With Russian President Vladimir Putin showing no sign of backing down on his country’s assault on Ukraine, US officials are trying to prevent the Russian military from capturing pathogens stored in US-affiliated research labs in Ukraine, where they could potentially mischaracterize activities at the facilities. It’s an urgent task, given that the director of the US military program that works with Ukrainian public and animal health labs said some are in cities now under attack.
At the end of February, Robert Pope, the director of the Cooperative Threat Reduction Program, said his program had lost contact with the Ukrainian labs. In an update on Friday, he said that officials had communicated with authorities responsible for facilities run by the Ukrainian Ministry of Health but not with those overseeing the veterinary health institutions the US government also partners with in the country.
Several of those labs are in cities being attacked now, Pope said. “Should Russian forces occupy a city with one of these facilities, we are concerned that Russia will fabricate ‘evidence’ of nefarious activity in an attempt to lend credibility to their ongoing disinformation about these facilities.”
On the veterinary health side, the Defense Threat Reduction Agency supports 14 facilities and diagnostic laboratories, Pope said. “Most of these facilities are regional diagnostic veterinary laboratories that provide Ukraine with animal sample collection ability and basic laboratory capabilities for initial diagnostics of potential diseases in Ukraine’s animal population. They are part of the network of labs that help Ukraine prevent, detect, and respond to animal diseases like African swine fever,” he said.
Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Victoria Nuland echoed Pope’s concerns about the security of the US-linked labs at a Senate hearing Tuesday. “Ukraine has biological research facilities, which, in fact, we are now 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,” she said.
Pope’s fears that the invasion will expose the labs to new disinformation narratives does not appear far-fetched. Already at least one figure with links to the Russian disinformation ecosystem is broadcasting plans to bring journalists into war-torn Ukraine to tour US-affiliated labs there.
John Mark Dougan, a former American police officer who claims to have political asylum in Russia, has put up at least five videos on YouTube in recent days saying that Ukraine is hosting US bioweapons labs; some of the videos have been viewed nearly 30,000 times. In one video, he claims to have secured permission to go to the labs. “I said, ‘Look, I want to get a bunch of journalists, truth seeking journalists together, and I want to do a tour of these laboratories,’” Dougan said, inviting journalists to contact him for the supposed trip.
In his videos, Dougan points to fact sheets on Ukrainian facilities that once were on the US embassy in Kyiv’s website, but have since been taken down. That’s evidence, he believes, of US government malfeasance. But the documents list general information about US funding for various labs as well as state whether labs have received permits to work with pathogens, according to an archival search. While the links on the Kyiv embassy site are not functional, they nonetheless remain prominently displayed–the existence of the labs is not a secret. “Are they maybe trying to hide evidence of their bioweapons program?” Dougan asks in a Feb. 26 video. Dougan also claims a whistleblower who once worked in a veterinary clinic in Ukraine has provided him with information.
In a Dec. 10 video, Dougan mentions a Ukrainian who “dropped off some documents” with “interesting stuff.” Throughout the video, he displays pictures of documents, laboratories, or officials. Often he draws the visuals from publicly available sources such promotional material about the Defense Threat Reduction Agency or the 2005 agreement that dictates the terms of the arrangement between Ukraine and the agency. He also refers to a program called UP-8. The Defense Threat Reduction Agency told the Bulletin that UP-8 involved voluntary blood draws to see what antibodies troops were exposed to in nature. Previous allegations picked up in Russian state media have also targeted the program, including claims that the blood draws–a harmless medical procedure–could have caused death among Ukrainian troops.
After being sought by the FBI for releasing the addresses of thousands of judges and other officials in Florida online, Dougan fled the United States in 2016, according to an investigation by The Daily Beast in 2019.
Once in Russia, Dougan apparently caught the interest of some of the country’s most prolific disinformation producers, state-controlled outlets RT and Sputnik. RT, which researchers at the Oxford Internet Institute once labeled “one of the most important organizations in the global political economy of disinformation,” even produced a 51-minute-long documentary on Dougan.
In an email, Dougan questioned the Bulletin’s objectivity, asked why the State Department would delete documents if it weren’t a “cleanup campaign,” and questioned the Defense Department’s funding for biological research. “I’ve been around the block a few times, and I know when someone is trying to write a con-job article in defense of the indefensible,” he said. “And I worked in law enforcement long enough to know when the government is trying to hide something.”
The labs in Ukraine are not secret bioweapons facilities, nor are they run by the US government, the Defense Threat Reduction Agency has said; they are operated by partner countries. In fact, the Cooperative Threat Reduction Program that manages the US partnerships with labs worked extensively with the Russian government after the fall of the Soviet Union to secure weapons of mass destruction, including the remnants of the massive Soviet bioweapons program. But despite media investigations and independent experts debunking claims against the US-affiliated labs over the years, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has re-ignited the disinformation attacks on the program.
Russian state media, alleged Kremlin proxy media outlets, and influencers like Tim Kirby, another American expat with ties to RT, began to focus once again on the lab disinformation as Russia moved troops toward the Ukrainian border. That trend appears to have intensified since the invasion. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov mused about the labs in a recent state-TV interview, and the Russian embassy in Bosnia and Herzegovina posted on Facebook that the United States was building labs in Ukraine to destroy “the Russian people at the genetic level.”
In a briefing, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian lent support to the Russian accusations. “In particular, the United States, as the party that knows the laboratories best, should release relevant specific information as soon as possible, including what viruses are stored and the research that has been carried out,” the spokesman said, according to Chinese state-media company Xinhua.
And in a twist, the Russian accusations appear to be gaining traction among the hard-right in the United States, with an assist from Dougan, who went on QAnon influencer Zak Paine’s RedPill78 podcast to discuss the lab conspiracy theory. A few days later, Paine re-visited the topic to say that the Russians were “attacking biological weapons facilities funded by the United States” and run, in part, by Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, a frequent target of the right wing.
Putin, Pope said, may want to use the Ukrainian labs as a rationale for the war. “We know Putin lied when he said he wasn’t preparing to invade Ukraine,” the Cooperative Threat Reduction Program director said, “and we are confident that Russia is willing to lie to try to justify their invasion.”
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