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The truth about those US-funded biological laboratories in Ukraine

Photo by Laurent Van der Stockt for Le Monde/Getty Images

In case you haven't noticed, there has been quite the controversy in the last week about whether Ukraine does or does not have biological research facilities that were funded, at least in part, by the United States military. The accusation has been the subject of some absurd fact-checks by our corporate media and accusations of "Russian disinformation" from our government.

The truth is: Yes, there are indeed biological research facilities in Ukraine that have been funded by our government. We don't have any way to know whether these facilities were conducting research that was intended to produce weapons or not, but we do know that if the pathogens housed in these facilities escaped, they would be just as deadly as as an intentionally produced bioweapon.

The controversy began when the Russian government tweeted the following accusation:

Specifically, the Russian government stated that it found evidence of a "military-biological programme" that was funded by the United States Department of Defense and that was being cleaned up during the course of the invasion.

Promptly, the United States government leapt into action to dispute this contention with the assertion that the United States military does not, and never has, funded a "biological weapons" program and claimed that this accusation was part of a "Russian disinformation" campaign. This assertion was dutifully repeated by the government's stenographers in the corporate media.

Amazingly, the seminal "fact-check," written by USA Today, argued that there were no "biolabs" funded by the military, even while acknowledging the existence of such labs. The "fact-check" notes that the United States and Ukraine did have such labs, but that they were to "prevent the proliferation of dangerous pathogens and related expertise and to minimize potential biological threats" and further explicitly stated that the United States was providing funding to those labs, albeit for the purpose of "making repairs, updating equipment and purchasing supplies" at those laboratories.

At the risk of overstating the obvious, if the military is "purchasing supplies" at these laboratories, to say nothing of "updating equipment" or "making repairs" at these laboratories, it is funding them.

In a remarkable off-camera briefing held last week, the Defense Department further spoke about these claims. In that briefing, an unidentified "senior Department of Defense official" said, among other things:

A few key points about the Department of Defense's Cooperative Threat Reduction Program Biological Threat Reduction Program activities in Ukraine this is part of the Department of Defense's Cooperative Threat Reduction Program. Through that program, we have invested approximately $200 million in Ukraine since 2005, supporting 46 Ukrainian labs, health facilities, and diagnostic sites. DOD's CTR program began its biological work with Ukraine to eliminate the remnants of the Soviet Union's illegal biological weapons program left in the Soviet successor states after the USSR fell. There are no DOD bioweapon labs in Ukraine or anywhere else in the world.

The first and most obvious point to make about this statement is that it is an admission that: a) these laboratories exist, and b) we have given them a lot of money. Now, the unnamed senior official follows this up with two red herrings. First, the senior official asserted that our cooperation with Ukraine on this project began as an effort to eliminate the bioweapons program that was being carried on by the Soviet Union. Assuming that is true, it has nothing to do with our efforts that began in 2005, some 14 years after the Soviet Union fell. Second, the official asserted that "there are no DOD bioweapon labs" anywhere in the world.

Let's assume that this assertion is true, because it seems to be all that either the DOD or the press is focusing on. Assume that nowhere in Ukraine is a laboratory that has the express purpose of creating or proliferating a bioweapon. Fine. The assertion is simply not responsive to the charge that was actually made by the Russian government, which was that they found evidence of a "military-biological programme" that was funded by the United States Department of Defense. That assertion is demonstrably true and has been confirmed as true by our government. Now, our government says, and I have no reason to disbelieve it, that the purpose of those labs was not to create a bioweapon. But that doesn't mean, in this case, that what the Russian government said was false.

We know some of what the government was doing in Ukraine from documents that were released by Wikileaks. In a 2008 cable, it was revealed that Andrew Weber of the OSD/CTR (the same Department of Defense agency referred to in last week's briefing) held a discussion with Ukrainian officials about the need to create one central laboratory in Ukraine that would house its most dangerous pathogens because, among other reasons, "the U.S. seeks to consolidate the strains/pathogens that could be used by terrorists on human or agricultural targets."

This illustrates the problem with the government's straw man protestations that it does not fund bioweapon labs. Unlike other potential weapons of mass destruction, there is no functional difference between the danger associated with biological materials that are collected for peaceful purposes and materials that are collected for illicit, non-peaceful purposes. If a terrorist breaks into a nuclear power plant, they can't make off with a functioning nuclear bomb. However, if they break into a biological research facility that houses a dangerous pathogen that is being kept for the purpose of, say, vaccine development, they now have a fully functioning dangerous pathogen.

It probably (hopefully) is true that the Ukrainians are not housing dangerous pathogens in order to develop bioweapons on the U.S. taxpayer's dime. However, after we have just come through a two-year pandemic that has taken millions of lives and may well have been started due to a leak from a laboratory that was trying to develop a coronavirus vaccine, that may come as cold comfort to people who are justifiably concerned about the safety of those pathogens during the course of the scorched-earth campaign the Russian military is now conducting.

By the way, the initial Russian accusation did not just say the program existed, it said that there was an "emergency cleanup" under way that was trying to eradicate the program. This is, frankly, good news. It's exactly what should be happening.

Absolutely no one would begrudge the Ukrainians an aggressive research program into chemical and biological agents, given Russia's nasty history with poisons and pathogens — a history that includes the probable attempted assassination of Ukrainian president Viktor Yushchenko by the Russian government in 2004. And, given that the Russian military is now carpeting Ukraine with explosive devices, with apparently little care or ability to deliver those devices with precision, it is entirely appropriate for a cleanup operation to be under way to ensure that those pathogens are not inadvertently released.

But the United States government should be saying that, in order to ensure that our credibility remains intact on the world stage after the sad and senseless invasion of Ukraine is over.

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