Russia Plan to Use Bioweapons – Ex-Soviet Scientist Tells Russia’s Plan To Use Zoonotic Diseases As Bioweapon
> DISASTER > Russia Plan to Use Bioweapons – Ex-Soviet Scientist Tells Russia’s Plan To Use Zoonotic Diseases As Bioweapon
After Russia’s invasion of Ukraine began, claims from the Kremlin of a US-funded bioweapon program in Ukraine flooded global media. Those reports were amplified by China and picked up by conservative news outlets and conspiracy groups in the US. Although the US and Ukraine denied Russia’s claims, and they were deemed false by the United Nations and the World Health Organization, this piece of disinformation raises questions about the Kremlin’s strategy in the current war and beyond.
When the reports first appeared, the US warned that Russia could be using this thread of disinformation to stage a false-flag incident using bioweapons, or to justify the use of its own bioweapons against Ukraine. It wouldn’t have been the first time Russia used false-flag tactics, and the threat of Russia using bioweapons in either scenario isn’t an outlandish prospect.
The Soviet Union’s bioweapon program began in the 1920s and was the largest and most sophisticated undertaken by any nation in the world. Despite joining the Biological Weapons Convention in 1972, the Soviets, and then the Russian Federation, continued the program into the 1990s. In 2021, the US concluded that Russia still possessed an offensive bioweapon program, or, at the very least, stockpiles of bioweapons and prevailing production capacities, in violation of the convention.
A Soviet-era agricultural biowarfare programme was pursued from 1958 through to the collapse of the USSR in 1991. This program focused on anti-crop and anti-livestock biological weapons, with Soviet efforts starting with FMD virus, for which an institute was established on Gorodomlya Island.
Russia has a history of deploying chemical weapons that includes using them in assassination plots and in the wars in Syria and Chechnya. Moscow neither follows international law prohibiting the use of chemical weapons nor adheres to international norms that proscribe their use as inhumane and abhorrent. It’s not clear that Russia’s mentality towards the use of bioweapons is any different.
An alternative explanation for the bioweapon disinformation campaign is that it was undertaken in part to justify Russian President Vladimir Putin’s decision to invade Ukraine. The invasion has been accompanied by a concerted disinformation campaign and internal propaganda tactics that originated long before 24 February.
A flood of disinformation narratives has emerged from Russia about the West over the past few years. The main theme since the start of the invasion has continued to be that the former Soviet nation is an innocent victim strong-armed into aggression to stave off NATO encroachment. The invasion has also been framed as a necessary ‘denazification’ of Ukraine. The bioweapon disinformation narrative has also played into this strategy and could be just another narrative spread by Russia to justify its unprompted invasion of Ukraine.
If Russia’s intent isn’t to use the bioweapon disinformation to escalate the war via military means, the Kremlin’s strategy could be to use this narrative to erode trust in the US, or to endanger the Cooperative Threat Reduction Program, a post–World War II initiative that converted the Soviet Union’s offensive bioweapon laboratories into safe public-health research facilities.
Russia’s use of bioweapon disinformation isn’t a new phenomenon; it’s a 70-year old strategy that has simply been ramped up since the invasion in Ukraine. The Soviet Union carried out major international bioweapon disinformation campaigns against the US in the past, including one declaring that the US used bioweapons against North Korea and China during the Korean War. Another accused the US of synthesising the HIV virus to deliberately wipe out African populations.
Russia also used the Covid-19 pandemic to undermine social cohesion and sow mistrust in rival nations’ governments by circulating conspiracy theories about the virus, particularly the Chinese narrative that it was a bioweapon engineered by the US. Covid-19 disinformation has undoubtedly played into the Kremlin’s claims about a US–Ukrainian bioweapon program, using scepticism surrounding the virus to provide credibility to its false narrative. Russia has also used the current monkeypox outbreak to target the US, saying that the virus was spread from US-operated laboratories in Nigeria.
It’s unclear at this stage whether Russia intends to use bioweapons in its war against Ukraine, but we shouldn’t rule out the possibility. Russia has a history of chemical weapons use that indicates a lack of adherence to international norms and laws prohibiting the use of weapons of mass destruction in conflict. And it is believed to possess offensive bioweapon capabilities. If Russia’s plan isn’t to use bioweapons, we should still be concerned about the Kremlin’s use of bioweapon disinformation as a tactic to sow mistrust in the US and NATO, for example, and to undermine initiatives that aid bioweapon non-proliferation.
At a meeting of the U.N. Security Council on Friday, Russia repeated its charges that the United States has been conducting a biological weapons program in Ukraine. The suggestion, previously raised by Russia at a Security Council meeting on March , is outlandish. As Linda Thomas-Greenfield, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, has rightly put it, Russia is abusing the Security Council in order to “legitimize disinformation and deceive people to justify Russian President Vladimir Putin’s war of choice against Ukraine.”
That has not prevented the claim from being picked up by some conservative political commentators, including Fox News’s Tucker Carlson, whose segments on the topic are then shown on Russian state television.
In fact, the U.S. Biological Threat Reduction Program — alluded to in these accusations — was initially aimed at converting Soviet-era labs associated with Moscow’s offensive bioweapons programs to peaceful purposes; the program also has ensured that public and veterinary health labs receive funding to improve their biosafety (protecting lab personnel and local populations) and biosecurity (making sure dangerous pathogens are protected against theft or misuse). Under the Global Partnership Against the Spread of Weapons and Materials of Mass Destruction, similar support has been provided to former Soviet republics as well as to countries in Africa and Asia by countries including Canada, Germany, Britain and Finland.
The false charges fit a long, lamentable pattern that stretches back to the early years of the Cold War. In 1951 and 1952, for example, the Soviet Union asserted that the United States was using biological weapons in the Korean War — a claim that it knew at the time to be false, as Soviet documents eventually made public in the late 1990s made clear. The Soviet Union also covered up an open-air bioweapons trial involving smallpox, in 1971, on Vozrozhdeniye Island, in the Aral Sea, that accidentally infected members of a ship’s crew. In 1979, an accident at a bioweapons facility producing anthrax in Yekaterinburg led to some 60 deaths in the local population — an outbreak the Soviet and subsequent Russian government attributed to contaminated meat.
In the post-Soviet era, Russia has taken every opportunity to make bogus allegations about Western (and especially U.S.) chemical and biological activities in third countries. Such attempts are almost certainly intended to divert attention from Russia’s own highly questionable activities in the biological and chemical weapons realm. Today, for instance, Western governments fear that the lies could be used as cover for, or supposed justification for, a chemical or biological attack by Russian forces in Ukraine.
After the collapse of the Soviet system, Russia used false charges to derail early attempts to monitor, and dismantle, bioweapons capabilities dating to the previous era. In 1989, Vladimir Pasechnik, a key researcher in a secret Soviet biological weapons, defected to Britain. The information he took with him set in motion events that culminated in the United States, Britain and Russia signing a joint statement on biological weapons known as the Trilateral Agreement in 1992.
The agreement’s primary purpose was to enable the Russians to demonstrate that the large offensive bioweapons program inherited from the Soviet Union had been dismantled and its facilities and personnel redirected to peaceful purposes. Part of this process entailed visits to nonmilitary and military biological facilities in Russia as well as the United States and Britain. But as discussions moved toward arrangements for visits to military facilities, Moscow balked. Suddenly, it claimed that it had concerns about U.S. military medical laboratories in Africa, Asia and Latin America; none of these had anything to do with biological weapons. Russia insisted that it would need access to these laboratories.
With British support, the United States quite properly argued that the labs mentioned by Russia were not relevant to the Trilateral Agreement. For this and other reasons — Russia also kept investigators from fully exploring its own sites — the agreement ran aground and petered out in 1996. The Russian allegations served their purpose in this case, preventing U.S. and British experts from learning firsthand about the biological facilities run by the Russian Defense Ministry.
Russia has continued to make spurious and unfounded allegations about U.S. labs in third countries. One particularly outrageous falsehood concerns the Richard Lugar Center for Public Health Research in Tbilisi, Georgia, which opened in 2011. This is the first Biosafety Level 3 laboratory — one qualified to study infectious agents or toxins that may be transmitted through the air — established in the region; it serves both Georgia and the wider area. The lab provides detection and diagnostic capacities for endemic and exotic diseases, such as dengue or chikungunya, and is equipped to conduct bio-surveillance on tularemia, anthrax and other diseases that can leap from animals to humans. Russia has asserted that the United States is running a clandestine offensive bioweapons program at the center. For its part, Georgia has hosted a visit of international experts to the lab. In 2018, Georgia specifically invited Russia to send its own expert; Moscow declined. Tellingly, Russia has never made use of the various formal procedures under the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention for raising compliance concerns. It prefers instead to trumpet its wild, unsupported accusations in public.
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