At considerable risk to their own safety, 10 Russian biologists, including researchers who remain in Russia, have publicly accused the Russian government of lying about having proof that biological weapons were being developed in Ukrainian labs funded by the United States.
According to the biologists, documents presented to the public last week by Russia’s defense ministry as supposed evidence of covert “bioweapons labs” under Pentagon control in Ukraine actually describe relatively harmless collections of pathogens used for public health research. The comprehensive review of the documents by experts who understand both the science and the Cyrillic alphabet took on new importance on Wednesday, as President Vladimir Putin cited the imaginary threat of weapons of mass destruction near Russia’s borders as a justification for the invasion of Ukraine.
Before the recent crackdown on independent media outlets in Russia, these outlandish claims from Russian defense officials — which were amplified on the global stage by Russia’s foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, and its U.N. ambassador, Vasily Nebenzya — might have been undercut by interviews with Russian biologists who called the underlying evidence for the allegations transparently false. But because dissenting views have been repressed, and independent broadcasters shut down, Russian scientists have been forced to post their findings on social networks that are mainly blocked in Russia.
“The list contains only strains common to microbiological and even more so to epidemiological laboratories.”
The first Russian biologist to make his analysis of the evidence widely known was Eugene Lewitin, who holds advanced degrees in biology from Moscow State University and GosNIIgenetika, a biotechnology research institute. The documents from Ukraine, Lewitin wrote in an open letter posted on Facebook and Change.org, do “not imply any development of biological weapons or even the use of particularly dangerous pathogens in the laboratories. The list of destroyed strains published by RIA Novosti and other Russian media outlets contains not a single particularly dangerous strain. The list contains only strains common to microbiological and even more so to epidemiological laboratories.”
More than 800 signatories endorsed Lewitin’s letter when it was transformed into a petition from Russian biologists urging Russian journalists to stop repeating the government’s “false, absolutely groundless and hatred-inciting statements about allegedly found evidence of the development of biological weapons in Ukrainian laboratories.”
The first set of Ukrainian documents to be made public by the Russian military were published by the Russian government news agency RIA Novosti on March 6. Those documents were orders from Ukraine’s health minister, issued on the second day of the Russian invasion, directing labs in two cities, Kharkiv and Poltava, to destroy collections of bacterial pathogens used for research.
Given the subsequent Russian shelling of Kharkiv, the Ukrainian effort to ensure that an attack on the lab there could not cause the accidental release of bacteria seems prudent. But Maj. Gen. Igor Konashenkov, the Russian defense ministry spokesperson, told the state news agency that the attempt to secure the labs was itself evidence that Ukrainian and American scientists had been secretly plotting to weaponize dangerous pathogens. The destruction of the pathogens listed on orders sent to the labs, Konashenkov said, was a desperate effort “to conceal any traces of the military-biological program financed by the U.S. Department of Defense in Ukraine.”
At a defense ministry briefing in Moscow the next day, Lt. Gen. Igor Kirillov — the head of the Russian military’s radiation, chemical, and biological protection force — displayed these documents on a huge screen. The only possible explanation for “why the samples were disposed of in such haste,” Kirillov insisted, must have been to prevent Russian experts from discovering “that synthetic biology methods were being tested there to enhance the microorganisms’ pathogenic properties.”
Kirillov also stated, without evidence, that a swine flu outbreak in 2007 and increased cases of measles, rubella, diphtheria, and tuberculosis in Ukraine had somehow been caused by biological research at U.S.-funded labs in Ukraine and the former Soviet republic of Georgia.
At a second briefing three days later, he claimed that documents on public health projects to detect and monitor animal diseases in Ukraine — including coronaviruses in bats, Crimean-Congo hemorrhagic fever and hantavirus in ticks and rodents, and avian flu in ducks that migrate from Ukraine to Russia — were proof of a sinister plot to send infected animals to Russia. He even speculated that a document showing that researchers in Ukraine had sent blood samples to labs in Australia was proof of a secret Pentagon effort to study “Slavic DNA,” in order to construct a biological weapon that would infect only ethnic Russians.
Kirillov also claimed that in a joint Ukrainian-American project called R-781, “bats are considered as carriers of potential biological weapons agents.” However, the document describing that project, which was projected on the big screen behind the general, just outlined a proposal for an expert from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta to collaborate with a veterinary medicine specialist in Kharkiv and a researcher in Tbilisi on routine disease surveillance of bats in Ukraine and Georgia, including testing for bacterial and viral infections (such as coronaviruses) and performing genomic sequencing. The proposal had nothing to do with biological weapons research, and the CDC told The Intercept that the project did not receive funding and never even began.
Some of the documents cast by Kirillov as evidence of biological weapons research actually concerned the Ukrainian health ministry’s cooperation with German experts from BNITM, the Bernhard Nocht Institute for Tropical Medicine in Hamburg, to improve surveillance and diagnosis of diseases like dengue fever and Crimean-Congo hemorrhagic fever.
In a statement sent to The Intercept, the institute rejected the Russian claims.
“The BNITM has never and will never work directly or indirectly on bio weapons,” the statement said. For the past six years, the BNITM has instead been working with public health officials in Ukraine to investigate “seroprevalence, the existence of antibodies, on various infectious diseases occurring in this region. The aim of the project is and was to enable the country to do diagnoses on antibodies itself.” The institute added that its project is part of the German government’s effort to improve global biosecurity through the “minimization of biological risks emanating from highly hazardous pathogens in 25 countries.”
Konashenkov, the defense ministry spokesperson, also claimed that the documents from Ukraine showed that “certain experiments were carried out with samples of coronavirus in bats. The goal of this and other Pentagon-funded biological studies in Ukraine was the creation of a mechanism for the covert spread of deadly pathogens.”
On March 10, Russian defense ministry spokesman Igor Konashenkov claimed, falsely, that documents seized in Ukraine indicated that U.S. and Ukrainian researchers were plotting to use birds to covertly send deadly pathogens to Russia pic.twitter.com/83nNA897kc
— Robert Mackey (@RobertMackey) March 17, 2022
Konashenkov additionally stated as a matter of fact something for which none of the documents presented at the briefing backs up: that American-financed studies of bird, bat, and reptile pathogens planned for later this year would include experiments on the ability of the animals to be used to covertly transmit weaponized African swine fever and anthrax.
When Russian news outlets repeated these claims, Lewitin, the veteran Russian biologist, wrote that they had been duped into printing what he called “deliberately false information,” fed to them by the military, about what was in the documents. Even reporters for state-run outlets, Lewitin said, have a duty to study what the state calls proof and consult experts to make sure official claims about science are accurate.
By way of example, Lewitin, who has a Ph.D. in genetics, pointed to “the absolutely wild idea of the existence of special ‘DNA of the Slavs,’” which could be used to target ethnic Russians with a biological weapon. That, he said, “is nonsense” that echoes “German Nazi propaganda.”
Lewitin offered a more detailed debunking of the evidence in an interview with Marina Aronova, a correspondent for Siberia.Realities, a regional news outlet of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, which is funded by the U.S. government. Lewitin explained that all of the bacterial strains mentioned in the documents were the kind of samples found in any public health lab or epidemiological institute. The paperwork even indicated that some of the strains had been purchased from Russian labs.
The Russian military, Lewitin told Aronova, had simply lied about what the Ukrainian documents meant. “Let me explain with a simple example,” he said. “Imagine you come to a certain office and see an inscription on one of the rooms: ‘Instruction for the cleaner. Two times a day to wet clean the room.’ From this you conclude that in this room Ukrainian nationalists dismember people alive twice a day and sacrifice them to Cthulhu, and then cover up the traces. The statement of the official representative of the Ministry of Defense of the Russian Federation, Igor Konashenkov, in combination with the documents attached to this statement, produces just such an impression.”
“That’s how propaganda works,” he added. “The Ministry of Defense made a false, unfounded statement — and now, if I talk to people, 90 percent of them will say: ‘Bioweapons were made in Ukraine.’ No one has read the attached documents. And those who have read it will say: ‘Well, yes, maybe there are no dangerous pathogens in these documents. But they don’t tell us about it for nothing. Maybe there are dangerous strains in other documents that cannot be published openly.’”
When I asked Lewitin in an online chat this week what he made of the other documents, on research projects involving American experts from the CDC and USDA, he replied: “I would say that this is a hash of scattered information with no relevance to the subject [of] bioweapons. These are invitations to workshops and accompanying material, lists of instructions on biosafety, lists of completely innocent strains [of pathogens], many of them received from Russian collections.”
As for “the stuff on avian and bat migration investigations,” routine research on strains of flu and other viruses in the wild population that could jump to humans, Lewitin told me he couldn’t comprehend it any other way than as “a complete delirium.”
A parallel effort to evaluate the first set of documents presented as proof of biological weapons research at the labs in Kharkiv and Poltava was conducted by a group of nine Russian-speaking biologists based in Russia, Belarus, Sweden, and France that was published on Twitter in Russian by Olga V. Pettersson, an “ex-pat Soviet” expert in genome sequencing. (Most of that long thread was translated into English by Ilya Lozovsky, an editor at the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project.)
Pettersson and her colleagues converted the screenshots of the original documents ordering the destruction of pathogens at the labs published in the Russia media into a Google Docs spreadsheet that is easier to read and pointed out that, despite claims from the Russian military, there are “no deadly pathogens on this list – no plague, anthrax, cholera.”
In their detailed debunking of the Russian claims, the researchers explained that any effort to create biological weapons would require “a much larger base of strains than those listed.” The documents indicate that “the Kharkiv lab destroyed only 40 test tubes and the Poltava lab destroyed 24.” The group also agreed with Lewitin’s conclusion that creating “a ‘military’ bacterium specific only for a certain nationality and especially for Russians is absolutely evolutionarily impossible.”
In conclusion, the researchers said, the statements published in the Russian state media, and attributed to senior Russian officials, “are unsubstantiated anti-scientific bullshit.”
“We thank Russian biologists for not being afraid to tell the truth,” Serhiy Leshchenko, a Ukrainian investigative journalist and an adviser to the Ukrainian president’s office, said in a statement on YouTube from embattled Kyiv. “This fake narrative is unfortunately circulating very widely.”
In an interview, Pettersson told me that while she had faced a torrent of online harassment because the collaborative research thread was posted on her Twitter account, she was most concerned for the safety of her colleagues in Russia and Belarus who had helped debunk the Russian government’s claims despite living in countries where such criticism could bring severe consequences. She also pointed out that she receives no U.S. funding for her research on genomic sequencing.
Asked why she thought the Russian officials expected to get away with so inaccurately describing the contents of the documents they made public, Pettersson suggested that they might have guessed many Russians would not look too closely at the lists of bacterial strains used in the Ukrainian labs because they were all written in Latin.
Whatever their expectations, it is beyond doubt that the Russian government has succeeded in generating a global media frenzy of speculative commentary on the supposed existence of “bioweapons labs” in Ukraine — despite the fact that the documents they have pointed to as evidence offer no support for the allegations.
The Russian government’s claim that the biological labs funded by the U.S. were experimenting with dangerous pathogens, though debunked by the Russian biologists, was echoed by influential voices on Fox News like Tucker Carlson and Tulsi Gabbard.
For instance, after Victoria Nuland, a State Department official, said that the U.S. was working with Ukraine to prevent “biological research materials” in Ukrainian labs from being seized by Russian forces, Carlson and Gabbard amplified the false claim made by the Russian military that the routine public health research in those labs was dangerous. Carlson distorted Nuland’s statement into an admission that, in his words, “Ukraine has secret bio labs” and that falsely asserted that “Nuland said whatever they’re doing in those labs is so dangerous and so scary that she is ‘quite concerned’ that the so-called research material inside those bio labs might fall into the hands of Russian forces.”
Carlson’s claims about what Nuland said were quickly translated into Russian by the state broadcaster in Moscow and shared on Twitter by Russian diplomats.
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The Fox host, whose commentaries have become a staple of Russian state TV, also claimed, wrongly, that Nuland had “all but said … that there’s a military application to this research, that they were working on bioweapons.” Carlson then took the bait offered by the Russian military’s reference to coronavirus to make the wild claim that the mundane public health research in Ukraine was identical to dangerous experiments on bat coronaviruses in Wuhan, China, funded by the U.S. before the Covid-19 pandemic.
Tucker Carlson took the bait offered by the Russian military’s reference to coronavirus.
On March 13, Gabbard tweeted a video viewed nearly 3 million times, in which she falsely claimed that the public health labs were “conducting research on dangerous pathogens” and were engaged in that she called “dangerous research, including gain of function, similar to the lab in Wuhan where Covid-19 may have originated from.”
While the unfunded CDC proposal to monitor diseases in bats in Ukraine and Georgia obtained by the Russian military mentioned surveillance of diseases, including coronaviruses, the idea that any viral strains obtained by the researchers would be manipulated in gain-of-function research was wholly invented by the Russian military, Carlson, and Gabbard.
When Gabbard was criticized for saying things about the type of work done in the labs for which there is no evidence, Carlson defended her in a statement that echoed the false claims made by Russian officials. “Unsecured bioweapons in a war zone are a bad idea,” Carlson told his millions of viewers this week.
Away from television screens, the unfounded Russian allegations were echoed by the Chinese foreign ministry’s spokesman, Zhao Lijian, and amplified in a conspiratorial Infowars video that was viewed more than 650,000 times. Last week, both the Chinese statement and the Infowars video were promoted on Facebook as paid advertisements.
Russian officials have repeatedly invoked the fact that the U.S. invaded Iraq in 2003 on the false pretext that the country had weapons of mass destruction — including “mobile biological research laboratories” — as a reason to distrust the Americans now. When Russia’s U.N. ambassador, Vasily Nebenzya, presented those false claims to the Security Council last week, he scoffed at American denials by mentioning that the diplomats were in the very same room where, in 2003, Colin Powell had held up “that famous test tube” during his presentation of faulty intelligence on Iraq’s suspected weapons of mass destruction.
Moments later, Nebenzya did something of an accidental homage to Powell, by holding up images of pregnant women who were injured in the shelling of a maternity hospital in Mariupol by Russian forces and repeating the thoroughly debunked claim that the photographs had been staged.
All this suggests that the real lesson Russian officials took from the false American claims of WMD in Iraq is not that such claims need to be backed by solid evidence, but that they can make similarly false claims now, secure in the knowledge that very few people will bother to look at the evidence at all.
The Russian strategy, of loudly making claims about biological weapons research and pointing to documents that do not, in any way, confirm that to be true has been employed multiple times in recent years.
In 2018, when Russia faced international condemnation for trying to kill the former spy Sergei Skripal with a nerve agent, Russian state television suddenly revived conspiratorial claims that a U.S.-funded lab in Georgia was testing biological weapons on the Georgian people. In that case too, documents supposedly proving the allegations were published in the state media — records from the lab which showed that dozens of Georgians had died in 2015 while taking the American-made drug Sovaldi. Those records were obtained and made public by a former head of Georgian intelligence living in exile in Russia, Igor Giorgadze.
Maria Zakharova, the Russian foreign ministry spokesperson, said that the documents made public by Giorgadze “again raise questions about the U.S. military’s true aims and objectives in Georgia.” The documents Giorgadze publicized were described as a bombshell on Russian state television, in a report that quoted a former Russian military biologist speculating that Georgians were being used as guinea pigs in biological weapons experiments.
Soon after the broadcast, the same documents were also presented to the Russian public on the big screen at a defense ministry briefing led by Konashenkov and Kirillov. The death records, Kirillov claimed, gave Russian experts, “reason to believe that a highly toxic chemical drug or a highly lethal biological agent was [administered] under the guise of medical treatment” at the U.S.-funded Lugar Research Center in Tbilisi.
The documents, and the Russian claims that public health research in the lab in Georgia was a cover for sinister activities, was amplified at the time by Chinese state media.
A report on the briefing from the Russian government news agency Tass included this conspiratorial aside about Sovaldi, which is used to treat chronic hepatitis C infections: “Kirillov noted that the U.S.-based Gilead Sciences, in which former U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld is a key shareholder, manufactured the drug.”
Russian officials, and state-controlled Russian television, repeated the allegations again and again throughout 2018.
By the following year, the idea that the U.S. operated biological weapons labs on Russia’s borders was treated as an undeniable fact on Russian talk shows.
But a closer look at the records from the lab in Georgia reveals that there was nothing suspicious about the deaths reported in 2015, as Russian officials had claimed.
To start with, these were not clinical trials of Sovaldi in Georgia in 2015. The drug had already been approved by the FDA in 2013. The safe and effective drug was being administered to Georgians for free as part of an effort to eliminate hepatitis C from Georgia, and the project was overseen by the CDC with donated drugs from Gilead.
In the first two years of the program, more than 90 percent of the first 30,000 patients to be treated were cured of the illness. When the project started, Eurasianet reported, Sovaldi “was administered to 5,800 Georgian hepatitis patients with severe complications like advanced liver fibrosis and cirrhosis.” Because the first patients to get the drug were the sickest, it is not surprising that dozens of them died before the drug could clear the virus from their system.
Georgia also invited international experts to examine the lab in person in November, 2018. Filippa Lentzos, a biologist and a scholar at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies reported in the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists that year that she had been part of a group of international experts that visited the lab in Tbilisi. “We were given access to all areas of the site, examined relevant documentation, and interviewed staff, and concluded that the Center demonstrates significant transparency,” Lentzos reported in the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists. “Our group observed nothing out of the ordinary, or that we wouldn’t expect to see in a legitimate facility of this sort.”
When Steve Rosenberg of the BBC put it to Zakharova in late 2018 that there was no evidence in the documents tracking the Sovaldi project that any biological weapons experiments on humans had been performed in the U.S.-funded lab, the Russian diplomat unwittingly echoed Donald Rumsfeld’s infamous remarks in 2002 on the lack of evidence for Iraqi WMD, in her reply. “You know, if there’s no evidence right now, that doesn’t mean that no evidence exists,” Zakharova said.
Put another way, what this senior Russian diplomat said in 2018 holds true today: Russia will not be deterred by a lack of evidence from claiming that the U.S. operated biological weapons labs in former Soviet states on its borders.
Another Russian expat amazed by the Russian claims is Michael Favorov, who immigrated to the U.S. from the Soviet Union three decades ago, after a long career in public health and epidemiology, and then oversaw CDC programs in Eastern Europe and Central Asia.
In a phone call this week, Favorov told me that he suspects some of the Russian military’s wild ideas about what is happening in U.S.-funded labs in former Soviet countries is likely projection.
Favorov recalled that there was pressure on Soviet scientists to look for potential military applications for their research. He didn’t take part, but some of his contemporaries did. The accidental release of anthrax in 1979 from a Soviet military research facility in Yekaterinburg, which was known as Sverdlovsk in Soviet times, killed at least 66 people. Soviet officials, including Boris Yeltsin, lied about what caused the outbreak until 1992.
And weapons developed in secret Soviet labs are still used to poison Russian dissidents and defectors. The anti-corruption activist Alexey Navalny survived an attempted assassination with the Soviet-era nerve agent Novichok in Russia in 2020. Two years earlier, the same nerve agent had been used in a botched attempt to murder Skripal in England. Western officials and open-source researchers offered convincing evidence that both attempted murders were carried out by Russian intelligence agents.
Favorov told me that older, Soviet-trained military biologists probably assume that the U.S. is still doing that sort of work.
The fact that the Pentagon has provided much of the funding for labs built by the United States in former Soviet states also fuels suspicion in Russia, and elsewhere. Asked why the Pentagon provided the money — beyond the obvious fact that the Department of Defense is the one part of the U.S. government that is lavishly funded — Favorov said that the Pentagon took the lead in the effort to upgrade biosecurity in those countries partly in response to the anthrax attacks in the U.S. that started just a week after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in New York and Washington.
Five people died from inhaling anthrax and 17 others were infected after exposure in the following months, as envelopes stuffed with spores were mailed to U.S. officials and journalists. That quickly made it a priority for the U.S. to help secure dangerous pathogens, particularly in some of the impoverished former Soviet states where anthrax is naturally occurring but had also been used in biological weapons experiments before the collapse of the USSR in 1991.
After the Soviet Union was dissolved, Favorov said, most of the former Soviet states outside Russia were in dire need of better laboratories to perform modern disease surveillance and research, and to safely store strains of deadly endemic diseases known as special pathogens that they needed to study and describe to protect their populations from outbreaks.
So the Pentagon-funded projects, Favorov said, were “focused on how to identify pathogens, how to introduce biosafety to all these labs which were working with these pathogens anyway.” In many cases,” Favorov added, “I believe that Russians were kind of jealous that, you know, somebody’s helping their used-to-be Russian colonies to organize better laboratories.”
Favorov, who was a well-known Soviet scientist, used his old connections to help oversee the modernization of labs in the former Soviet states, including the lab in Georgia, while serving as the CDC’s regional director for Central Asia from 2000 to 2008. He said there was no chance that the U.S.-funded labs were performing any work on biological weapons.
“The most important difference between biological weapons development,” and the mundane but vital work of identifying, describing, and studying the viruses and bacteria that occur in nature and pose a threat to public health, Favorov told me, “is that none of these labs have any type of equipment for the modification of the strain.”
“In all these labs,” he said, “you only have the equipment which might describe what you have, but not to modify it.”
Update: Friday, March 18, 3:05 a.m.
About 30 minutes after this article was published on Thursday, Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, the Georgia Republican who appears to also represent the extreme reaches of the internet, introduced Russian disinformation about “bioweapons” in U.S.-funded labs in Ukraine into the Congressional record. On the House floor, Greene repeated the claims that have jumped from Russian state media to Infowars to Fox News as she introduced the “Stopping the Spread of Taxpayer-Funded Bioweapon Act.”
Greene argued that her legislation was necessary because, in her words, “there are reports of possibly deadly pathogens escaping these biolabs in places like Ukraine, Georgia, Kazakhstan that is [sic] responsible for killing people.” She did not mention that those reports were from Russian state media, quoting claims Russian officials made based on faulty evidence. “Because it upsets so many people that I talk to constantly, I have introduced a bill to stop taxpayer funding for bioweapons,” Greene said. “What if strange outbreaks surrounding U.S.-funded biolabs are the result of these labs and the work that is taking place in them?” Greene asked. “What if these labs are creating viruses just like COVID-19?”
Correction: March 21, 2022
This article has been revised to correct the description of the Soviet-era nerve agent Novichok used in two high-profile assassination attempts attributed to Russian intelligence agents by Western governments and journalists. The nerve agent is classified as a chemical weapon, not a biological weapon, by the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons.