World

What’s Really Going On In Ukrainian Biolabs Supported By The Pentagon?

(LEON NEAL/AFP via Getty Images)

Dylan Housman Healthcare Reporter
Font Size:

“Rather than explain that complex reality to the American people, the administration just wanted to have a fight in the media about it. They wanted to make it a talking point, instead of leveling with the American people.”

That’s how one academic specializing in Russia policy and defense technology — who asked to remain anonymous due to concerns about professional ramifications for speaking candidly — summarized the Biden administration’s handling of Ukrainian biolab conspiracy theories, which began to spread last month after Russia accused the U.S. of developing biological weapons in Ukrainian facilities.

Members of the Biden administration, from White House press secretary Jen Psaki to State Department spokesman Ned Price, flatly denied the accusation, but made no effort to explain to confused or skeptical Americans what these facilities were actually being used for. The result was a vacuum of information, quickly filled by claims that the U.S. was developing bioweapons in these labs, or that Ukraine had a biological weapons program, or that the U.S. was conducting research on old Soviet weapons there.

The man who heads up the Pentagon’s Cooperative Threat Reduction Program (CTR), Dr. Robert Pope, told the Daily Caller none of that is the case.

“We did not find biological weapons when we first started our work with Ukraine, and have not found any since then,” he said.

CTR falls under the umbrella of the Pentagon’s Defense Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA). This is the government agency responsible for coordinating with researchers and laboratories in foreign countries, including some ex-Soviet republics, to eliminate the threat posed by weapons of mass destruction (WMDs), including those left behind by the Soviet Union.

What CTR also does, but does not publicize as well, is monitor virus reservoirs, research labs and other potential sources of a pandemic outbreak and work with countries to safely study and dispose of dangerous pathogens. That, Pope said, is what the agency is actually doing in Ukraine.

“As CTR completed the projects addressing the immediate danger of these Soviet bioweapons facilities, the program shifted to helping these newly-independent countries to develop the laboratories and trained personnel needed to detect and report disease outbreaks before they became a threat to the partner nation or the world,” he explained. “American health security depends on the ability of countries around the world to detect and report disease outbreaks before they reach our homeland.”

This aspect of the DTRA’s mission is not well-advertised. CTR’s own mission statement on state.gov makes no mention of it, focusing only on WMDs: “The Office of Cooperative Threat Reduction (CTR) seeks to prevent proliferator states and terrorist groups from developing or acquiring Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) and delivery systems that could threaten the U.S. homeland and U.S. interests abroad.”

When Psaki was confronted with questions about biolab conspiracies in March, she issued a flat denial with no alternative explanation, not even naming DTRA or CTR or elaborating on the work they do. (RELATED: Russia Deployed Trained Battle Dolphins To Protect Naval Base, Satellite Images Allegedly Reveal)

“The United States 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,” she tweeted. “This is all an obvious ploy by Russia to try to try to justify its further premeditated, unprovoked, and unjustified attack on Ukraine.”

While that may be true, it does not fill in the gaps left by the unanswered questions of some Americans, particularly those who may be skeptical of government power or the Biden administration in particular. The State Department, through spokesman Ned Price, reiterated the same talking points, also without further explanation.

“As we have said all along, Russia is inventing false pretexts in an attempt to justify its own horrific actions in Ukraine,” Price said in a statement. “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.”

Once again, this statement is by all appearances true. The U.S. offers some funding and support to some Ukrainian biolabs, but it does not own or directly operate them, the Pentagon says. But there are no answers to the questions of what is happening in these labs, why the U.S. has an interest in them and whether or not there is a threat posed by the Russian invasion of Ukraine of a potential disease outbreak.

The expert who spoke with the Daily Caller said all of these questions are easily answerable, but the Biden administration simply didn’t bother offering those answers to the American people.

“Many Americans don’t understand what we accomplished [with CTR],” he said. “There’s so much treatment of the American people as if everybody is an idiot.”

He corroborated Pope’s statement that there are no bioweapons in the Ukrainian biolabs. What likely is in some of those labs, he said, are naturally occurring pathogens that could have served as the basis for Soviet bioweapon development.

“The function of Ukrainian labs in the Soviet bioweapons program [was] gathering and studying natural pathogens for inclusion in the program in labs elsewhere in the USSR,” he explained. “There weren’t any bioweapons in any of these labs, but there were naturally occurring pathogens that were likely the foundation for bioweapons.”

Pope, who alluded in a previous interview to the possibility that scientists were keeping around pathogens from the Soviet weapons program in these labs, clarified that this is what he was referring to. “Ukraine’s role in the Soviet bioweapons program was different: its anti-plague stations were used to identify naturally occurring pathogens that could be later used in a broader Soviet program. If any of these samples were maintained, it was not to develop weapons, but rather for Ukrainian scientists to conduct research,” he said.

So, if the purpose of CTR is primarily to protect Americans from foreign WMDs, and none of those were technically found in Ukraine, why is the program still operating in the country 17 years after it started there, and three decades after the dissolution of the USSR? Pope said they shifted their resources to monitoring potential disease outbreaks, which the U.S. government does in a whole host of countries.

“Since CTR did not find biological weapons, the program shifted its focus on establishing safety and security practices to ensure the Ukrainian public and veterinary diagnostic laboratories have the latest training and technology to identify, detect and respond to local disease out-breaks.”

The expert who spoke with the Daily Caller concurred, and offered some additional potential explanations.

“I don’t think it’s unfair to describe part of what DTRA funded as basically make-work for former Soviet scientists who were too dangerous to let out into the wild.”

He added that the reason this work must be conducted in Ukraine is twofold. First, the housing of some of these pathogens by the Soviet Union in Ukraine, and the testing or research done on them there, means there is a unique threat of spillover from some of these diseases into human populations. If the remnants of Soviet biological weapons research were left behind in Ukraine, the U.S. has to go to Ukraine to study and monitor those remnants to ensure they don’t lead to an outbreak.

Secondly, Ukraine is where the labs and scientists are. In addition to giving jobs to ex-Soviet scientists, who may otherwise pose a threat working for another actor, part of DTRA’s purview is ensuring that these weapons programs can’t be ramped up again in the future, be it by Russia or another state or non-state entity, the expert said. Taking some interest in these facilities, be it financial or otherwise, helps to make sure they don’t fall into the wrong hands and become a threat to the American people.

All of this research isn’t without risk. There are some who believe the COVID-19 pandemic originated from a lab leak out of the Wuhan Institute of Virology in China. There have been at least two known lab leaks from Soviet-era labs historically, and it’s possible that some pathogens may have escaped into a Ukrainian animal population or ecological environment which must now be monitored, the academic said. And to the degree that American public officials expressed concern about Ukrainian biolabs, much of it was about the possibility that Russian attacks on these facilities would jeopardize their stability and lead to an outbreak.

Instead of clarifying, the messaging has been muddled from the start. Many of the false conspiracy theories about the labs stemmed from a Biden administration official’s own words. Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Victoria Nuland did not deny that there are Ukrainian or American biological weapons in Ukraine when asked during a Senate hearing about the issue, and instead offered a vague explanation about biological research.

“Ukraine has biological research facilities, which, in fact, we are now quite concerned Russian forces may be seeking to gain control of,” she said.

Nobody, from Nuland to Psaki to Price to Biden, ever elaborated on the work DTRA and CTR were doing in Ukraine, how it was beneficial to Americans and that it had nothing to do at this point with biological weapons. When asked directly about the messaging failure from the federal government, even DTRA itself admitted that a better job could have been done.

“You are absolutely correct, explaining more in depth what the CTR program does would help lessen the disinformation confusion that has elevated over the past few weeks,” the agency told the Daily Caller.