Kyiv and Washington deny the claims.
The Biological Weapons Convention (BWC), which entered into force in 1975, prohibits the development, production, acquisition, transfer, stockpiling and use of biological and toxin weapons. But there's a fine line between military and civilian research and development, experts tell DW, which can be easily exploited for propaganda purposes.
The Russian allegations center around pathogens that cause plague, anthrax and diphtheria. Richard Guthrie, a British expert on chemical and biological warfare, believes such allegations are a common element of contemporary propaganda because rumors of biological weapons have such a powerful psychological effect.
The main purpose of biological weapons is not necessarily to make a large number of people sick, he says, but to spread fear — "so that people don't want to go to a certain food or water source," for example.
A number of German biological weapons experts who have analyzed the Russian claims on behalf of the Institute for Peace Research and Security Policy at the University of Hamburg agree that stoking public fear is the main objective, and allude to Russian "misinformation." "There are bioweapons labs in Ukraine which are supported by the US and also Germany, but the research conducted there is not covert but extremely transparent," says Gunnar Jeremias, an expert on biological arms control.
Stoltenberg: Russia making "absurd claims about biological labs and chemical weapons"
"These are deliberate lies or twisting of facts," says John Gilbert, a former US nuclear, biological and chemical (NBC) weapons inspector who worked in the former Soviet republics, including in Ukraine, and now works for the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation in Washington DC.
In the early 1990s, the US government worked with bio labs in former Soviet states, he explained, as part of the Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction program, designed to dismantle weapons of mass destruction and decommission nuclear, biological and chemical weapon stockpiles.
"The US did fund a number of projects through that program that dealt with research into pathogens like bacteria and viruses … to figure out what the pathogens were and what the ring of spread was," says Gilbert. "Russia is well aware of all of this."
Then, as Richard Guthrie explains, Kyiv and Washington signed a treaty in 2005, after the 2001 anthrax attacks in the US and the international SARS epidemic in 2003 resurrected fears of biological weapons. Washington boosted cooperation with bio labs around the world that were then partly financed by the US Department of Defense.
Russian diplomats have also accused Germany of running a "military biological program" in Ukraine. This is in fact the German Biosecurity Program launched by the Foreign Ministry in 2013. It aims to implement biosafety and biosecurity projects primarily in countries in Africa, Central Asia and Eastern Europe designed to "tackle biological threats, such as the intentional misuse of biological pathogens and toxins or outbreaks of highly pathogenic disease and pandemics."
Within the program's framework, the Bundeswehr Institute of Microbiology (IMB) has been collaborating with the Institute of Experimental and Clinical Veterinary Medicine in Kharkiv since 2016, as confirmed by the German Defense Ministry in response to a DW inquiry. The IMB has conducted studies on pathogens that cause anthrax, brucellosis, leptospirosis and African swine flu — infectious diseases that can affect humans.
Director of the IMB, Roman Wölfel says the Russian claims that Ukraine is developing biological weapons are "plucked out of thin air." Wölfel has visited the laboratory in Kharkiv and met colleagues whose work is focused on farm animal diseases. His institute, he explains, is active there on a consultancy and research level.
"We have trained young people to use applied methods of molecular diagnostics," says Wölfel. He explains that Bundeswehr researchers were involved in a civilian project because of their background in training in rapid response to outbreaks of diseases.
'Ethnic weapons' still unrealistic
Another accusation that Russia has leveled at Ukraine is that Kyiv is helping Washington develop so-called "ethnic bioweapons." These are hypothetical bioweapons which could target people of specific ethnicities, such as Russians — a claim made by, among others, General Igor Kirillov, chief of the Russian Radiation, Chemical and Biological Protection Force.
The experts unanimously agree that these weapons do not so far exist. "The idea of developing a biological weapon that can target one ethnic group and not another is completely unrealistic," says Roman Wölfel.
British expert Richard Guthrie points out that similar plans were proposed during the apartheid era in South Africa but never implemented. "People have been talking about this since the 1970s," he says. "But we're a long way away from that."
Propaganda and fakes designed to manipulate us
Taking Georgia's cue
Guthrie believes that Russia is instrumentalizing rumors of bioweapons labs in Ukraine as a propaganda ploy "very effectively" but points out that while Russia raised the issue with the UN Security Council, it has yet to cite Article 6 of the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC), which allows a country to lodge a complaint with the United Nations Security Council if it suspects a breach of treaty obligations by another state.
Not long ago, Russia made similar accusations against Georgia. The Lugar Research Center in Tiflis was originally co-financed by the US government. Russia alleged that the center was involved in developing biological weapons for the United States. In 2018, the Georgian government invited international experts to visit the center, including from Russia. Moscow declined the invitation. After their visit, the experts confirmed that work at the center was transparent and safe, and abided by BWC rules.
Experts today say Ukraine could try a similar approach of inviting specialists to inspect their laboratories. For that to happen, the Russian-led war in Ukraine first needs to end.