Pentagon’s work with Ukraine’s biological facilities becomes flashpoint in Russia’s information warfare

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“I pulled out a tray of glass vials containing Bacillus anthracis, which is the bacteria that causes anthrax,” recalled Andrew Weber, the Pentagon official who was in charge of the US-funded program and who worked with the Ukrainian government. Mr Weber said he showed the tray “to a very concerned young senator”.

Mr. Obama himself recalled seeing during his trip to Ukraine in 2005 “test tubes filled with anthrax and plague lying virtually unlocked and unattended”.

A decades-old Pentagon program that was used to secure biological weapons in the former Soviet Union — and to build trust between Washington and Moscow after the Cold War — has instead become a new flashpoint in a information warfare between the two countries following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Moscow has accused the Pentagon of financing weapons work in Ukrainian biological laboratories. “These were not peaceful experiences,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said earlier this month.

China, whose leader Xi Jinping has a close relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin, echoed the claims. “Russia discovered during its military operations that the United States was using these facilities to carry out bio-military plans,” the Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman told reporters.

US officials have categorically denied these claims and warned that Moscow could use its allegations to justify its own use of weapons of mass destruction in Ukraine.

“We believe Moscow could be laying the groundwork to use a chemical weapon and then wrongfully blame Ukraine for escalating its attacks on the Ukrainian people,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken said last week. “Fabrication of events and creating false narratives of genocide to justify increased use of military force is a tactic Russia has used before.”

The allegations shocked those most familiar with the Pentagon’s post-Cold War initiative called the Cooperative Threat Reduction program. Indeed, not only was Russia aware of the Pentagon’s work to secure chemical, biological and nuclear facilities in the former Soviet Union, but it had also benefited from it for many years.

“These are outrageous claims,” said Robert Pope, the head of the Defense Threat Reduction Agency, or DTRA, the Pentagon branch responsible for managing the program. “We were created 30 years ago to eliminate weapons of mass destruction, and Russia knows well that we eliminate weapons of mass destruction.”

The program, which dates back to 1991 and continues today, spans across the former Soviet Union. Since the program began, the Pentagon has spent about $12 billion to secure materials used in weapons of mass destruction in post-Soviet republics, according to a DTRA spokeswoman. Of these funds, about $200 million has been spent on biological work in Ukraine since 2005. The funds have supported dozens of laboratories, health facilities and diagnostic sites across the country, the spokesperson said. word of the DTRA.

Mr Weber, who was responsible for negotiating the initial agreement with kyiv to work on securing the country’s biological equipment and facilities, said the work extended to Ukraine after the September 11 attacks, when Al-Qaeda terrorists hijacked planes and crashed them into the World Trade Center towers and the Pentagon. US policymakers have raised concerns about the possibility of terrorists stealing biological material – fears that intensified after letters containing anthrax were sent by US mail to congressional offices and the media. The FBI eventually concluded that an American scientist employed in a military laboratory had sent the letters.

Then Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma, concerned about the terrorist threat in his own country, asked for help from the United States. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union a decade earlier, Ukraine had been deprived of the funds needed to secure its biological facilities.

Mr. Weber assembled a team that visited biological and chemical facilities in Ukraine, ranging from large laboratories to small veterinary research centers. “We discovered that a number of them had collections of dangerous pathogens inherited from Soviet times,” he said. “They were in pretty bad shape.”

Ukrainian labs – unlike some in other former Soviet republics – were not directly involved in the Cold War biological weapons program, but they had pathogens that fueled offensive work, according to Weber.

These pathogens, like anthrax, could pose a threat if released, either accidentally or intentionally. The goal of US work in Ukraine was to consolidate this biological material, much of it related to agriculture, into secure facilities, which the US would pay to build or upgrade.

Paul McNelly, who from 1995 to 2003 led the Defense Department’s chemical and biological disposal programs in Russia, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, said he was stunned by what he saw inside the old Soviet facilities.

“You would walk into these places and the fridges that were storing these dangerous pathogens, they had no locks at all,” Mr McNelly said. “There would be vials labeled tularemia, plague, different things like that. And these people, most of them, weren’t masked. Their robes were outdated. He added, ‘It was horrible.’

Under this program, the Pentagon spent $1 billion to build a Russian facility in Shchuchye, Siberia, to demilitarize some two million chemical weapons. By the time this was done in 2009, ties with Moscow were strained. The price of oil was rising, giving Russia more revenue to wean itself off foreign aid. At the same time, Mr. Putin was consolidating power.

As a result, the Russian government has become a less willing partner to the Pentagon’s desire to secure lethal materials, according to James Tegnelia, who led the DTRA from 2005 to 2009. “They wanted our money, but they didn’t get it. made”. “I don’t want to admit that we built the facility,” Tegnelia said. “You could see they were getting ready to pull out.”

The Russian Foreign Ministry had previously praised the program. But in 2012, Moscow refused to renew the cooperation, saying it could pay for the work itself.

In 2014, the year Moscow illegally annexed Crimea and began supporting separatists in Ukraine’s Donbass region, the program in Russia ended.

A spokesperson for the Russian Embassy in Washington, DC, did not respond to a request for comment on the Pentagon’s schedule.

Yet even with this chapter of its cooperation over, Russian claims that the Pentagon was carrying out covert weapons work in Ukraine surprised not only those who worked on the program, but also other Western officials. The Kremlin has in the past used such accusations to cover up its own actions, they say.

“We are concerned that Moscow is setting up a false flag operation, possibly including chemical weapons,” North Atlantic Treaty Organization Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said last week.

US officials have declined to discuss what specific intelligence, if any, they have to indicate that Russia may be preparing to deploy chemical or other unconventional weapons in Ukraine. But they say Russia has a history of using chemical weapons, including against Mr Putin’s domestic political opponents, and has encouraged their use in Syria by President Bashar al-Assad’s government.

The Russian government has hit back at the US allegations, denying plans to use chemical weapons. In a message posted last week on its official Telegram channel, the Russian Defense Ministry said units fighting in Ukraine “do not have chemical munitions”.

Mr. Tegnelia, the former director of the DTRA, sees the Russian allegations as a path to an even more dangerous escalation. “If you see them using chemical weapons in Ukraine, be careful,” he said, “because they are one step away from nuclear weapons.”

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