Russian bioweapons charge is 'bogus,' White House says

Adm. John Kirby at the microphone, with the White House seal behind him.
National Security Council spokesman John Kirby at a White House briefing on Jan. 25. (Susan Walsh/AP)

WASHINGTON — White House officials have dismissed Russian allegations, recently leveled again by a top Kremlin general, that the United States developed biological weapons in Ukraine, including the coronavirus, which has killed nearly 7 million people around the world.

“It’s bogus. I don’t know how else to put it,” National Security Council spokesman John Kirby told Yahoo News on Tuesday of the accusations made during a Jan. 30 briefing by Lt. Gen. Igor Kirillov, who heads a division of the Russian military tasked with addressing nuclear, chemical and biological threats.

In his remarks, Kirillov claimed to have obtained 20,000 documents that show evidence of “illegal military and biological activities” on the part of the United States in Ukraine. He described the documents as “reference and analytical materials” but provided no other details.

The likelihood is high that Kirillov’s treasure trove is fictitious.

The State Department partnered with Ukrainian laboratories through its Biological Threat Reduction Program; charges that any of the work at those laboratories was military in nature amounted to “outright lies,” State Department spokesman Ned Price has previously said. The laboratories were cleared ahead of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine last year.

Ned Price at a news conference.
State Department spokesman Ned Price at a news conference at the State Department in March 2022. (Manuel Balce Ceneta/Pool via AP)

“Russian scientists visited these same laboratories in the past and never noted anything like what Russian officials now claim,” arms control expert John V. Parachini of the Rand Corporation has pointed out. “Moreover, the United States had been collaborating with Russia in the same way — providing similar assistance to Russia to refocus the activities of former Soviet biological weapons laboratories.”

Yet the conspiracy theory resurfaces periodically, as an apparent part of a Kremlin disinformation campaign, using Soviet tactics updated by Russian President Vladimir Putin during recent belligerencies, meant to foment Western opposition to supporting Ukraine.

In Monday’s briefing, Kirillov went so far as to claim that the United States was conducting HIV research on Ukrainian soldiers, a nonsensical accusation that appears to be rooted in decades-old Soviet conspiracy theories about the origins of the HIV/AIDS epidemic.

His claims were disseminated by far-right U.S. news sites like Gateway Pundit, and by prominent conspiracy theorists on Twitter, who also inserted some of their favorite villains — the troubled presidential son Hunter Biden, the liberal Jewish philanthropist George Soros — into the febrile Kremlin narrative.

Lt. Gen. Igor Kirillov at the microphone, wearing a uniform showing his name and a row of military awards, and next to two small Russian flags.
Lt. Gen. Igor Kirillov, chief of the Russian military's radiation, chemical and biological protection unit, in 2018. (AP)

Russian media also reported on Kirillov’s allegations. While Moscow's need to spread conspiracy theories abroad is one imperative, it also has a no-less-pressing need to convince ordinary citizens — many of whom do not have access to information that is not sanctioned by the Kremlin — that the war in Ukraine is, in fact, merely the proxy of a much broader civilizational conflict that, in its view, the United States seeks to win by any means.

Western experts in biological and chemical weapons saw the outlandish accusations as a sign of desperation. “Russia is desperately trying to play a ‘whataboutism’ game to justify their actions in Ukraine,” Daryl G. Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association, told Yahoo News in an email.

Asked if the United States had ever developed biological weapons in Ukraine, Kimball answered with a single word: “No.”

False though they may be, such insinuations by Kirillov and other Kremlin figures could dangerously undermine international arms control agreements, according to Rand’s Parachini. “Russian officials find these fabrications handy at home as well,” he has written. “They use them to justify their military operations and bolster domestic support for the war, despite the increasing losses of the Russian military.”

As he has done in the past, Kirillov charged the U.S. with “enhancing the pathogenic characteristics of COVID-19.”

In a new twist on that allegation, Kirillov’s accusations referenced EcoHealth Alliance. The New York-based not-for-profit organization was faulted last week by a U.S. federal inspector general for its management of a series of subgrants to China's Wuhan Institute of Virology, which may have used the funds to conduct risky gain-of-function research.

Security personnel in masks stand guard outside the Wuhan Institute of Virology in Wuhan, which is marked: Wuhan Institute of Virology, CAS.
Security personnel at the Wuhan Institute of Virology in Wuhan, China, in 2021. (Hector Retamal/AFP via Getty Images)

The reference to EcoHealth Alliance, also disseminated uncritically by Russian state media, seemed calculated to appeal to Western outlets that have trafficked in conspiracy theories about both the coronavirus and the war in Ukraine. Kirillov said that organization played a “key role” in biological warfare, an assertion that goes well beyond what mainstream critics of EcoHealth Alliance have maintained.

Richard Ebright, a Rutgers University molecular biologist who has pushed for a more thorough investigation of how the coronavirus originated, called the suggestion that the pathogen was created by the U.S. for military purposes “risibly crude disinformation” on Twitter.

For his part, Kirby denounced the Russian accusations as “ridiculous” and “unfounded,” adding that he wanted to use a “four-letter word” to fully describe his reaction. “There is no bioweapons work being done by or with the United States with Ukraine, or in Ukraine,” he said.

Russia tends to use a “firehose of falsehood” model in an attempt to overwhelm media outlets — and their viewers or readers — with a flurry of untruths, in the hopes of eventually exhausting the ability of the public to tell truth from fiction. Throughout its invasion in Ukraine, the Kremlin has made a plethora of fantastic allegations. By the time each is discredited or debunked, several others have inevitably materialized.

Kirillov’s claims were amplified by Anatoly Antonov, the Russian ambassador to the United States, which suggested a coordinated campaign on the part of the Kremlin.

“Washington had and has something to hide,” the ambassador told reporters.