Russia accused Ukraine of developing biological weapons in a wild conspiracy theory. It could take the war to a new level

March 11, 2022, 3:22 PM UTC

An old conspiracy theory about American biological-weapons labs in Ukraine may be about to have serious consequences.

On Friday, the United Nations Security Council will convene at Russia’s request to discuss the country’s claims that the U.S. has “military biological activities” on Ukrainian territory.

Russia has been pushing this line a lot recently, and it seems to have convinced China and QAnon adherents.

These claims go back a long way. Russian state media reported several years ago that the U.S. had at least 15 biological testing facilities in Ukraine, that were allegedly the source for “epidemics of rare diseases” in the country.

The source of that report was a pro-Russian “hacktivist” group called CyberBerkut; earlier claims in this vein go back to at least 2016.

Now Russia is taking the theory to the highest level. But according to biological threats expert Filippa Lentzos, it’s nonsense.

“Yes, there are biological labs in Ukraine. Yes, they receive funding from Americans—they have been working with other partners as well. There are pathogens in these labs. That does not equate to a biological weapons program,” said Lentzos, a senior lecturer in science and international security at King’s College London’s department of war studies.

“The U.S. has been very open about this for a very long time,” she noted.

Far from containing biological weaponry, Lentzos said, the pathogens in the labs’ freezers are bacteria and viruses that most countries—Russia included—likely have in their own labs.

Russian projection

It is not yet entirely clear what Russia hopes to achieve here. British intelligence said Tuesday that the accusations had noticeably intensified since the end of February, and were “likely being amplified as part of a retrospective justification for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.”

But Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy—a democratically elected Jew being targeted by a Russian “denazification” campaign—sees a motivation that is even more sinister.

“As if we’re developing biological weapons. As if we’re preparing a chemical attack. This really worries me, because more than once we have found if you want to find out Russia’s plans, you should look at what Russia is accusing others of,” Zelenskyy said in a Friday address.

Russia may be looking to “justify a false-flag operation or them using chemical or biological weapons in Ukraine themselves,” an unnamed U.S. official told NBC News earlier in the week.

Lentzos does not believe Putin is about to deploy deadly pathogens in Ukraine. “We have very little understanding of Putin’s logic, but I think it’s very unlikely he would resort to biological weapons,” she said.

“Biological weapons have not been used as a battlefield weapon. That would be unprecedented. It is more likely they would resort to chemical weapons,” she noted.

Under Putin’s direction, Russia was alleged to have used chemical weapons in Chechnya at the end of the 1990s.

Russia also turned to chemical weapons in 2018 and 2020, when it used the nerve agent Novichok against former Russian spy Sergei Skripal (in the U.K.) and Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny (in Russia).

However, the most widely discussed point of comparison now is Syria, where Russia intervened in 2015 to prop up the then-faltering regime of Bashar al-Assad.

Then as now, Russian planes responded to a strong insurgency with indiscriminate bombardment that slaughtered civilians. It also openly used Syria as a testing and advertising ground for its latest weapons.

Russia itself is not known to have used chemical weapons in Syria, but Assad’s regime is.

In 2013, the Syrian military killed around 1,400 people in the Damascus suburb of Ghouta with a sarin gas attack.

In a deal with the U.S. aimed at averting Western intervention, Russia agreed to act as guarantor for Syria’s destruction of its chemical weapons stocks.

But then Syria went on to repeatedly attack people with chlorine gas and with sarin, and Russia went to bat to protect its ally at the UN, blocking an international response.

But if Russia were to use chemical weapons in Ukraine, what sort of response might that draw from the West?

Red lines

The Syrian experience was a bruising one on that front. In 2012, President Barack Obama said the Syrian use of chemical weapons would constitute a red line that might trigger U.S. military engagement.

In the event, it did not, and a good few people in the West bought the Syrian and Russian line that the chemical attacks had been staged by rebels, not by Assad’s forces.

“That failure to punish Assad gave a green light to every dictator, despot, rogue state, and terror group to use” chemical weapons, expert Hamish de Bretton-Gordon told Sky News on Friday. “I think Putin thinks he can use them with impunity.”

With that debacle still stinging, and owing to an understandable fear of a direct confrontation with Russia that could escalate into a nuclear conflict, NATO has studiously avoided drawing red lines in the Russia-Ukraine conflict.

However, the British armed forces minister James Heappey did give an indication on Thursday that some kind of threshold was imminent.

“I don’t think it is helpful to get into any firm commitment right now about where that red line sits, but I think President Putin needs to be very clear that when other countries have used chemical weapons it has caused an international response,” he told the BBC.

“I’m not going to get into red lines from here,” said White House press secretary Jen Psaki at a Thursday briefing, adding that the U.S.’s unwillingness to send its military to fight Russia in Ukraine had not changed.

However, she indicated that Russian use of chemical weapons would draw some sort of response from the U.S.

“I think there is still a red line in the sense that we have an international treaty banning the use of chemical weapons, which Russia is a signatory to,” said Lentzos.

“How exactly we respond to that will be a political call. We will need to have a significant response if that red line is crossed,” she added.

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