Since invading Ukraine in February, the Russian government has tirelessly worked to convince others of the existence of an illicit US-Ukrainian bioweapons program. It’s brought the claims to the UN Security Council, the Biological Weapons Convention, and other international venues, sometimes more than once. Earlier this month, Moscow went to the Security Council for the fourth time this year. This time, Russian diplomats triggered a never-before invoked mechanism to vote on creating a commission to investigate its bioweapons allegations. Once again, few countries sided with Russia. The permanent members of the Security Council voted Russia down 3-2. And while the fact that the council’s 10 temporary members abstained from the vote might seem, at first glance, like a sign that Russia still has some support, that wasn’t the case. A closer examination reveals that the abstentions were a protest against Russia’s diplomatic maneuvers, not an indication of indecisiveness or lack of engagement.
The Russian claims the Security Council weighed last month concerned “military biological activities.” If the allegations seem stale that’s because they are. Russia presented the Security Council with a 310-page dossier of supposed evidence that largely mirrored the information it had aired in September, that time at a Biological Weapons Convention “consultative” meeting. Moscow was unlikely to win over converts at the Security Council this time around with the same claims for a simple reason: The countries on the Security Council had, of course, been at the September meeting, and many had rejected Russia’s arguments then.
The Russian claims—debunked by experts and refuted by UN officials—risk undermining the norms against bioweapons. Now, through no-votes and carefully crafted abstentions, the Security Council not only rejected Moscow’s claims, but helped to bolster two pillars of the bioweapons treaty—the right of bioweapons treaty members to go to the Security Council with complaints and the right to peaceful biological cooperation. What Moscow does next, after its failure at the Security Council—whether its diplomats walk back efforts to claim a US-Ukrainian bioweapons program, or they double down on the allegations in different international venues—will help determine whether negotiators can make much progress on thorny biological weapons issues or whether they will be tied up with more whack-a-mole votes, in this or that arena, on Russia’s fabrications.
How to interpret abstentions. Eight of the 10 non-permanent members on the Security Council made clear why they abstained from voting on Russia’s proposal for an investigatory commission, arguing in explanatory statements that the allegations have no merit. Their individual and collective abstentions were about protecting the Biological Weapons Convention’s procedures. In their abstentions, countries re-affirmed that Article VI of the bioweapons convention, which enables a country to lodge a complaint with the Security Council, cannot be invoked when the evidence for the complaint is so weak.
By abstaining, rather than rejecting outright Russia’s resolution, they made it clear they still support the right of any state to invoke Article VI.
Under Article VI, a complaint should include “all possible evidence confirming its validity.” But Ghana, for one, underlined that there must be a prima facie case for the Security Council to consider, leaving it unstated that by its abstention it did not think such a case had been made. Russia’s “dossier” didn’t cut it. Mexico was explicit in saying the evidence to activate Security Council action was lacking, and Ireland and Norway were clear that the allegations and evidence presented do not justify a request for a Security Council consideration in accordance with Article VI.
In another effort to protect the bioweapons convention, the Security Council abstainers supported peaceful biological cooperation, rebutting, if subtly, one of Russia’s key assertions—that US funding for Ukrainian labs through the Pentagon’s Biological Threat Reduction Program is really aid to an illicit offensive biological weapons program. The funding, the US government and others say, is for building Ukrainian public health capacity. In this vein, the abstainers argued that countries should not be permitted to misinterpret legitimate peaceful international cooperation as a threat or to stigmatize Article X of the bioweapons convention, which encourages such cooperation.
The abstainers at the Security Council, such as India, Mexico, Brazil and Ghana, signaled strong support for peaceful cooperation and objected to efforts by Russia to twist peaceful cooperation to resemble offensive activity. The United Kingdom was more blunt and noted its intention to “defend peaceful biological cooperation against unfounded, malicious allegations.”
To understand the diplomatic dance going on at the United Nations, it is necessary to read between the lines to understand how this issue got back on the agenda of the Security Council, to pay as much attention to what was not said as what was, and to note the swiftness of the rejection of Russia’s resolution.
To the Security Council, again. To justify asking the Security Council to set up an investigation into its claims, Russia maintained that the responses to its allegations at the Biological Weapons Convention consultative meeting in September were insufficient, invoking its rights under article VI to go the Security Council. Had the council acted on the complaint, it could have initiated an investigation and forced UN members to cooperate.
Russia fell at this first hurdle. While Moscow submitted its voluminous dossier of what it characterized as evidence of its claims, the Security Council did not find it convincing, decided not to act, and rejected Russia’s request outright.
In its Article VI complaint to the Security Council, Russia said American and Ukrainian activities violate Article I of the bioweapons convention, which prohibits “weapons, equipment or means of delivery designed to use” agents or toxins for hostile purposes or in armed conflict. Russia also claimed US funding to Ukraine to help it develop its public health laboratories and infrastructure, and the presence of certain pathogens in Ukrainian culture collections, are in non-compliance with the treaty’s Article IV, which requires countries to take measures that prohibit and prevent the development, production, stockpiling, acquisition or retention of agents, toxins, weapons, equipment and means of delivery specified in Article I. Russia’s basic claim was that the US funding and the culture collections could not be justified for prophylactic (i.e., for medical/health purposes), protective (i.e., for legitimate biodefense reasons), or for other peaceful purposes.
Russia’s previous failure at the bioweapons convention’s consultative meeting in September suggested Russia’s chances were slim of successfully making the same arguments to the Security Council.
Of the 15 Security Council members Russia would be making its complaint to, six had rejected Russia’s allegations at the consultative meeting (Albania, France, Ireland, Norway, United Kingdom, and the United States), while six others had been silent (Ghana, Kenya, and the United Arab Emirates) or had supported the process of the consultative meeting but without supporting Russia’s specific claims (Brazil, India, and Mexico). Only China supported the claims in September. (Gabon was absent from the September meeting.)
What Russia wanted at the Security Council. In an October letter, Russia proposed the Security Council set up a commission comprising the five-permanent and 10-temporary members of the council to formally investigate the allegations. This commission would report back to the Security Council by the end of November, and to the 184 member states of the bioweapons convention, which holds its once-every-five-year conference of members this month in Geneva.
To observers, Russia’s request to the Security Council for a commission was not a serious proposal. The resolution lacked any detail on how the commission would do its work, who would chair it, what activities it would undertake, how it would acquire and review additional information to support or question the evidence Russia presented, and why it only had one month to complete its work.
At the October 27 Security Council meeting with the exception of China, which supported Russia’s call for a UN investigatory commission, and Gabon, which said the allegations should be taken seriously and an investigation set up, no states explicitly supported Russia. Kenya, Ghana and India remained non-committal. Brazil called for strengthening the Biological Weapons Convention and the United Arab Emirates called for a peaceful resolution to the conflict in Ukraine, including through dialogue. While refraining from blasting Russia’s position, these abstainers lent no support to them, either.
Seven states (Albania, France, Ireland, Mexico, Norway, United Kingdom, and United States) said they had considered Russia’s testimony and documentation but had found no evidence to support the allegations. Most of these states deplored the use of the Security Council, yet again, as a platform for disinformation and propaganda. Albania castigated the information Russia presented as evidence and said the meeting could have been called the “Security Council briefing on nothing.”
Russia’s latest round of Security Council machinations ended on November 2, when it moved for (and lost) a vote on its Article VI complaint.
The summary reporting after the vote together with eight available explanations of vote, make it clear 13 of the 15 states on the Security Council viewed the allegations as lacking evidence. Only China seems to have swallowed Russia’s toxic nothing-burger. As France remarked, “Russia is isolated, more than ever, and its lies fool no one.” Outsiders may look at the vote of two in favour and three against as a close call. It was not. The 10 coordinated abstentions skillfully ensured Russia’s resolution could not pass and at the same time countered Russia’s challenge to two articles of the convention, bolstering the right of bioweapons convention members to, in the future, take matters to the Security Council and to participate in peaceful biological cooperation.
Russia should be picking up clear signals from multiple Security Council meetings this year and the consultative meeting that it is convincing few states. There is a growing sense of allegation fatigue, where even countries that aren’t strongly aligned with the United States on one side or Russia on the other are now signaling “stop” to Russia. It is unlikely, however, that Russia will heed those signals.
Two scenarios are possible.
One is that Russia recognizes it is losing and isolated and begins to back away slowly, though likely not quietly. In this scenario, Russia will persist with its claims in different fora and continue to make the allegations. It almost certainly will do so, as a face-saving move, at the Biological Weapons Convention Review Conference in a few weeks. Whether or not Russia pushes the issue to breaking point at that major meeting of treaty members or instead simply wields it to object to various proposals remains to be seen.
A second scenario is more worrying. Russia could adopt an approach that involves a strategy of rolling allegations and a forum-shopping approach. There is nothing to stop, in practice, Russia asking for another consultative meeting under Article V of the bioweapons convention, or returning to the Security Council with another formal complaint under Article VI. As the US delegation remarked in its own closing statement, “despite Russia’s abuse of the process, and precisely because we respect the [bioweapons convention] and its provisions, the United States and Ukraine went through Russia’s allegations in Geneva, point by point, and debunked every single one.”
The United States and Ukraine may find they have to repeat the debunking again in the future. In addition to further rounds at the Security Council or the bioweapons convention, Russia could move the debate to the UN General Assembly, the Conference on Disarmament or even the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, just to keep the issue in the headlines.
If disruption and distraction have become self-perpetuating justification for Russia’s actions, it may well choose an approach aimed at sapping the patience of other states, supporting its bioweapons disinformation campaigns, and preventing any future meaningful work on bioweapons control over the next few years.
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