The USA-supported Biolabs in Ukraine –– What Information Do We Have? (Part 1 of 2)
In 2018, our Defense Threat Reduction Agency reported on establishing 52 labs and research centers throughout the Former Soviet Union. Learn more about our Cooperative Biological Engagement Program.
On 8 March 2022, Victoria Nuland, Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs, testified before the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. A member of “permanent Washington,” Nuland was previously infamous for a leaked phone call she made on 28 January 2014 — reported on by the BBC (7 February 2014) and Washington Post (6 February 2014) among other MSM outlets.
According to the Washington Post (6 February 2014), Nuland’s conversation exposed a “deep degree of U.S. involvement in affairs that Washington officially says are Ukraine’s to resolve.” Her “Fuck the EU [European Union]” clarification in that phone call also merited some attention.
The BBC’s analysis of the transcript (7 February 2014) largely confirmed the Washington Post remarks, but also called particular attention to role then Vice President Joseph Biden was being positioned to play. In Nuland’s own words:
… when I wrote the note [US vice-president's national security adviser Jake] Sullivan's come back to me VFR [direct to me], saying you need [US Vice-President Joe] Biden and I said probably tomorrow for an atta-boy and to get the deets [details] to stick. So Biden's willing.
For non-speakers of American English, an “atta-boy” is an expression of encouragement and admiration. Job well done.
To many qualified observers it appeared that Nuland was helping to install a US-friendly government after the Ukrainian coup or revolution of 2014: “coup” or “revolution,” depending on one’s political perspective. (For more information, please start with John J. Mearsheimer (2018), The Great Delusion; and Richard Sakwa (2014), Frontline Ukraine).
But Nuland’s remarks under oath on 8 March 2022 might prove even more interesting that her leaked phone call eight years earlier. To recap, in the final minutes of the hearing, Senator Marco Rubio (FL) asked dismissively if Ukraine had biological or chemical weapons. His purpose seemingly was to debunk presumed Russian and now also Chinese propaganda about the USA operating biolabs in Ukraine and elsewhere.
But rather than answering Rubio with a flat denial, Nuland clarified:
Ukraine has biological research facilities which in fact we are quite concerned Russian troops, 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.
So Ukraine does NOT have biological or chemical weapons, according to Nuland. But Ukraine does have biological research facilities — biolabs — which do contain dangerous pathogens. And Nuland expressed her deep concern that these pathogens — “those research materials” — might fall into the wrong hands, and so potentially be put to evil purposes.
The Danger Was (Is?) Real
To which one could add that such pathogens — “those research materials” — could also escape containment due to vagaries of war. And this might result in what? An agricultural or livestock catastrophe? A ruined sector of Ukraine with an enduring biohazard? Another pandemic directly affecting humans? The unintended equivalent of an attack with biological weapons?
The USA Government Goes On Offense
Since superficially Nuland’s admission might seem to confirm the fears expressed by Russia and China, the USA government has gone on offense.
Jen Psaki, Whitehouse spokesperson, affirmed on 9 March 2022 that the USA “is in full compliance with its obligations under the Chemical Weapons Convention and the Biological Weapons Convention and does not develop or possess such weapons anywhere.”
Instead, Psaki informed us, we should understand the expressed Russian and Chinese concerns as “disinformation operation” and “the types of false pretexts we have been warning the Russians would invent.” Likewise, also on 9 March 2022, the US State Department issued a denial, “The Kremlin’s Allegations of Chemical and Biological Weapons Laboratories in Ukraine,” stating:
The United States does not own or operate any chemical or biological laboratories in Ukraine, it is in full compliance with its obligations under the Chemical Weapons Convention and Biological Weapons Convention, and it does not develop or possess such weapons anywhere.
Interesting wording, because the core claim was NOT that the USA “owned” the biolabs or was the primary operator thereof.
The USA, to use the exact language of our Defense Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA) and whose work we will be reviewing shortly, has
“established 52 labs and research centers throughout the FSU [Former Soviet Union]”;
“built or upgraded 36 labs” [locations unclear from information source]; and
“has organized and led 400 training events in key biological engagement and laboratory disciplines annually.”
Nothing in there about owning or operating. But considerable support and involvement, indeed.
That said, please do note: for these initiatives, the USA and global partners have valid, vital, and legitimate public health and bio-security concerns. The threat of WMD proliferation is ongoing. Environmental and bio-hazard problems, whether natural or human-caused, are also just part of our global reality.
Essential Context, Useful Distraction
The State Department, like Psaki, accused Russia of being actively in violation. Russia, as Psaki rightfully pointed out, does an established track record of creatively assassinating people with biological and/or chemical weapons.
Green tea with polonium-210? No thank you, please. Moreover, the former Soviet Union did have the world’s largest bioweapon research and development program, from the 1950s right up until the Soviet Union’s dissolution in 1991. See Ken Alibek (1999), for a start.
All this well documented. Established history. Truth. But for the issue at hand, needed context or political distraction? Both, it will turn out.
The USA-supported biological research facilities in Ukraine and elsewhere do exist. And the Ukraine biolabs, Nuland has warned us, do contain deadly pathogens — “those research materials” we do not want falling into the wrong hands.
Status Quo Summary
Evan Palmer (8 March 2022) for Newsweek cited official and expert sources acknowledging the labs and USA support: “the U.S. and Ukraine have had a partnership since 2005 to prevent the threat of outbreaks of infectious diseases, as well as allowing for peaceful research and vaccine development.”
Palmer (8 March 2022) cites the highly qualified Filippa Lentzos, PhD, Senior Lecturer in Science and International Security and Co-Director of the Centre for Science and Security Studies at King's College London, who emphasized that the biological research facilities in question are “public health labs like those of the CDC or the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control.”
This claim is not as reassuring as Lentzos might think, and the labs in question appear to fall far below USA and EU biosafety standards — a matter we will discuss more in Part 2.
Little new information on Ukraine biolabs has been forthcoming from the US government since Nuland’s admission on 8 March 2022. But we do have previously published information: from official US government sources, from established and respected scholarship, and from independent journalists. Let us sort through it, to learn what we can learn.
The Defense Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA) and Ukraine
The primary USA government entity involved with the Ukrainian biolabs is the Defense Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA), USA Department of Defense (DoD). The following information (slides) come from an Unclassified presentation in PDF format made freely available to the public from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) website since mid-2018.
As of today 29 March 2022, since the PDF remains freely available to the public nearly four years on, let us reasonably assume that no “state secrets” are at risk of being revealed in this post. For the record, I have no hacking skills nor any insider whistle-blower contacts. The presentation was cited and used in the scholarship I researched for this post — so I checked and found the source.
The slide above (date: 9 May 2018) shows that the DTRA has over 2500 global engagements. One subsection of the map focuses on the threat of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) from the Former Soviet Union (FSU), to the upper left at roughly 10 o’clock.
This subsection calls our attention to directly to Ukraine. A number of white dots, showing sites of activity, are clearly visible within the borders of Ukraine — and many of these dots also straddle the Ukraine-Russia border.
It is a matter of public record that the USA has been actively engaged in dismantling FSU facilities used to develop WMD: nuclear, chemical, and biological. This is not only beyond factual dispute— it was until fairly recently held up as one of our most important contributions to global security and global public health.
Active USA engagement in the FSU has its origins in the Nunn-Lugar Act (1991), expanded into the Cooperative Threat Reduction (CTR) program, which in words of Senator John Lugar existed to “secure and dismantle weapons of mass destruction in states of the former Soviet Union and beyond.”[ref]
Brief DTRA History Lesson
When the DTRA was established in 1998, it inherited the responsibilities of the CTR program. The DTRA now has the more general responsibility of helping to integrate and manage the DoD chemical and biological defense and technology programs.
One key result: the Chemical and Biological Defense Program (CBDP), which also includes the Cooperative Biological Engagement Program (CBEP). No, we will NEVER face a shortage of government-generated acronyms. The slide below (date: 9 May 2018) provides an overview of the CBEP.
Cooperative Biological Engagement Program (CBEP)
So what has the CBDP and /or CBEP been up to in Ukraine? And please know that these are NOT the only USA agencies or programs active in Ukraine. Victoria Nuland herself, then Assistant Secretary of State for Europe, estimated in 2013 that the USA had invested $5 billion in Ukraine to help bring about “the future it deserves.” [ref] Obviously, since her 2013 speech, much more USA tax-payer money has gone to Ukraine to help bring about “the future it deserves.”
Yes, We Build Labs
From our DTRA presentation slide below (date: 9 May 2018), we do not have the exact specifics for Ukraine. But we do know that even though the CBEP “dismantled biological weapons production facilities” in the FSU, it also (boldface mine) “established 52 labs and research centers throughout the FSU.” Moreover, it also “built or upgraded 36 labs”—although the location of these new or upgraded labs is not clear based on the slide information alone.
The Tulsi Gabbard Controversy — A Brief Note
In this light, let me offer a brief note on the Tulsi Gabbard controversy. If her comments were critical of the Biden-Harris administration because she called for Russia and Ukraine to implement an immediate cease-fire until the Ukrainian biolab pathogens could be secured and removed, Tulsi Gabbard made no statements about the biolabs in Ukraine which were false, or which could not be supported by credible, unclassified, publicly available sources well-known to scholars and security experts.
That she would be accused of spreading misinformation shows at best ignorance on the part of the accuser. That she was accused of treason — a capital offense — by Senator Mitt Romney is unconscionable, baseless, and asinine. (But please see Glen Greenwald’s commentary on the same).
A USA military veteran exercising her First Amendment rights and calling for a Russian-Ukrainian cease-fire is smeared as a traitor by a draft-dodging former private equity executive who fantasizes that if he were POTUS he would have outwitted and bullied Putin. Only in America.
Back to CBEP in Ukraine
Let’s put Gabbard-Romney controversy aside for now and return to the CBEP activities in Ukraine and the FSU more generally. We have an additional related concern. In some cases, the dismantling of a bioweapons production facility was directly followed by the establishment of a lab or research facility to employ former scientists and technicians and so to keep the intellectual talent from emigrating.
Preventing Bioweaponeer Brain-Drain
The former PhD in Chemistry turned renown International Security Expert, Kathleen Vogel at the School of Public Policy, Center for International Security Studies, University of Maryland, noted in 2014:
Since 1998, the U.S. Departments of Agriculture, Defense, Energy, Health and Human Services, Homeland Security, and State as well as the Environmental Protection Agency and the Civilian Research and Development Foundation have created a robust set of “brain drain prevention” programs to halt the proliferation of biological weapons know-how from these former Soviet scientists. … These projects, at various former Soviet research institutes, have been designed to keep the bioweaponeers busy, pay them a reasonable wage, and give them opportunities for new livelihoods so that they won’t be as tempted to aid rogue states or terrorist groups.
Sounds good, sounds wise. Had noted successes. Iran and Libya did try to recruit former FSU bioweaponeers. But the USA initiative, as Vogel (2014) explained, largely derailed those recruitment efforts. It also faced three major complications — the third of which was unavoidable regardless of policy.
Three Major Complications
First, in some cases the facilities themselves were not fully dismantled or destroyed: they were mission-shifted. Under the Biological Weapons Convention (1975), research into pathogens is just fine for “prophylactic, protective or other peaceful purposes” as left undefined by treaty. [ref]
Second, the pathogens developed by these facilities were not universally destroyed. In some cases, yes. For example, the heroic work by Andrew C. Weber, et alia, on Vozrozhdeniya Island in the Aral Sea defines what should have been the standard. But in other cases, no: the pathogens were retained. Again, research into pathogens is greenlighted for “prophylactic, protective or other peaceful purposes.” [ref]
Third, and vitally important, as Gregory D. Koblentz, PhD, Associate Professor and Director of the Biodefense Graduate Program at George Mason University's Schar School of Policy and Government, reminded us back in 2009:
Policymakers seeking to reduce the dangers posed by biological weapons face two powerful dilemmas. The most important is the multiuse dilemma: the skills, materials, and technology needed to produce biological weapons are also necessary to develop defenses against them and to conduct civilian activities such as biomedical research and pharmaceutical production. Most analyses of biotechnology refer to it as dual-use, since it has both civilian and military applications. … the term “multiuse” is used to highlight the distinct but overlapping applications of biotechnology in civilian, defensive, and offensive domains.
In other words, the research procedures, outcomes, and testing for “prophylactic, protective or other peaceful purposes” have extensive and detailed overlap with those of developing bioweapons.
Our FSU bioweaponeers could now be doing good things while employed in non-rogue states — but this does mean the general capacity to develop bioweapons was significantly diminished. Only that we some control over the proliferation.
In fact, the difference between a naturally occurring pathogen enhanced by civilian medical research and a lab-engineered bioweapon comes down to not much more than a statement of intent.
That Name Again: The “J. Edgar Hoover of Biology”
This should sadly be familiar from Dr. Anthony Fauci’s comments on whether or not the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) supported projects which engaged in “gain of function” research. If the mention of Fauci’s name seems gratuitous, please keep reading.
Frank L. Smith III, PhD, Director of the Cyber and Innovation Policy Institute at the US Naval War College and Non-Resident Fellow in the Foreign Policy and Defence Program at the United States Studies Centre (Australia), has discussed at length the civilian take-over of former military concerns. In the USA, in regard to biodefense, we have blurred considerably the boundaries between military and civilian research and application.
Smith’s remarks from 2014 are well worth re-visiting:
Unlike the military, NIAID, under the directorship of Anthony Fauci — “sometimes called the J. Edgar Hoover of biology” — enthusiastically accepted additional funding and responsibility for biodefense. [ref] Fauci and other NIAID officials argued that the research agenda for bioterrorism “must be given a status similar to that of research in other pressing areas such as malaria, tuberculosis and AIDS.” [ref] Furthermore, “what began as an area of boutique research…is now the center of attention consider these investigations to be critical components of the broader arena of research on naturally emerging and re-emerging microbes.” [ref]
Fauci, as Smith (2014) examined, went all-in on the bioterrorism threat. Fauci saw it as providing forever funding, expanding his authority and influence, and also largely indistinguishable from existing research into diseases such as “malaria, tuberculosis and AIDS.” [ref] In a real sense, Fauci collapsed the distinction between a lab-engineered bioweapon and a naturally occurring pathogen.
But let us quote Fauci directly from his 2012 article “Research on Highly Pathogenic H5N1 Influenza Virus: The Way Forward.” Here Fauci asks us to imagine a lab-leak scenario: “In an unlikely but conceivable turn of events, what if that scientist becomes infected with the virus, which leads to an outbreak and ultimately triggers a pandemic?” (Image below: Ranunculus / Buttercup, by Laura Brolis, CC BY-SA 3.0).
Suck it up, buttercup, because “the benefits of such experiments and the resulting knowledge outweigh the risks.” [ref] Why? Because pandemics occur naturally, Fauci explains. So even if a more deadly or dangerous pandemic occurs because of gain of function research — and humans will make mistakes at some point, we justify it because (a) the research will help us combat the naturally occurring pandemics; and (b) the regrettably hypothetical outbreak is really not much different from a naturally occurring pandemic. [ref] Shit happens, pandemics happen — learn to deal.
Not Obvious Results or Benefits
For the record, it is not obvious that the “benefits of such experiments and the resulting knowledge outweigh the risks”: we have few to no examples of high-risk gain of function research resulting in vast improvements over existing therapeutics and vaccines. But please feel free to post in the comment section the indisputable advances which you know of and have proof for.
Fauci had hoped — had promised for years — to develop a universal vaccine for viral respiratory infections. We are now on four shots and counting for Covid-19, which currently manifests itself as an upper respiratory tract infection — a bad cold. God forbid that Peter Daszak, et alia or clones, with Fauci’s blessing and support, succeed in making the Marburg virus (which has a rough 50% mortality rate) more contagious.
Regardless, the general point stands — made by Fauci himself. In practice although not yet in law, de facto not de jure, the USA under Fauci’s biodefense leadership no longer recognizes a meaningful distinction between a naturally occurring pathogen and a lab-engineered bioweapon. But Fauci was not just whistling Dixie for an endless flow of taxpayer dollars. He had insight into the obvious loophole.
Prohibited Bioweapon Research or Legitimate Peaceful Research
Above, Professor Frank L. Smith III (2014) called our attention to the difficulty in practice of distinguishing a bioweapon from a research pathogen. One of our prior experts, Gregory D. Koblentz, PhD, also has some vital reflections on this concern.
How do we verify compliance? Unlike the treaties for Nuclear and Chemical Weapons, the Biological Weapons Convention (1975) has NO clear and enforceable standards determining for non-compliance.
As Kolelntz (2009) explains:
The core problem in verifying compliance with biological arms control and disarmament agreements is that the capabilities for conducting the research, development, production, and testing of biological weapons are virtually identical to those employed by defensive programs and in legitimate civilian enterprises. Biotechnology-related capabilities and activities that cannot be justified as having a civilian purpose — such as working with dangerous pathogens or experimenting with aerosols of biological agents — can be legitimate activities for a biological defense program.
Between legitimate civilian medical and scientific research, and military research for defense against bioweapons, we have all the bases covered: we have everything we need for a comprehensive bioweapons program except the designation. Just say you are not doing it, and you are not doing it.
If we are not engaging in these activities for the direct or express purpose of building bioweapons, as per our declaration of intent, then we have met our obligation under the Biological Weapons Convention (1975).
This brings us back to Jen Psaki’s 9 March 2022 statement that the USA “is in full compliance with its obligations under the Chemical Weapons Convention and the Biological Weapons Convention” — and the related same day US State Department declaration on the same. These statements can be legally true and technically correct as expressed, and yet the USA could still have been supporting biolabs in Ukraine which were making dangerous pathogens even more deadly. Biolabs in sites near the Russian border.
So What Pathogens Might Those Labs Have Contained?
We are back finally to “those research materials” from the Ukrainian “biological research facilities” that Victoria Nuland (8 March 2022) was concerned might fall “into the hands of Russian forces should they approach.” What “research materials,” exactly?
We have several sources, none definitive. Let’s begin with the Russians. This statement is from TASS, the Russian News Agency, on 9 March 2022:
"Documents were obtained from employees of Ukrainian biological laboratories about emergency disposal of particularly dangerous pathogens of plague, anthrax, tularemia, cholera and other deadly diseases, carried out on February 24. In particular, we are talking about the Ukrainian Health Ministry order on prompt disposal of all stockpiles of dangerous pathogens, sent to all bio laboratories."
At first glance, this list has some minimal plausibility: all the named pathogens were part of the former Soviet Union bioweapons program. Our information source: the Congressional Research Service Report, “Preventing Proliferation of Biological Weapons: U.S. Assistance to the Former Soviet States,” by Michelle Stem Cook and Amy F. Woolf (10 April 2002).
I will quote directly from Cook and Woolf (2002):
The [Soviet/Russian Bioweapons] program developed and "weaponized" genetically-altered bacteriological agents such as anthrax, plague, tularemia, glanders, and brucellosis that were resistant to heat, cold, and antibiotics. They also "weaponized" several viruses, including:
Smallpox, which can kill 30-40% of an exposed population during an epidemic;
Venezuelan Equine Encephalitus, which is unlikely to kill but can incapacitate troops;
The Marburg virus, which, like the Ebola virus, is a haemorrhagic fever which destroys cells and causes massive internal bleeding.
The well-known defector and former Bioweapons developer Ken Alibek (formerly, Қанатжан Байзақұлы Әлібеков) has made similar claims (1999) in Biohazard: The Chilling True Story of the Largest Covert Biological Weapons Program in the World.
The direct matches between the TASS claim (9 March 2022) and our prior knowledge are as follows:
So Ukraine could have such pathogens if they were not destroyed when the USA was actively assisting Ukraine with dismantling Soviet-era WMD. Unfortunately, we have some proof this might be the case — that pathogens which could have destroyed with relative ease were not.
Why Did We Not Destroy All the Pathogens?
The above image (from roughly 11 minutes 14 seconds into the video) dates from Autumn 2005 (and not 2017 as Glen Greenwald’s other fine analysis might lead one to think). It is cited under Fair Use. The photo shows Barrack Obama, then a junior Senator from Illinois, meeting in Kyiv, Ukraine, with Andrew C. Weber, the one indispensable and truly heroic Foreign Service Officer engaged in reducing the threat of WMD proliferation.
The setting is a public health lab. Do you recall the earlier reassuring comment about public health labs by Dr. Lentzos? The Ukrainian lady in the center back, not named, is the Health Lab director. The Director has just previously handed the refrigerated vials of Anthrax (Bacillus anthracis) to Weber, who now explains the situation to Obama.
Just prior to this slide in his TED Talk, Weber discussed how his earlier interventions were about (boldface mine): “Dealing with the legacy of these threats in a way that permanently eliminated the threat” (circa 10 minutes 59 seconds).
He had previously led an effort which destroyed a massive anthrax stash on Vozrozhdeniya Island, a known FSU bioweapons testing site, in the Aral Sea. But in Ukraine in 2005, his team is mapping the location of the FSU pathogens. Again, the year is 2005: the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991. But the Anthrax (Bacillus anthracis) is still in storage. Why? And at a lab not up to EU or USA standards. (Which we will discuss in Part 2).
Please do not mistake me. Andrew C. Weber has done the world more good than perhaps any of our last say dozen Nobel Peace laureates, individually or perhaps even collectively. But his ability to operate took place within a larger framework — an institutionally defined context. He was tasked at this time with implementing the mission — not defining it.
What we find in this incident from Kyiv, Ukraine, 2005, and here I only slightly paraphrase Weber’s own words (circa 11 minutes into the video; boldface mine): a mission to locate, consolidate, and secure the pathogens.
NOT locate, consolidate, and DESTORY the pathogens — the destruction of which could have been accomplished with relative ease. So we do have remaining FSU pathogens in Ukraine. These pathogens likely provided some of the seedling material — the germ and virus lines — for what Victoria Nuland would in 2022 describe as “those research materials.”
Preview Part 2
In Part 2, we will discuss alleged recent and ongoing pathogenic research in Ukraine and in Georgia as reported by the independent journal Dilyana Gaytandzhieva. We will also discuss internationally recognized standards for Biolab Security, whether or not the labs in Ukraine meet recognized safety standards, one example recent failure of USA oversight in pathogenic research, and a counter-vision to the dominant status quo hubris concerning pathogenic research. Our sources range from the USA government, independent journalists, MSM journalists, one special interest group concerned with Biolab Safety, to yet more input from academic researchers.
Summary Part 1
First Key Take-Away: The USA has supported biolabs in Ukraine and elsewhere. This support has included infrastructure development, training, and more. Under the CBEP and according to official government sources, as of 9 May 2018, the USA had established 52 labs and research centers throughout the former Soviet Union. More, worldwide. Yes, the USA and global partners do have valid, vital, and legitimate public health and bio-security concerns for this initiative. No, we do not have public transparency or accountability as this initiative belongs to the DoD.
Although the USA did dismantle or destroy WMD capacity in many former Soviet states, and also destroyed or neutralized various weapons of mass destruction, the USA did not destroy all the pathogens it uncovered that were part of the former Soviet/Russian bioweapons program. In general, the USA destroyed the inadequately secured stockpiles of bio-weapon products; but the USA treated differently the bio-source materials which made those bio-weapon products possible. Some destroyed; some retained.
Second Key Take-Away: Importantly, in the real world, we have no clear means of distinguishing between much of legitimate civilian medical and scientific research versus military bioweapon research. In fact, vast areas would be interchangeable. Further, given that the military may also conduct defensive research, we could have the full equivalent of a bioweapons program existing legally under the current Biological Weapons Convention (1975).
Moreover, the trend in the USA has been to turn bioterrorism defense over to civilian institutions (governmental and private) concerned with medical research and public health. The boundaries have not been so much blurred as erased. And, yes, under Dr. Anthony Fauci’s influence and leadership, the distinction between a naturally occurring pathogen and a lab-engineered bioweapon has likewise collapsed.
We are fast approaching — if we have not already obtained — the Humpty-Dumpty version of bioweapon recognition and hence compliance enforcement:
“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.”
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