16th March 2022 – (Moscow) How far will Russian President Vladimir Putin go to win his war in Ukraine?
The question looms larger and more worrying as the invasion slows and his dreams of conquest are put on hold. His mounting frustration has prompted fears that Putin is willing to use weapons of mass destruction (WMD) to prevail.
While Putin has issued nuclear threats, the real danger appears to be a readiness to use chemical or biological weapons. Russian officials have launched a disinformation campaign that seems to lay the groundwork for the deployment of bioweapons.
The world must not tolerate this deception and but it must simultaneously prepare for the breaking of the WMD taboo.
Putin misread the Ukrainian resistance. When his forces bogged down, he was forced to change tactics and authorized the resort to wanton and indiscriminate destruction that may include war crimes. He has countenanced the leveling of Ukraine, exposing as laughable the claim that he is motivated by a desire to “save” the country.
Questions persist over how far he is willing to go. Early in the conflict he brandished the nuclear threat by putting nuclear forces on high alert. Earlier this month, the Russian military bombarded the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant in southeastern Ukraine, one of the largest facilities in Europe, starting a fire and eventually taking over the facility; Chernobyl, site of the world’s worst nuclear disaster, was overrun by Russian troops early in the invasion.
Concern has shifted in recent days to chemical and biological weapons. Moscow launched a disinformation campaign alleging that the U.S. was developing biological weapons in Ukraine, with the Russian Ministry of Defense announcing that it found “evidence of an emergency clean-up performed by the Kiev regime … aimed at eradicating traces of the military-biological program, in Ukraine, financed by the Pentagon.” Russia’s deputy U.N. ambassador called on media to report on “news about secret biological laboratories in Ukraine.”
Some Western media outlets dutifully parroted the Russian claims, chief among them Tucker Carlson of Fox News, whose reportage has earned him the Twitter hashtag #Tuckyo Rose. David Corn reported that Russian media were told to broadcast footage of Carlson to give the allegations an air of neutrality.
China’s Foreign Ministry has aggressively promoted the charges. It’s familiar ground: The same spokesperson argued in 2020 that China’s COVID-19 outbreak was caused by the U.S. military.
After this month’s embarrassing United Nations General Assembly vote to condemn the invasion, Russia tried to retake the diplomatic initiative by calling for a U.N. Security Council meeting to discuss the bioweapons charges. China’s U.N. ambassador backed Moscow, arguing that “concerns raised by Russia should be properly addressed.”
The U.S. response has been uniform and scathing. White House press secretary Jen Psaki called the claims “preposterous” and warned that Russia has a history of “inventing outright lies.” The State Department press spokesman charged Russia with “inventing false pretexts” to justify atrocities in Ukraine, while the Pentagon press secretary dismissed the Russian charges as “laughable” and “malarkey.”
A Ukrainian presidential spokesperson tartly added that “Ukraine strictly denies any such allegation.” And a U.N. spokesman said that colleagues at the World Health Organization (WHO) “are unaware of any activity on the part of the Ukrainian government, which is inconsistent with its international treaty obligations, including on chemical weapons or biological weapons.”
Unfortunately, the disinformation campaign has gained traction because there are biological research labs in Ukraine and they have been supported by U.S. military funds. To be perfectly clear though, the incendiary charge that the U.S. was doing bioweapons research in those facilities is not true. Moreover, there are no U.S. labs in Ukraine. Filippa Lentzos, a senior lecturer in science and international security at King’s College London who works on these issues and has inspected the facilities, explained that “These are public and animal health facilities that are owned and operated by Ukraine.”
The U.S. has been working with Ukraine and other countries, including Russia, to clean up or make more secure facilities that did research on weapons of mass destruction during the Cold War. The European Union and the WHO support similar efforts. The U.S. program has been largely funded by the Pentagon’s Defense Threat Reduction Agency. (In the interest of full disclosure, I’ve worked on DTRA projects that address nuclear threats.)
According to a U.S. Department of Defense fact sheet released after the charges were leveled, the U.S. “has invested approximately $200 million in Ukraine since 2005, supporting 46 Ukrainian laboratories, health facilities and diagnostic sites.” This information is not secret, classified or closely held: It has been available for some time on the U.S. Embassy in Ukraine website.
Once made safe and secure, those facilities conduct research on ways to mitigate threats posed by diseases that affect animals and humans. The U.S. Embassy website explained that the programs are intended to “consolidate and secure pathogens and toxins of security concern and to continue to ensure Ukraine can detect and report outbreaks caused by dangerous pathogens before they pose security or stability threats.” In other words, the Ukrainians do exactly what Chinese authorities said they do in their lab in Wuhan.
Disinformation campaigns are the stock and trade of Russian intelligence services. In the 1980s, they spread the false rumor that the U.S. was behind the HIV/AIDS virus. Russian officials and media have sporadically charged the U.S. with maintaining secret bioweapon programs, accusations that often follow an outbreak of some obscure disease in animals. Experts note that Russia makes those allegations when Moscow finds itself under international scrutiny for similar acts.
Former Russian scientists admit that the Soviet government and its successors continued biological weapons research after Moscow signed the treaty banning it, refusing to believe that the U.S. wasn’t doing the same. Russia is believed to have used biological weapons during its war in Afghanistan, and Moscow has used nerve agents and nuclear materials to poison “enemies of the regime,” such as opposition leader Alexei Navalny, former spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia, and another spy, Alexander Litvinenko.
The Russian accusations raise two alarming possibilities. The first is a “false flag” attack in which Russia would use chemical or biological weapons and then blame it on Ukraine — a scenario that CIA Director William Burns anticipated at a recent congressional hearing. Psaki warned that “Now that Russia has made these false claims, and China has seemingly endorsed this propaganda, we should all be on the lookout for Russia to possibly use chemical or biological weapons in Ukraine, or to create a false flag operation using them. It’s a clear pattern.”
The second possibility is that Russia will use the accusation to justify its invasion. Just as the U.S. went into Iraq to find Saddam Hussein’s nuclear arsenal, Putin’s forces will be looking for Ukraine’s biological weapons. The claim by Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova that “The emergency destruction of dangerous pathogens … was … aimed at concealing the fact that Ukraine and the U.S. had violated … the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention” appears to lay the groundwork for that search — and the possibility of “discovering” weapons that weren’t destroyed.
The entire world must double down on sanctions and other forms of punishment if Russia uses weapons of mass destruction. The taboo against their use exists for a reason.
In addition, it may be time to amend the Biological Weapons Convention and add a verification protocol. Efforts to forge consensus on this thorny issue have been fruitless with the U.S. being one of the biggest obstacles.
This crisis, the controversy surrounding the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic, and the poor regulation of biological research labs (discussed in a column last year) should force a rethink in Washington and elsewhere about the urgent need to fix this problem.
Brad Glosserman is deputy director of and visiting professor at the Center for Rule-Making Strategies at Tama University as well as senior adviser (nonresident) at Pacific Forum. He is the author of “Peak Japan: The End of Great Ambitions” (Georgetown University Press, 2019).