How U.S. Bioweapons in Ukraine Became Russia’s New Big Lie

A viral conspiracy theory could be used to justify an attack, the United States says.

By , a journalist based in Toronto.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov gives a press conference.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov gives a press conference.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov gives a press conference in Turkey on March 10. Ozan Kose/AFP via Getty Images

In less than two weeks, a conspiracy theory about Ukrainian biolabs has gone from a fringe QAnon Twitter account to becoming a major rallying cry for both Russian President Vladimir Putin’s regime and the U.S. far-right.

Now, the White House says it may be used by Putin as cover for a bioweapons attack on Ukraine.

The theory that the Russian invasion was a pretext to destroy U.S.-installed biolabs first emerged online in the hours after Putin began airstrikes in Ukraine—although it can be traced back to older conspiracy claims. Since then, it has been touted or outright endorsed by a roster of Russian disinformation accounts; Russian and Chinese state media; Russian officials, including Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and United Russia leader Dmitry Medvedev; and noted U.S. far-right figures, including QAnon leader Ron Watkins and former U.S. President Donald Trump advisor Steve Bannon.

In less than two weeks, a conspiracy theory about Ukrainian biolabs has gone from a fringe QAnon Twitter account to becoming a major rallying cry for both Russian President Vladimir Putin’s regime and the U.S. far-right.

Now, the White House says it may be used by Putin as cover for a bioweapons attack on Ukraine.

The theory that the Russian invasion was a pretext to destroy U.S.-installed biolabs first emerged online in the hours after Putin began airstrikes in Ukraine—although it can be traced back to older conspiracy claims. Since then, it has been touted or outright endorsed by a roster of Russian disinformation accounts; Russian and Chinese state media; Russian officials, including Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and United Russia leader Dmitry Medvedev; and noted U.S. far-right figures, including QAnon leader Ron Watkins and former U.S. President Donald Trump advisor Steve Bannon.

Mounting fears inside the U.S. defense and intelligence community that Russian bombing could, in fact, cause a biological incident—or could be the pretext for Russia deploying biological or chemical weapons—has served to reinforce the skeptics’ belief that America has something to hide.

The conspiracy theory got an extra boost on Tuesday during a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing. Sen. Marco Rubio asked U.S. Undersecretary of State Victoria Nuland whether there were bioweapons in Ukraine: In answering, she stressed that “Ukraine has biological research facilities.” She added that the United States is working with the Ukrainian government to ensure those research facilities do not fall “into the hands of Russian forces.”

Even if she categorically did not say the United States funds the creation of bioweapons in Ukraine, her comments were taken as proof by the theory’s boosters. They allege those labs are performing such dangerous and risky experiments that Russia is well within its rights to destroy them.

Bannon’s War Room podcast heard from former Trump apparatchik Peter Navarro that health advisor Anthony Fauci was at the center of everything. “Whatever happened in the Ukraine,” Navarro said about those biolabs, “he had to know about it.”

Writer Glenn Greenwald, increasingly aligned with far-right polemicists, spun an imaginary narrative where Rubio was “visibly stunned,” characterizing Nuland’s comments as confirmation of U.S-controlled or created biological weapons in Ukraine.

“The only reason to be ‘quite concerned’ about these ‘biological research facilities’ falling into Russian hands is if they contain sophisticated materials that Russian scientists have not yet developed on their own and which could be used for nefarious purposes,” Greenwald writes. “Either advanced biological weapons or dual-use ‘research’ that has the potential to be weaponized.”

Greenwald’s theory was quickly endorsed by Fox News host and de facto voice of the American far-right Tucker Carlson. Carlson dismissed the idea that QAnon (“whatever that is,” Carlson said) was responsible for the original theory—despite the theory’s originator being a longtime QAnon follower. Carlson declared Nuland’s testimony confirmation that “the Russian disinformation they’ve been telling us for days is a lie, and a conspiracy theory, and crazy, and immoral to believe is, in fact, totally and completely true,” he said. “Woah.”

Carlson’s conclusion that these “secret” labs posed an existential threat and the United States and Ukraine were uniquely to blame for it is cribbed directly from Russia’s propaganda efforts of the past decade—and, particularly, from the last week.

This all lines up with what Russia itself is saying. “It can be concluded that components of biological weapons were being developed in Ukrainian biolabs located in close vicinity of our border,” Russian foreign ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova said at a press conference. “The emergency destruction of dangerous pathogens on Feb. 24 was a necessary step aimed at concealing the fact that Ukraine and the U.S. had violated Article 1 of the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention.”

Moscow’s sudden enthusiasm for the conspiracy theory has led Washington to raise the alarm.

On Tuesday, Rubio asked the undersecretary about propaganda disseminated from Russian sources alleging they have “uncovered a plot by the Ukrainians to release biological weapons in the country.” He asked: “If there is a biological or chemical weapon incident or attack inside of Ukraine, is there any doubt in your mind that, 100 percent, it would be the Russians?”

“There is no doubt in my mind, senator, and it is classic Russian technique to blame on the other guy what they’re planning to do themselves,” Nuland responded.

White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki echoed this sentiment on Wednesday, tweeting, “[W]e 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.”

As Foreign Policy reported last week, the existence of these U.S-funded laboratories is neither secret nor unusual. Understanding why these labs exist is critical to understanding just how baseless these allegations are—and just how dangerous the war could get if the White House is right about Russia’s possible planned use of biological or chemical agents.

After the fall of the Soviet Union, a massive amount of nuclear, chemical, and biological material was suddenly the responsibility of nascent governments with no particular expertise in handling them.

“The Soviet Union had the most efficient, sophisticated, and powerful offensive [biological weapons] program in the world,” Kenneth Alibek, first deputy director of the Soviet Union’s bioweapons program, Biopreparat, told the Nonproliferation Review in a 1999 interview. “I personally developed three versions of a tularemia biological weapon, a sophisticated plague biological weapon, and a dry form of anthrax that is one of the most powerful biological weapons in the world today.”

As recently as 1985, Alibek said, then-Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev signed a five-year plan to create Ebola and Marburg biological weapons as well as ramp up the creation of weaponized smallpox. Although the United States and Soviet Union were both signatories of the 1972 Biological Weapons Convention that outlawed offensive research, many Soviet officials were convinced the Americans were lying about ending their own program and thus felt justified in continuing their own efforts. While Alibek said those efforts were eventually abandoned and efforts were made to destroy the pathogens, he was certain that elements of his program remained.

When the Cold War came to a close and a series of reciprocal visits were organized between Washington and Moscow to tour each other’s biological weapons facilities, Alibek recounted the shock that struck each side—the Americans’ surprise over just how extensive the Soviet program had been and the Russians’ realization that they had been lied to about U.S. research. Despite evidence of research being done decades prior, Alibek found there was no active bioweapons program. It became clear to Alibek that then-U.S. President Richard Nixon had been telling the truth in 1969 when he signed an order ending the United States’ offensive bioweapons program.

As the Soviet Union disintegrated, Alibek said he was asked by the newly formed government in his native Kazakhstan to help develop their own bioweapons program. He declined and defected to the United States shortly thereafter.

Alibek continued to warn about the risk of a Russian bioweapons program, however. “Russia is interested in maintaining its offensive biological potential because biological weapons have unique capabilities,” he told the Review. He hypothesized how these biological agents could be dispersed via entrenched fighters in Chechnya. “These weapons can be considered highly effective for certain types of low-intensity or high-intensity conflict. Especially, in my opinion, for a country that is losing its conventional military potential and becoming weaker practically every single day.”

After the Berlin Wall fell, an U.S. effort—led by former Sens. Richard Lugar and Sam Nunn—began work to identify and destroy stockpiles of Soviet nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons. Their work led to the creation of what is now known as the Defense Threat Reduction Agency.

While the agency isn’t entirely about nonproliferation—it actively contributes to managing the United States’ nuclear capabilities—its Biological Threat Reduction Program does significant work in security and destroying nonconventional weapons abroad. That’s involved cooperation with post-Soviet countries, including Russia itself.

A 2007 review of the agency’s work by the National Research Council endorsed the program and found that “the national security payoffs from a robust and far reaching program in this field are considerable.” A 2019 fact sheet from the agency claims it destroyed some 4,700 tons of chemical weapons and facilitated the “construction or renovation of more than 100 laboratory and storage facilities” as well as coordinated “more than 300 cooperative research projects aimed at safely studying, detecting, and diagnosing especially dangerous pathogens.”

The Defense Threat Reduction Agency is responsible for funding labs and programs in Ukraine and elsewhere in the region, including Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Georgia, Azerbaijan, and (in the early 2000s) Russia itself.

Thomas Moore, who worked for Lugar and was intimately familiar with efforts to manage the former Soviet bioweapons program, said the program was incredibly successful in “defanging the Soviet monster.” Since it successfully destroyed significant quantities of chemical and biological agents in the former Soviet states, he said work has ramped up around disease surveillance—Uzbekistan, for example, has a particularly high rate of infectious disease outbreaks. If you believe COVID-19 emerged naturally from an animal reservoir in southern China, as the majority of the virology community does, then infectious disease surveillance is a particularly useful quest.

But Moore said insisting U.S. interests are more nefarious is “pretty familiar territory, unfortunately.” Moore stressed that Russia has been trying to gin up the idea that America is doing nefarious research on its borders for decades.

The funding, however, is explicitly aimed at destroying, preventing, or containing infectious diseases—not creating them.

“We’re not talking about gain of function,” Moore said, referring to the favored bugbear of those who believe COVID-19 was created with U.S. government funding. “We’re talking about removing function.”

Much of this research is public. For example, $1.8 million funded the creation of a veterinary lab. Another cooperation saw the agency fund a study of influenza in dogs and cats. $1.7 million went to a facility in Kharkiv, Ukraine, that has been doing COVID-19 testing throughout the pandemic. More than a decade ago, funding from the agency also brought Ukrainian hospitals and research sites onto the Electronic Integrated Disease Surveillance System, a program used worldwide.

Ukraine does have some health-focused research facilities that handle more dangerous pathogens, such as the plague, specifically because the country has seen outbreaks throughout its history. Their work is published in peer-reviewed journals, and research is done in conjunction with scientists in the United States, Canada, Europe, and abroad. In fact, a 2007 report by the Nuclear Threat Initiative found that the United States’ plans to upgrade a research facility in Kyiv, Ukraine’s capital, would improve security mechanisms and “serve to substantially decrease whatever proliferation threat the institute now poses.” They further found no evidence of an offensive bioweapons program and continue to assess Ukraine as a low risk for biological weapons proliferation. A 2021 review by the Global Health Security Index found “an apparent lack of interest in dual-use research among Ukrainian experts and officials.”

Moore said the United States, since Nixon’s order, “is engaged in absolutely no research, study, or development of biological weapons.” What’s more, he said, “there are no [bioweapons] facilities in Ukraine, and the Ukrainian authorities have never had any interest whatsoever.”

Although American and Ukrainian research labs are relatively open and accessible to outside scrutiny, Russia does not operate on the same basis.

“Russia probably does have a biological weapons program. The U.S. believes it does and has said so,” Gigi Gronvall, bioweapons expert and senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, told me last year. “They have facilities that are not open. They’ve cut off track two—any sort of person-to-person—[diplomacy]. One of the only scientists I knew in Russia was one of those victims of suicide. He just happened to jump out of a 12-story window.”

Moscow is a signatory to the Biological Weapons Convention, but it contains no verification measures—indeed, the Soviet Union signed the convention just as they were ramping up domestic bioweapons production. “There’s no credible evidence that they completely abandoned everything,” Moore told Foreign Policy.

Since taking power two decades ago, Putin has opposed international inspectors of possible biological weapon sites and has openly mused about the possibility of developing “genetic weapons.”

“I would never publicly say that Russia does not have biological weapons programs,” Moore said. “I would never be able to give more detail than that.”

The State Department, per a 2021 report, “assesses that the Russian Federation (Russia) maintains an offensive BW program and is in violation of its obligation under [the Biological Weapons Convention.] The issue of compliance by Russia with the BWC has been of concern for many years.”

Moore suspects this propaganda effort is not, as the White House has suggested, an attempt to launch a biological attack on Ukraine.

Geopolitically, biological weapons have been used only a few times in the battlefield—likely, the only major modern power responsible for the deployment of biological agents against an enemy was the Soviets themselves during their counterinsurgency in Afghanistan. Alibek said he believes the Glanders biological agent was deployed against the mujahideen in 1982. CIA assessments certainly support the idea that the Soviets were deploying or providing toxin weapons.”

But beyond that instance, Alibek made clear, the Soviets saw biological weapons as a piece of the total nuclear deterrence package. “The main doctrine was to use biological weapons in so-called total wars involving possible mutual destruction between the United States and the Soviet Union and their allies,” he explained. Although he hypothesized that these weapons could be used inside Russia, deploying these hitherto unheard-of weapons within Europe’s borders would be extremely provocative. While Washington’s much-touted red line around chemical weapons in Syria ultimately proved to be bluster, with no response after Syria actually used chemical weapons, deploying such weaponry against Ukraine would likely evoke a much stronger response.

Russia’s interest in bioweapons may be more than rhetorical, however.

“What worries me is if they’d plant some ‘evidence,’” Moore said.

Even if nobody believes it, Moore said, producing even a small quantity of anthrax would give Russia the pretext to continue its brutal war and portray Ukraine and the United States as the aggressors. It would allow Putin to say, as Moore put it: “You guys went to Iraq to find it, and we came to Ukraine to find it.”

Justin Ling is a journalist based in Toronto. Twitter: @Justin_Ling

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