While threatening to use a weapon of mass destruction against Ukraine, Russia has repeatedly accused, without evidence, the United States and Ukraine of working with dangerous pathogens to make bioweapons in 30 labs across the country, in violation of a 1972 treaty banning such weapons. Though both Washington and Kyiv have denied the charges as "preposterous," Chinese media and those of other American rivals have widely disseminated Russia's claims as part of an effort to dilute American and allied support for Ukraine. President Vladimir Putin himself has cited a "network of Western bioweapons labs" as one of the threats that justified Moscow's invasion of Ukraine.
General Igor Kirillov, a senior Russian general who has repeatedly accused the U.S. of violating the 1972 Biological Weapons Convention by producing and altering germs to spread disease, has led the Russian disinformation campaign. At a press briefing last March, he accused Washington, again without evidence, of starting an outbreak of swine flu in 2007. He asserted that biological research at U.S.-funded labs in Ukraine and in the former Soviet republic of Georgia had caused cases of measles, rubella, diphtheria, and tuberculosis in Ukraine.
At another briefing, Kirillov claimed that documents about Ukrainian public-health projects to detect and monitor animal diseases—including coronaviruses in bats, Crimean-Congo hemorrhagic fever and hantavirus in ticks and rodents, and avian flu in ducks that migrate from Ukraine to Russia—were evidence of a secret American-Ukrainian plot to send the infected animals to Russia. Blood samples sent by Ukrainian researchers to labs in Australia, he asserted, were proof of a secret Pentagon effort to study "Slavic DNA," to produce a germ weapon aimed solely at ethnic Russians. Most recently, he accused Washington of using American-supported research labs in Nigeria to start a monkeypox epidemic there.
Kirillov's title is commander of the Russian Army's Radiological, Chemical, and Biological Defense Force, but his job goes far beyond that. Though few media outlets have noted it, Kirillov oversees part of what Washington believes is Russia's own secret, illicit germ weapons program.
Though U.S. intelligence analysts have long focused on Kirillov and Russia's efforts to develop germ weapons, they make few official references to him or his program. In late August 2020, the U.S. Commerce Department sanctioned three Russian military labs that the Trump administration asserted were "acting contrary to the national security or foreign policy interests of the United States." In a rare public acknowledgement of what were then highly classified assessments, the agency quietly added the three labs to the sanctions list—banning American and foreign companies from doing business with them. All three labs were "associated with the Russian biological weapons program," the Commerce Department notice states. The labs—the 48th Central Scientific Research Institute in Kirov, the 48th Central Scientific Research Institute in Sergiev Posad, and the 48th Central Scientific Research Institute in Yekaterinburg—are all supervised by Kirillov, who was neither named nor sanctioned.
U.S. concerns about Russia's bioweapons and its violations of the treaty banning them are longstanding. In the 1990s, Russia finally acknowledged its illegal program, which Americans later learned was the world's longest-operating, largest, and most sophisticated, employing more than 65,000 scientists and technicians at dozens of facilities throughout the country. Though Putin has said that the bioweapons program ended, U.S. officials have concluded that Moscow has continued the effort in violation of its pledges and the 1972 Biological Weapons Convention, a treaty that the Soviet Union signed but began violating before the ink was dry. After the Soviet Union's collapse, President Bill Clinton authorized scientific cooperation with former Soviet bio-labs to learn more about Moscow's bioweapons activities and to prevent Iran, North Korea, and other hostile countries from recruiting Russian germ scientists. U.S. officials learned much about the Kremlin's program from the collaboration, but skeptics remained concerned that American money and biological expertise would be secretly shared with Russian germ warriors to make new generations of deadlier weapons. Though U.S. officials—and this reporter—visited dozens of former Soviet civilian bio-labs and research facilities in the 1990s, Russia's military bio-labs have remained closed to outsiders.
Andrew Weber, former assistant secretary of Defense for nuclear, chemical, and biological defense programs, who helped open the former Soviet bio-labs to American scientists, called Kirillov's charges "rich." "It's the kettle calling the pot black," he said in an interview. Weber also said he feared that Russia's spurious charges might be aimed at creating a phony justification for using germ weapons against Ukraine.
Ukraine runs dozens of public-health laboratories that work to reduce the threat of dangerous diseases. Many get financial and other support not only from the U.S. but also from the European Union and World Health Organization. Contrary to Russian claims that the labs and American cooperation with them are "secret," information about America's aid to them appears on the website of the U.S. Embassy in Ukraine.
In September, Russia demanded a special meeting under the treaty banning the possession of bioweapons to broadcast its false claims. In response, the U.S. called Russia's charges "politically motivated—intended to advance its baseless allegations as part of a broader disinformation campaign." This alone, Washington asserts, constitutes an "abuse" of the treaty. Russia has yet to respond.