On March 3, Maxim Suchkov, a professor at the Moscow State University of International Relations, claimed Russian military strikes had hit several foreign-run “biolabs” in Ukraine. He tweeted:
“Unconfimred (sic) reports of #Russia/n hitting 13 bio-lab munitions throughout #Ukraine, some of them underground, so it took a few strikes to destroy them. The issue of foreign powers resarch (sic) bio labs in UKR is gaining traction in RUS media - watch this space”
That is false.
Suchov rehashes an old, well-debunked conspiracy theory the Kremlin and supportive news media have floated for years.
Under the theory, purported U.S.-run biolabs in countries like Ukraine or Georgia are secretly experimenting with biological weapons, conducting tests on humans or accidentally leaking deadly pathogens into local communities.
In Georgia, the bogus theory has centered on the Richard Lugar Center for Public Health, located near Tbilisi, Georgia’s capital. Russian officials and state media outlets have falsely claimed that the Lugar Lab, its popular name, was involved in everything from the poisoning of Russian dissident Alexey Navalny to the spread of COVID-19.
In fact, the Center for Public Health conforms to World Health Organization standards. In 2018, the center invited Russia to send its own inspectors to the facility.
The claims about biolabs in Ukraine are even less credible, as there is no evidence that such U.S. biolabs exist there.
On February 25, the PolitiFact fact-checking website debunked the claim that “Russia is targeting U.S. biological weapons labs in Ukraine invasion,” reporting that no such labs exist in that country.
“There are no U.S. military-run labs in Ukraine, said Andy Weber, a member of the Arms Control Association Board of Directors and a former assistant secretary of defense for nuclear, chemical, and biological defense programs,” PolitiFact wrote.
PolitiFact also quoted Weber as saying that the U.S. has an arrangement with Ukraine’s Ministry of Health “to improve public health laboratories and prevent the threat of outbreaks of infectious diseases.”
Stories about non-existent U.S.-run biolabs in Ukraine have been a staple of Russian disinformation since the conflict began after Moscow illegally annexed the Crimean peninsula in 2014.
In 2017, Russian state media reported that pro-Russian hackers in Ukraine had found information that a U.S.-run biolab was carrying out biological weapons experiments in Ukraine. Such stories lack any concrete evidence and are typically based on innuendo about innocuous real events. For example, Russian state media reports in 2017 seized on a visit by a representative of an international HIV/AIDS and tuberculosis institute who met with defense and National Guard officials. The actual purpose of the visit was to educate personnel on the danger of HIV and other diseases, as well as how to prevent their outbreak.
That same year, some pro-Russian websites spread the claim that biological weapons testing was responsible for an outbreak of measles in Ukraine. In reality, the outbreak had been due to parents not vaccinating their children.
With Russia’s full-on invasion of Ukraine, unsubstantiated claims continue. On March 7, Igor Kirillov, head of Russian military’s chemical, biological and radiation protection force, claimed that Ukrainian biolabs were experimenting with deadly pathogens.
"The analysis of disposal acts indicates experiments were staged with pathogens of plague, anthrax and brucellosis at a biolaboratory in Lvov and with pathogens of diphtheria, salmonellosis and dysentery at laboratories in Kharkov and Poltava," Russia's TASS state news agency quoted Kirillov as saying.
It is difficult to know how the Russian military could have carried out such analyses, given that Russian forces have not yet managed to take control of Kharkiv and that no Russian troops are anywhere near Lviv. As indicated above, Ukraine does have public health laboratories devoted to preventing outbreaks of infectious diseases.