Fact Check By: Craig Jones, Newswise
Does Ukraine have biological weapons? Ugh, Ukraine has biological research facilities. What? You mean secret bio labs like the secret bio labs that Ukraine definitely doesn't have? Ukraine has those? Yes, it does.Claim Publisher and Date: Tucker Carlson, Fox News host on 2022-03-09
Note: this article has was updated on 3/18/22 to add more clarity.
The claim in a nutshell: The United States is engaged in secret bioweapons research and production of bioweapons within Ukraine’s borders.
This allegation is being used to justify the now 21-day invasion of Ukraine by Russia, with support from foreign governments and sympathetic coverage by voices in the media.
For example, the claims gained significant traction when, on March 9th, Tucker Carlson of Fox News raised alarms that the recent testimony by Victoria Nuland, the Under Secretary of State, who acknowledged that the U.S. has funded biological research in Ukraine, is proof that the labs are producing or conducting research on biological weapons.
As elaborated by Carlson, and debunked by the Washington Post here, proponents of the conspiracy theory claim that grants to modernize laboratories and research facilities in Ukraine are evidence of current bioweapons programs run by the United States. The grants date back to 2005, and as described thoroughly by the Daily Mail here, do not amount to proof of current involvement by the U.S. with these labs in any way [Politifact]. Furthermore, the claim is based on a conflation of the notion that any biological research is synonymous with biological weapons. Evidence to support this assertion has yet to emerge. For example, Science writer Andrew Curry debunking the idea of that claim, here.
So, what’s really going on in Ukraine’s research labs? According to this fact sheet by the U.S. Defense Department, the U.S. government has spent $200 million in Ukraine supporting 46 Ukrainian laboratories, health facilities and diagnostic sites since 2005. This funding is part of the Biological Threat Reduction Program – an offshoot of the Nunn-Lugar program enacted after the end of the Cold War. Former Democratic congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard has expressed concern that the pathogens could fall into Russian hands and urged that any harmful pathogens be destroyed.
Where did these claims surface? Russia (and the former Soviet Union) have a long history of bioweapons-related disinformation.1 Russia relayed these claims just as they began their military operations on the border of Ukraine. Both Russia and China issued a joint statement decrying US bioweapons activities. Chinese diplomats and state media organizations repeated the conspiracy theory at news conferences in Beijing and on official social media accounts.2
Despite its dubious origin, Carlson has amplified this claim by focusing on the congressional testimony by Victoria Nuland, who was asked by Senator Marco Rubio, Republican of Florida, whether Ukraine has chemical or biological weapons.
“Ukraine has biological research facilities which in fact we are quite concerned Russian troops, Russian forces, may be seeking to gain control of, so we are working with the Ukrainians on how they can prevent any of those research materials from falling into the hands of Russian forces should they approach,” Nuland said.
The State Department has since clarified that Ms. Nuland was referring to Ukrainian diagnostic and biodefense laboratories during her testimony, which are different from biological weapons facilities. In fact, they were created for the prevention of bioweapons proliferation.
On March 11, the United Nations Security Council convened a meeting about Russia’s accusations concerning biological weapons in Ukraine. Izumi Nakamitsu, the U.N.’s high representative for disarmament affairs, said the United Nations was “not aware of any biological weapons programs.”3