US-funded biolabs in Ukraine at the heart of ongoing propaganda war

Since the 1990s, Washington and Kiev have cooperated in preventing the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and fighting the spread of dangerous diseases. However, since the Russian invasion of Ukraine, a group of allegedly US-funded laboratories have become the subject of stepped-up and relentless conspiracy theories which the US is finding hard to debunk.

Did the US build a cluster of shady, top- secret biolabs in Ukraine aimed at developing bioweapons that are equipped with agressive strains of anthrax or the plague, as Russian propagada claims?

Or are these theories just part of a “false flag” operation to cover up possible plans by the Russian army, to “use chemical or biological weapons in Ukraine,” as White House press secretary Jen Psaki, wrote on Twitter?

A clue may be found on the website of the US Embassy in Kyiv. Buried on the site is a page which highlights the mission’s Defense Threat Reduction Office (DTRO).

The DTRO answers to the Pentagon's Defense Threat Reduction Agency, which, its website reads, has its origins in the notorious 1942-1947 Manhattan Project that gave birth to world's first atomic bomb.

But today the agency and its offices is not about making apocalypse-creating bombs, but rather preventing the spread of them.

In Ukraine, the DTRO runs four programs. One of them now sits at the heart of the current propaganda war between Russia and the US. The program in question is the Biological Threat Reduction Program.

The Department of Defense's role

The Kyiv embassy's page describing the program explains that it "collaborates with partner countries to counter the threat of outbreaks (deliberate, accidental, or natural) of the world’s most dangerous infectious diseases."

In a list of 15 downloadable PDF documents, the embassy gives detailed information about 12 different laboratories and institutions which have, or are in the process of obtaining, a "permit to work with (non-specified) pathogens."

Funds for most of the labs cites the US Ministry of Defense as "donor," according to the documents.

Recipients include the Ukraine's Ministry of Health (8 cases) and the Ukraine State Veterinary and Phytosanitary Service (4 cases).

The labs are located in Zakarpartska, Vinnytsia, Ternopil, Lviv, Luhansk, Kherson, Kharkiv and Dnipropetrovsk.

12 biolabs, $21 million investment

In all cases, according to the documents, the head contractor is the Kansas-based company Black & Veatch.

According to early reporting by CNBC, the Ukraine program is "meant to make the world a safer place," with Black & Veatch helping to "enhance the partner nation’s sustainable capacity to detect, diagnose, report, and respond to infectious disease outbreaks."

The twelve labs mentioned in the documents were all created between 2009 and 2012.

The program is an offspring of the 1991 Soviet Nuclear Threat Reduction Act: The act was desiged to, among other things, "reduce the risk of bioterrorism and prevent the proliferation of biological weapons (BW) technology, expertise, and extremely dangerous pathogens" in former Soviet states."

It also built on the 2005 Agreement between the US and Ukraine on weapons proliferation, signed by representatives of the US Department of Defense and the Ukranian Ministry of Health.

In the end, Black & Veatch was awarded all contracts for labs mentioned by the US Kyiv website.

The total investment of the twelve facilities mentioned amounts to $21.3 million (€18 million).

In 2010, the company also completed Ukraine’s first Bio-Safety Level 3 laboratory under a contract with the DTRA in Odessa. This was not mentioned on the US embassy's website.

'Deadly pathogens'

From the beginning, the labs attracted suspicion and comments from Moscow, culminating in an article in Russian daily Izvestia published on 26 May 2020, which mentions "eight laboratories [that] were built and modernized with the participation of the US Defense Special Weapons Agency (DTRA) as part of the Special Biological Engagement Program between 2005 and 2014 and which provided "assistance to Ukraine in preventing the spread of ... pathogens."

The article followed charges by Russian Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Maria Zakharova, on 17 April 2020, that "the United States may be developing deadly pathogens" in its "overseas laboratories," adding that "the United States is trying to strengthen its biological presence, including in the post-Soviet space."

Russia's invasion

On 26 February, two days after Russia's invasion of Ukraine, Bulgarian journalist Dilyana Gaytandzhieva tweeted that she had found out that the 15 links to pdf documents describing the Ukranian biolabs "were just deleted" from the website of Washington's embassy in Kyiv.

At the time, RFI found that the documents had indeed disappeared from the US embassy website, but that they were still available via de internet archive Wayback Machine.

But the unexplained disappearance of the documents triggered an avalanche of conspiracy theories on twitter and QAnon related websites trying to prove that the Russian invasion was, in fact, aimed at destroying the US-funded labs with elaborate maps comparing Russian artillery attacks with the location of the labs.

'Conceal any traces'

On 6 March, Moscow's propaganda machine itself went into overdrive. Russian news agency Tass carried a report that Russian Defense Ministry spokesperson Igor Konashenkov "revealed evidence of a US-financed military biological program developed in Ukraine," adding that the "Kiev regime" had applied "hasty measures" to "conceal any traces" of the program.

Press agency Ria produced a set of documents "proving" the allegations.

One day later, on 7 March, Russia's state controlled media outlet Ria Novosti quoted Igor Kirillov, the head of the radiation, chemical and biological defense of the Armed Forces as saying that "the Russian military has discovered 30 biolaboratories in Ukraine producing, possibly, bioweapons."

The next day, Chinese government spokesperson Zhao Lijian said during a regular press conference on 8 March, without offering any further evidence that " ... US biological labs in Ukraine have indeed attracted much attention. According to reports, a large quantity of dangerous viruses are stored in these facilities. Russia has found during its military operations that the US uses these facilities to conduct bio-military plans."

Zhao added that "according to data released by the US, it has 26 bio-labs and other related facilities in Ukraine, over which the US Department of Defense has absolute control."

'Quite concerned'

The US initially tried to play down the rumors, but was in the end forced to react. During a Senate hearing on 8 March, Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Victoria Nuland confirmed that Ukraine "has biological research facilities," which, the US is "now quite concerned Russian forces may be seeking to gain control of, so we are working with the Ukrainians on how they can prevent any of those research materials from falling into the hands of Russian forces should they approach".

On 9 March, White House Press Secretary Jan Psaki tweeted that the US "took note of Russia’s false claims about alleged U.S. biological weapons labs and chemical weapons development in Ukraine," adding that "we’ve also seen Chinese officials echo these conspiracy theories," calling the allegations "preposterous" and shooting back that they form "the kind of disinformation operation we’ve seen repeatedly from the Russians over the years,".

It added that Russia itself "has a long and well-documented track record of using chemical weapons, including in attempted assassinations and poisoning of Putin’s political enemies like Alexey Navalny."

On 10 March, the 15 links to the documents on the US Kyiv embassy website started working once again, clumsily coinciding with a US State Department statement which insisted that the US "does not own or operate any chemical or biological laboratories in Ukraine."

This may may be factually true, as the US Department of Defense functioned as "donor" for the millions for the biolabs which are currently all operated by Ukrainian entities, according to the documents.

But whatever the status of the biolabs, the war of words over them has no winner yet.

"The labs were developing biological weapons, and the most dangerous pathogens were destroyed to prevent violations of the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention by Ukraine and the United States from being exposed," according to Moscow's Interfax News Agency.

"I have no doubt about it," added Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said during a press conference in Istanbul on 10 March. "We asked details and wait for answers."

It is now up to the Americans to provide more transparency on the project.