Since the invasion of Ukraine began a month ago, representatives of Russia have unleashed an avalanche of disinformation to justify this aggression, claiming they plan to liberate breakaway regions, restore Russia’s pre-Soviet boundaries, or rescue Ukrainians from a “drug-addled” government. Some assertions are comically outlandish—“denazifying” a country led by a Jewish president, for instance—but one strand of disinfo has sent a chill though biosecurity specialists and Cold War veterans. That is the claim that Ukraine manufactures biological weapons in laboratories funded by the United States.
This conspiracy theory worries experts because it is false, and because it could provide cover for Russia deploying biological weapons of its own. But its least speculative and most sinister threat is that it endangers the the Cooperative Threat Reduction Program, a long-standing international effort that actually prevents bioweapons labs from operating—while allowing countries to develop the capacity to respond to other threats, from destructive livestock and crop pathogens to deadly diseases such as Ebola and Covid.
“These labs are being misrepresented,” says Hayley Severance emphatically. Severance, now deputy vice president for global biological policy at the nonpartisan think tank NTI, was formerly a Department of Defense adviser working on the threat-reduction program, which for decades has supported these research labs in Ukraine. “There is no nefarious biological weapon development activity, ongoing in Ukraine, supported by the US,” she adds. “That is a false narrative that has been part of the Russian playbook for decades.”
The threat-reduction effort dates back to the eve of the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. In fact, Russia was its first beneficiary: The program’s initial aim, which the soon-to-be-dissolved USSR assented to, was arms control. The program deployed billions in US funding to destroy or safely store the enormous quantities of nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons the Soviet Union had amassed.
The Soviet bioweapons program never operated in Ukraine, though. The repurposed labs there, now supported by the threat-reduction program, are the remnants of a series of “anti-plague” laboratories along the former Soviet Union’s borders. They were intended to be a line of defense against naturally occurring pathogens such as brucellosis and anthrax, as well as bubonic plague.
Over years, the Cooperative Threat Reduction Program expanded to modernizing and making safe a range of laboratories and stockpiles of materials in locations that once had been Russian states and later became independent republics, such as Kazakhstan. In the program’s third decade it expanded again, at the same time that the US government recruited other nations to join a 2014 international compact called the Global Health Security Agenda. In this current iteration, the threat-reduction program supports labs in areas well outside the former Soviet boundaries, such as Africa and Asia—places that need help funding and staffing complex civilian research facilities.
Worth noting: Though Russia was once the threat-reduction program’s chief client and partner, it withdrew from the agreement in 2012.
The threat-reduction program “evolved from dismantlement to capacity-building, especially with the research institutes that were involved in the Soviet Union’s biological weapons program, redirecting them toward developing vaccines and therapeutics and improving infectious disease surveillance,” says Andrew Weber, senior fellow at the nonpartisan Council on Strategic Risks and formerly the assistant secretary of defense for nuclear, chemical, and biological defense programs.
Weber helped negotiate Ukraine’s entry into the program in 2005. (The original agreement is still on the Department of State’s website.) Since then, the US Department of Defense has invested about $200 million there, supporting work at 46 locations: university and government laboratories studying human and animal health, and health care labs that perform diagnostic assays. Though Ukrainian facilities never produced biological weapons, they contained and still work on naturally occurring pathogens, using the kind of biosecure lab infrastructure that allows handling such organisms safely. Either could be turned to nefarious purposes if the labs fell into enemy hands.
Supporting those labs represents “a shift in our approach from dealing just with hardcore weapons facilities and scientists,” Weber says, “to understanding that to counter biological weapons and infectious disease threats, we need to prevent terrorists from exploiting pathogens in laboratories that were working on them for public health and animal health reasons.”