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A Battle Between Narratives: Ukrainian Biolabs Controversy Divides UN by Tristan Vanheuckelom

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A Battle Between Narratives: Ukrainian Biolabs Controversy Divides UN

Last Friday, March 11th, the UN Security Council played host to a battle between narratives. Russia had called for a meeting to present its discovery of over 30 Ukrainian biolabs. In the weeks leading up, it claimed these labs were intended for military use, and funded by U.S. money—baseless conspiracy theory, in the eyes of the U.S. and its partners.

And so, the informational warfare surrounding the Russia-Ukraine war entered its next phase the morning of March 11th. In the spacious room of the UN Security Council, Vassily Nebenzia, Russia’s representative, pointed to “truly shocking facts.” An “emergency clean-up by the Kyiv regime” had taken place, which left behind traces of “a military biological programme.” What is more, the clean up was conducted by Kyiv under the auspices of the U.S. Ministry of Defense. Documents, found by the Russian military, attest to this, and confirm that “Ukraine has a network of at least 30 biological laboratories in which very dangerous biological experiments were being conducted, aimed at strengthening the pathogenic qualities of the plague, anthrax and cholera and other lethal diseases, using synthetic biology,” Nebenzia said. The prime mover is the Defense Threat Reduction Agency of the U.S., which has funded and supervised such projects, he added. 

These documents, Nebenzia said, further show the existence of a programme implemented to study the possibility of spreading infections using migratory birds, including H5N1 and the Newcastle disease. Another area of study looks at how bacterial pathogens can be used to spread from bats to people. A note of surrealism crept in his statements when he said that, under the pretext of curing COVID-19, “blood serum from Slavic people” had been sent from Ukraine to the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research in the U.S., while noting that “biological agents that can selectively target specific ethnic groups” do indeed exist, a not-too-subtle implication that the U.S. military is working on—or has already developed—bioagents that allow for the extermination of a whole ethnic group.

He called on his European colleagues to contemplate a “very real biological danger” coming from the uncontrolled spread of such biological agents. “There is no region in the world today that can feel safe,” he stressed, saying that he was sure their findings will be called fake news and propaganda, but that the risks are very real, given the interests of “radical nationalist groups” in Ukraine. He went on to say that, in the event of any incident involving chemical weapons, the Pentagon has told its Ukrainian colleagues to immediately accuse Russian forces and say they are striking against U.S. scientific and medical institutions. 

While such military programs, and such communications between Washington and Kyiv are unproven for now, funding can be established. The Department of Defense has indeed allocated $1.6 million (€1.45 million) to the Science and Technology Center in Ukraine “to support the advancement of fundamental knowledge and understanding of the sciences with an emphasis on exploring new and innovative research for combating or countering Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD).” It follows that, to that end, such a facility would need to have these bio-agents available to them for study. Still, in and of itself, this is not incontrovertible proof of weaponization taking place.

Before Nebenzia made his statement, the UN’s High Representative for Disarmament Affairs, Izumi Nakamitsu, had already denied the body being aware of any such programmes, and referred to the 1972 Biological Weapons Convention, which “prohibits their development, production, acquisition, transfer, stockpiling and use.” She did however note that the Convention lacks a “multilateral verification mechanism” overseen by an independent organization, such as the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), and that compliance with its obligations is a task for each individual state. Both the Russian Federation and Ukraine are signatories to the Convention. Biological weapons have been outlawed since they entered into force in 1975; a total of 183 states have joined it since.

Nebenzia’s counterparts at the UN Special Session–fueled by outrage over Russia’s invasion and the climbing numbers of alleged war crimes—were not receptive to these claims. U.S. representative Linda Thomas-Greenfield echoed the U.S. Department of State, which on its official Twitter profile denied the U.S. had any chemical and biological weapons labs in the country.

She went on to say that Ukraine has, and operates, its own public health laboratory infrastructure, which makes it possible to detect and diagnose diseases like COVID-19, for which the U.S. has provided assistance. She however stressed it has nothing to do with biological weapons, and that it is the Russian Federation that has a “long, well-documented history” of using such weapons. “It is Russia who is the aggressor,” she said, adding that it had poisoned Russian dissident Aleksey Navalny with nerve agents, and continues to shield the Assad regime in Syria from accountability for repeatedly using chemical weapons.

Thomas-Greenfield voiced serious concerns that Russia may be planning to use chemical or biological agents against the Ukrainian people, and that Russia has a track record of falsely accusing other countries of the very violations it perpetrates. “The intent behind these lies seems clear, and it is deeply troubling,” she said, adding that such agents could be used for assassinations, as part of a staged or false flag incident, or to support tactical military operations. 

Only two days before, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki made a similar comment, saying that “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.”

Thomas-Greenfield went on to denounce Russia’s “attempt to use the Council to legitimize President Vladimir Putin’s choice of war.” She concluded that the meeting confirms her country’s prediction was correct and that it has exposed “Moscow’s malicious lies” to the world. 

Taking the floor for a second time, Nebenzia said the response of his Western colleagues was expected in that it did not address the substance of his argument. He accused his U.S. counterpart of “throwing thunderbolts” rather than accounting for their “nefarious activities” in Ukraine. To buttress his case, he referred to the testimony before the Council in 2003 of then U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell. Powell’s show of evidence, later proven false, that Iraq had a weapon’s programme, including those reserved for mass destruction, led to the UN’s sanctioning of a U.S. invasion of that country. The consequences of this “reverberated throughout the whole Middle East region” and led to the “creation of Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL),” Nebenzia said. He observed that military development in any form is a “secret enterprise,” and that “those involved do not report to Ms. Nakamitsu [the UN] about it.” 

The Ukrainian representative Sergiy Kyslytsya called Russia’s allegations “dangerous,” and feared that Moscow might be contemplating further attacks using those allegations. “By calling this meeting,” he said, “the aggressor has shot itself in the foot once again, adding that “Ukraine runs its health systems in compliance with its international obligations,” and that “Russia does not give a monkey about the safety of its own citizens.” He expressed concern that the Security Council is now manipulated by Russia to “the detriment of the organ’s credibility.” 

While concerns about the Security Council being co-opted for propaganda purposes (which can be done by both sides), are valid, these exchanges did not bring much clarity. 

The controversy over Ukrainian biolabs has instead spawned some oddities. From this perspective, it is worth revisiting a Senate hearing, which took place three days before the Council. 

On March 8th, with “only one minute left,” Republican Senator Marco Rubio asked Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Victoria Nuland whether Ukraine had any chemical or biological weapons. Nuland responded that Ukraine has “biological research facilities,” which they were now “quite concerned Russian forces may be seeking to gain control of.” While she did not directly answer Rubio’s question, her worry over these “research facilities” falling into Russian hands could suggest these might not be so harmless.

More curious was Rubio’s follow-up question. He first drew attention to Russian propaganda groups (an obvious reality) “putting out there all kinds of information about how they’ve uncovered a plot by the Ukrainians to release biological weapons in the country with NATO’s coordination,” before submitting the very carefully constructed question of blame: 

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 that would be behind it?

To this rather leading question, Nuland responded in the affirmative. “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,” she said. A rather bold, not necessarily unwarranted prediction; yet, one supposes Russia might believe the same about the U.S. 

A statement by the WHO to Reuters on March 11th, the same day as the UN hearing, raised only more questions. The WHO said it had advised Ukraine to destroy high-threat pathogens housed in the country’s public health laboratories to prevent “any potential spills” that would spread disease among the population. It worried that continued fighting raised the risk of damage to those facilities, but would not say when it had made the recommendation, nor did it specify what kinds of pathogens or toxins were housed there.

More questions emerge. Is it not its job to know? Whether its recommendations were even followed, the agency did not or could not answer. Ukrainian officials in Kyiv and at their Washington embassy did not respond either. There appears to be a clear lack of oversight, even an absence of authority. One would hope when it comes to biosecurity, which clearly concerns the entire globe, all bases are covered.

In the midst of an ever polarizing war, truth is never abundant. Regarding the biolabs in Ukraine, the situation is no different. Hard evidence eludes us; therefore each party involved remains deserving of our highest skepticism. 

Tristan Vanheuckelom writes on film, literature, and comics for various Dutch publications. He is an avid student of history, political theory, and religion, and is a News Writer at The European Conservative.

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