Fact check: Why Russian claims about US biolabs in Ukraine don't hold up

Despite tensions, research in biolabs to fight deadly diseases must go on.
Brad Bergan
A map of Russian and Ukraine territories before the invasion (left), and a foggy lab (right).1, 2

On the day of Russia's invasion of Ukraine, a post on Facebook surfaced that suggested several "exclusive U.S. biolabs in Ukraine" were up to no good, and received funding from the Pentagon.

"By now I think most everybody knows about Ukraine/WW3," began the Facebook post. "So what do we know about this??" it continued, referencing the biolab sites in Ukraine with a rhetorical flair of sensational implications.

But with a war on between Russia and the Ukrainian government, the utmost skepticism is necessary about new claims of wrongdoing, and two major entities — one of which is Ukraine's own Security Service — firmly deny claims alleging that the biolabs are tied to bad aims, according to a report from Kyiv Post.

And the U.S. Embassy in Ukraine further argued that the claim about biolabs from posts like above is part of a disinformation campaign — designed to place the U.S., and its relations with Ukraine, in a bad light.

Biolabs in Ukraine are necessary to prevent deadly outbreaks

The idea that the U.S. is secretly operating biolabs for nefarious purposes like biological weapons — at least from Russia — traces back to a 2018 incident, when both Ukraine and Georgia (the country) suffered outbreaks of a mysterious disease that laid waste to livestock, according to a state-sponsored news service.

Blame for this was leveled at the U.S. government, specifically a multi-million dollar installation on the edge of Georgia's capital, Tbilisi. The report from the news service used an on-screen graphic that declared, without evidence: "nest of viruses," referring to the biolabs.

While, yes, a biolab that work to develop treatments to dangerous diseases are a "nest" of many viruses, the wording conventiently omits the necessity of working with dangerous materials, like viruses, in order to find ways of helping to save lives, should an outbreak occur.

The U.S. is providing crucial repairs, upgrades, and restocking services for Ukraine's biolabs

And when it comes to the U.S. and its interests in Ukraine, the former does not want dangerous outbreaks to take seed. In August 2005, the governments of the U.S. and Ukraine reached an agreement to "prevent the proliferation of dangerous pathogens and related expertise and to minimize potential biological threats," read the treaty

In May of 2020, an archive of an Interfax-Ukraine report said a subclause of the agreement was specifically written with the goal of "modernizing" laboratories in Vinnytsia, Kherson, Odesa, Lviv, Kyiv (Kiev), Kharkiv, and other regions. This was a massive undertaking, involving repairs, equipment upgrades, and a substantial restock of crucial supplies.

Ukraine's Security Service said its state budget financed the biolabs, and that they were under the purview of the state's Ministry of Health, in addition to "the state service on food safety and consumer protection," continued the Interfax-Ukraine report.

Russia-aligned claims about nefarious U.S. biolabs are part of an information war

Not one to tolerate misinformation, the U.S. Embassy made a statement in April 2020 to "set the record straight" on the activities and alleged hazards of biolabs in the eastern European country, declaring stories like that "disinformation spreading in some circles in Ukraine that mirrors Russian disinformation regarding the strong U.S.-Ukrainian partnership to reduce biological threats."

Indeed, a nonprofit media firm called Coda argued in 2018 that the idea of nefarious biolabs was the product of a disinformation campaign from the Kremlin, aimed at sullying U.S. image, in addition to its interests in eastern Europe, in the eyes of Russia's neighbors who have sympathies for the West.

And, when the Covid-19 pandemic hit, these claims were intensified — as Russia nurtured its relationship with China, new rumors surfaced that the coronavirus came from "U.S.-controlled" labs, according to an April 2021 report from the Daily Beast.

Information war - During every major conflict, every side involved will inevitably create and propagate false narratives about the other, in an attempt to deface, isolate, and ultimately weaken the resolve and legitimacy of opponent states. And, in the case of biolabs involved with the U.S., it seems Russia — and parties aligned with the country's interests — are playing with the perception of reality.

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