On May 7, Azerbaijan denied Russia’s claim that it hosts foreign-financed labs to research biological weapons, a propaganda claim that Russia has also aimed at Ukraine.
Azerbaijan’s State Security Service (SSB) said flatly that such laboratories have never operated in the country. The SSB statement came after Russia claimed it could face biological threats from lab leaks in countries on its southern borders.
On April 27, Nikolai Patrushev, Secretary of Russia’s Security Council, said:
“After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the United States and its satellites deployed a network of bio-laboratories in the space of the former Soviet republics – in Georgia, Ukraine, Azerbaijan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, and Armenia, where, under the guise of scientific research, they conduct military-biological activities.”
That is false.
Moscow has been making similar bogus claims for years and used the same false narrative to help defend its February 24 invasion of Ukraine. The Kremlin conflates bioweapons labs with legitimate biological research into infectious diseases and other public health threats.
After Russia invaded Ukraine, Azerbaijan's President Ilham Aliyev was the first post-Soviet leader to take a neutral stance on Russia’s war in Ukraine. Azerbaijan, along with Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, have been delivering humanitarian aid to Ukraine, and Azerbaijan has also been sending fuel assistance to Ukrainian farmers to help keep Ukraine's agricultural sector from collapsing.
Azerbaijan is one the countries that might help Europe over its dependency on Russian gas. On May 9, Azerbaijan’s Energy Minister Parviz Shahbazov stated at World Utilities Congress in Abu Dhabi, UAE, that his country is planning to boost its exports to southern European countries and is already working to improve its infrastructure to increase natural gas supplies to Europe.
On May 4, the EU proposed to ban imports of Russian oil and is looking to ban Russian gas imports, which might impose a more challenging step. Europe imported more than 41 percent of gas from Russia in 2019.
In a claim Polygraph.info debunked previously, Russia’s Defense Ministry suggested that the U.S. financed laboratories in Ukraine to make bioagents targeting specific ethnic groups. These labs purportedly were testing anthrax and African swine fever; labs in Ukraine and Georgia had done experiments on bats as carriers of coronavirus, the conspiracy claims said.
Moscow claimed to have Ukrainian documents as proof, and Russia’s RIA Novosti state news agency published supposed evidence that didn’t check out.
The Intercept vetted Moscow’s proof, reporting that 10 Russian biologists had taken risk of publicly calling out Russian authorities for lying about the documents, which only concerned ordinary pathogens and public health research.
One of the biologists, Yevgeny Levitin, told Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty that the bacterial samples cited as evidence of bioweapons research could be found in any public health lab.
“Here comes a man, a swab is taken from his throat, specialists do a culture and see what bad things develop there,” Levitin said. “The strains grown in the dish need to be compared with something. Therefore, there are samples in any normal laboratory that deals with epidemiology or even just microbiology.”
“In order to store such strains, you do not even need a special permit,” he said. “These pathogens are not the subject of specially registered storage. You just need to fill out a special form confirming that they exist. It’s common practice.”
In March, The Washington Post dated this line of Russian disinformation to the Soviet period. It picked up again after Russian President Vladimir Putin came to power in 1999. The newspaper said the intent was to distract the Russian public from Moscow’s own biological programs.
In March, U.S. State Department official Victoria Nuland told a Senate hearing there were concerns that Russian troops might try to take control of biological research facilities in Ukraine.
Following the fall of the Soviet Union, the U.S. created the Biological Threat Reduction Program for the purpose of detecting and reducing threats, not spreading them, mainly in the former Soviet states where bio-weapons and chemical weapons had been produced and stockpiled.
In March, the U.S. Defense Department issued a report on its “Biological Threat Reduction” program in Ukraine. That effort, the agency pointedly noted, has long had the goal of finding ways to eliminate or lessen the biological threats.
“Ukraine uses the laboratory improvements provided by the United States and other partners to support broader public and veterinary health goals, such as monitoring the spread of COVID-19, preparing for and controlling African Swine Fever, which helped Ukrainian farmers protect their herds from infectious diseases, and protecting the food supply in Ukraine,” the department says.
Polygraph.info and other fact checkers have debunked similar false claims of bioweapons development at the Richard Lugar Center for Public Health Research in Tbilisi, Georgia. Those false claims were fueled by far-right pro-Kremlin groups as well as Moscow.
According to the U.S. Embassy in Azerbaijan, the Defense Threat Reduction Office (DTRO) – BAKU “is responsible for all Defense Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA)-related activities in Azerbaijan to include nuclear and biological counter proliferation programs; arms control inspections, training and exercises.”
On May 9, U.S. State Department spokesman Ned Price called allegations of Pentagon-sponsored secret weapons labs in Azerbaijan, Armenia, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan “lies.”