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There's a viral conspiracy theory that Russia attacked Ukraine to neutralize Ukraine's biological weapons. Among many other sources, this tweet from Glenn Greenwald cites a video where Senator Marco Rubio asks Undersecretary of State Victoria Nuland whether Ukraine has biological or chemical weapons. Her response states that Ukraine has biological research facilities but doesn't directly answer the question. The tweet and its responses read into her statement the claim that Ukraine has biological weapons facilities.

The website for the US Embassy in Ukraine has a page for a "Biological Threat Reduction Program", which explains that this program is to counter bio weapon threats. I have yet to see evidence of bio-labs containing biological weapons or having the purpose of creating biological weapons.

Additionally,

Igor Kirillov, the chief of the Russian Armed Forces' radiation, chemical, and biological defence, told reporters that the laboratories were reportedly involved in biological weapons production.

"The Russian Defense Ministry has repeatedly drawn attention to the military biological programs that are being implemented by the Pentagon in post-Soviet countries, including on the territory of Ukraine, where a network of more than 30 biological laboratories has been formed, which can be divided into research and sanitary-epidemiological ones," Kirillov said.

And

On Monday, Lieutenant General Igor Kirillov claimed that the documents seen by the Russian military suggest that some of these laboratories worked with anthrax and the plague among other infections. Kirillov also alleged that “the only reason” why Kiev had reportedly moved to destroy the materials was out of concern that Russian experts “will highly likely prove Ukraine and the US have been in violation of the Biological Weapons Convention” once they study the samples.

So does Ukraine have biological weapons facilities?

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    Note that BTWC defines bioweapons as "microbial or other biological agents, or toxins whatever their origin or method of production, of types and in quantities that have no justification for prophylactic, protective or other peaceful purposes", or delivery equipment for these agents. Facilities are irrelevant in regard to BTWC violations, only type and quantity of agents used in them. As such, there is no definition of "bioweapons facility" in the convention. What would be considered a bioweapons facility in context of this question? Mar 9 at 5:37
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    Apparently, there are other former Soviet countries with US-backed labs that work with dangerous pathogens: smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/…. At the very least, it's not absurd that a similar thing could also exist in the Ukraine, although Russian state media can't be trusted on this topic (especially at this time). Mar 10 at 4:33
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    @JaysonVirissimo including Russia itself, where the remnants of the Soviet biological warfare program to weaponise anthrax, plague, smallpox, ebola, and others are reportedly very much alive.
    – jwenting
    Mar 10 at 13:20
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    @Avery I thought your answer was solid, and I think the overlap between a BSL-3 lab and a bioweapons lab is pretty small. You can't make bioweapons without a bunch of equipment that is clearly not dual-purpose. If it's a relatively public facility, showing evidence of absence of that equipment (large bioreactors, etc) would be enough I think.
    – CJR
    Mar 10 at 22:28
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    Yes, I learned that Russia also made this claim about a BSL-3 facility in Georgia in 2018, and their argument was carefully deconstructed for that facility with video & reporting. I don't think taking a video is currently possible with this facility, given Odessa is being shelled. twitter.com/BBCSteveR/status/1501839885879193602
    – Avery
    Mar 10 at 23:28

2 Answers 2

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I think it's worth looking at some of the specific evidence put forward by Russian state-sponsored media.

Here's one such example, from a twitter account that's publishing some of the specific documents:

https://twitter.com/ASBMilitary/status/1500499205663645700

This is a document that is purported to be from the Ukrainian government, instructing a biological lab to destroy potentially harmful biological agents due to the current crisis (there is a partial translation in that twitter thread). I have no reason to think this is not authentic, so I'm going to assume it's a real document that's approximately correctly translated (I don't speak Russian or Ukrainian).

Ukrainian Microorganism Document

The end of this document lists the biohazards in question in latin script, which I'm going to reproduce here:

Candida albicans N300 
Escherichia coli ATCC N25922 
Serratia marcescens N259
Shigella sonnei N151 
Shigella flexneri N170 
Salmonella rp B Typhimurium N91
Proteus vulgaris N14
Enterobacter aerogenes N190 
Staphylococcus aureus ATCC N25923
Pseudomonas aeruginosa ATCC N27853 
Escherichia coli O 55 N43-4
Escherichia coli B N15
Proteus mirabilis N25
Klebsiella pneumonia N38
Corynebacterium pseudodiphtheriticum N17
Corynebacterium xerosis NC 12078
Corynebacterium diphtheriae var gravis tox +
Corynebacterium diphtheriae var mitis tox -
Bacillus licheniformis BKM 1711
Bacillus stearothermophilus BKM 718

Absolutely none of these are biological warfare agents. They are, for the most part, routinely used in general microbiology labs. Most are available without restriction from the American Type Culture Collection, which holds baseline microoganisms for researchers. Anthrax and the Plague are not on this list.

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    This seems roughly like claiming your neighbor has a nuclear weapons program by discovering their radon test kit showed they had greater than 0 radon in their basement... Mar 9 at 17:29
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    From a quick google search, the Klebsiella pneumoniae strain listed there appears to be a weak biofilm producers, which is usually proportional with virulence. I can see why some of those were ordered to be destroyed though; in case of a bomb/shell hit on the lab, the first responders might get sick from the resulting dust, if it were to carry some of those organisms.
    – Fizz
    Mar 9 at 17:58
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    Yeah, there's a couple things in this list that are opportunistic pathogens, and a couple that I'd wash off lettuce before I made a salad, but biological warfare agents? It would be easier to genetically engineer T. rex sized supersoldiers than to turn B licheniformis into a good biowarfare agent.
    – CJR
    Mar 9 at 18:10
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    Which suggests that this facility was either a medical facility working on disinfectants and maybe anti-biotics or a military facility working on protection against biological threats. Neither of which are banned under the biological warfare convention of 1972 (which Russia is a signatory to but violates constantly, but afaik Ukraine never was a signatory to but does observe).
    – jwenting
    Mar 10 at 13:23
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    @jwenting That's possible - it may also be a general microbiology lab. I've personally contracted microbiology out to contract research organizations (companies that you pay to do experiments you design) in Poland, because the cost of some labor-intensive screens is lower there than it would be to do with staff in the US. This could be a CRO or an academic-type lab doing routine work on microbiology important to agriculture.
    – CJR
    Mar 10 at 17:18
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I'm not sure how it's possible to prove a negative of this kind, but

Izumi Nakamitsu, the UN High Representative for Disarmament Affairs, told the 15-member council that the UN is “not aware of any biological weapons programmes” in Ukraine.

The context was that

Russia called the meeting on Friday to discuss its unproven allegations that Ukraine is operating biological weapons laboratories with support from the United States.

As for the claim in SSight3's answer that Ukraine labs being able to handle anthrax is suspicious: Ukraine, like Russia has seen natural outbreaks (and even the UK has had cases). There's nothing suspicious about labs in these countries handling anthrax in the context of such epidemiological research Russia conducts it and so does Ukraine.

But only one of these countries has invaded the other. And claimed the invaded country was also having a secret nuke program. Again the UN said it knows nothing about that either. So, it must be a US-funded conspiracy, because Tucker Carlson says so.

By the way, Russia's latest in this storm of Russian accusations is that something-something coronavirus samples Ukraine-Russia migratory bird experiments etc. And they promised to release the documents soon. Not even Tucker can keep up. (Did I mention Russia has prohibited its press from calling the war a war, on pain of 10-15 years of imprisonment?)


If anyone is curious why Ukraine has an "anti-plague" institute:

the Odessa Port AP [anti-plague] Laboratory was founded within the Odessa harbor by epidemiologist M.A. Minchin in 1937. This was apparently done after the League of Nations requested the Soviet government to establish a plague laboratory because of fears of plague being imported into Europe through the Odessa harbor. This laboratory was renamed the Odessa AP Station in 1970 and, in 1997, after Ukraine’s independence, was reorganized into the State AP Station of Ukraine. The latest AP system-related development, in 1999, was that the I.I. Mechnikov Odessa Scientific and Research Institute of Viral Diseases and Epidemiology and the State AP Station of Ukraine were merged and the resulting institution was named the I.I. Mechnikov Ukrainian Scientific-Research Anti-plague Institute (hereafter Mechnikov AP Institute).

Going back to Soviet times, lacking natural plague foci, plague bacteria can be found only at Ukrainian seaports in infected rodents or their ectoparasites. Therefore the most important, and dangerous, task for the Odessa AP Station throughout the Soviet era was to catch rats and mice on ships and around the harbor and culture them and their ectoparasites for pathogens. In addition to plague bacteria, over the years the station has recovered bacteria from rodents that cause cholera, tularemia, leptospirosis, and brucellosis. Beyond Odessa, the station was responsible for monitoring the situation related to plague, cholera, anthrax, tularemia, and leptospirosis in the western and northwestern parts of the USSR, although its activities were mainly undertaken in Ukraine and Moldova. Its major responsibilities were to eliminate these diseases as much as possible and to train local health officials on how to handle and test dangerous pathogens.

A bit later in that history it's mentioned that the institute had become interested in diseases carried by migratory birds

In recent years, it developed a particular interest in arboviruses related to birds—such as CCHF virus and West Nile fever virus—because southern Ukraine is a major transit point for birds migrating from Africa to Europe and some are carriers of these viruses. However, until 2004, this department had never studied the CCHF virus directly.

(By the way, this wasn't just some fancy that struck some bored researcher. Around that time CCHF started to be reported in Eurasia.)

And this is where Ukraine's first BSL-3 lab was constructed, around 2009-2010, by a US company (which happily advertises this on its website).

There is another AP institute in Simferopol, in Russian hands since 2014.

The US sponsored a similar BLS-3 facility in Tbilisi, Georgia. As for Russian media stories, which started to circulate almost immediately, these generally leave out that not having such BLS-3 facilities is actually a problem given the mission of these institutes:

As part of our tour, we were shown what is regarded as the lab’s most sensitive area, its store of “Especially Dangerous Pathogens” (EDPs), a high-security repository of lethal bacteria and viruses collected by scientists. It is known as the “pathogen museum.” Even though many of these EDP samples were originally procured in Soviet times, some Russian media reports have speculated that this store is the basis of a bio-weapons arsenal. Its work was so tightly under wraps, that residents had dubbed it “a secret Pentagon station.” — Russian TV reporter.

Many of these samples — now inside the lab’s “pathogen museum” — were previously kept in an old, Soviet-era research institute in the middle of Tbilisi, posing a significant potential risk to the public. Far safer, say Lugar Lab staff, to store these and other pathogen samples in a purpose-built facility on the outskirts of the city. But Russian media reports alleging that the U.S.-funded lab is creating biological weapons don’t mention this back story.

Russia, one the other hand, is priding itself on building such labs in numbers; as TASS headlines: "Russia to set up 15 highest biosafety level labs by 2024". (I'm guessing they mean BSL-4, but their reporting isn't clear.) But this isn't any kind of problem, because they never poisoned any regime opponents, inside and outside their country (according to themselves).

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    By the way, this is about par for the Soviet and even Russian tradition to continuously accuse the US of making various disease/bioweapons in labs around the world cissm.umd.edu/sites/default/files/2021-10/…
    – Fizz
    Mar 12 at 5:58
  • Correct. I've read extensively about the Soviet bioweapons program (and its suspected Russian continuation) and it is rife with people telling investigators (mostly those who fled the USSR like Alibek) that they were constantly being told that the only reason the USSR wanted biological weapons was because the Americans were in violation of the BWC, even after inspections by the USSR of all US facilities clearly showed those same people that the US did not in fact have a program at all and hadn't had one for decades.
    – jwenting
    Mar 15 at 10:14

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