Social Media Posts Misrepresent U.S.-Ukraine Threat Reduction Program

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Quick Take

The U.S. Department of Defense’s Biological Threat Reduction Program has provided technical support to improve and protect Ukraine’s public health laboratories. Social media posts, however, falsely claim the program created “bioweapons labs” that are being targeted by Russian forces as part of the invasion of Ukraine.


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When Russian President Vladimir Putin launched an invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24, he claimed Moscow was seeking to overthrow a neo-Nazi regime in Kyiv and return the neighboring country to Russia’s protection. Never mind that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky is Jewish and lost family members in the Holocaust.

The U.S., Ukraine and most of the international community rejected Putin’s claims and President Joe Biden branded him an “aggressor” engaged in a blatant, unjustified land grab.

After the invasion started, Moscow and its supporters stepped up a disinformation campaign that began long before Russian tanks crossed the border, and social media platforms took steps to shut down the disinformation.

Still, Facebook posts have blamed the U.S. in part for the invasion by pinpointing what they falsely claim are American germ warfare labs in Ukraine.

One post links to an article in the conservative website News Punch, which claims, “Putin has ordered his military to seek and destroy US-Deep State bio-labs engaged in top-secret zoonotic and infectious disease research in dozens of locations across Ukraine.”

A Facebook post, sharing a map that appeared in the News Punch article, says, “Exclusive US biolabs in Ukraine, and they are financed at the expense of the US Department of Defense.”

Another post claims, “All but one of the US bio-labs for biological weapons have been bombed in Ukraine.”

The posts misrepresent a 2005 pact under which the U.S. Department of Defense and Ukraine’s Ministry of Health agreed to work together to ensure that labs studying disease in Ukraine could not be used to develop biological weapons and to prevent the spread of infectious diseases, the Kyiv Post reported in May 2020.

The U.S. Biological Threat Reduction Program’s “priorities in Ukraine are to consolidate and secure pathogens and toxins of security concern and to continue to ensure Ukraine can detect and report outbreaks caused by dangerous pathogens before they pose security or stability threats,” according to the U.S. Embassy in Ukraine.

The arrangement grew out of the 1994 agreements under which Ukraine gave up the nuclear weapons that remained in its possession after the breakup of the Soviet Union and which, at the time, made Ukraine the third largest nuclear power in the world.

The pact — and a similar one in the former Soviet republic of Georgia — has been the target of disinformation campaigns in the past, said Andrew Weber, a senior fellow at the Council on Strategic Risks and a board member of the nonpartisan Arms Control Association.

“There has been a Soviet-style disinformation campaign promoting such lies for over a decade,” Weber said in an email exchange with FactCheck.org. “It harkens back to the Soviet KGB ‘Operation Infection’ disinformation campaign to spread the total fabrication that HIV/AIDS originated in a U.S. military lab.”

Weber, a former assistant secretary of defense for nuclear, chemical and biological defense programs, said the Defense Department “has never had a biological laboratory in Ukraine.”

Rather, the Biological Threat Reduction Program “has provided technical support to the Ukrainian Ministry of Health since 2005 to improve public health laboratories whose mission is analogous to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention,” Weber said. “These laboratories have recently played an important role in stopping the spread of COVID-19.”

In the spring of 2020, both the U.S. Embassy in Kyiv and the Security Service of Ukraine issued statements calling out bogus reports of American biolabs operating in Ukraine.

“Recently, ‘fake news’ about the alleged activities of American military biological laboratories in Ukraine has been spread in the media and social networks,” the Security Service of Ukraine said in a statement reported by Interfax-Ukraine. “No foreign biological laboratories operate in Ukraine. Statements recently made by individual politicians are not true and are a deliberate distortion of the facts.”

The U.S. embassy statement said, “Our joint efforts help to ensure that dangerous pathogens do not fall into the wrong hands.”

Editor’s note: FactCheck.org is one of several organizations working with Facebook to debunk misinformation shared on social media. Our previous stories can be found here. Facebook has no control over our editorial content.

Sources

Arms Control Association. “Ukraine, Nuclear Weapons, and Security Assurances at a Glance.” Accessed 28 Feb 2022.

Berger, Miriam. “Putin says he will ‘denazify’ Ukraine. Here’s the history behind that claim.” Washington Post. 24 Feb 2022.

Broad, William J. “Ukraine Gave Up a Giant Nuclear Arsenal 30 Years Ago. Today, there are regrets.” New York Times. 5 Feb 2022.

Brokell, Gillian. “Putin says he’ll ‘denazify Ukraine.’ Its Jewish president lost family in the Holocaust.” Washington Post. 25 Feb 2022.

Dwoskin, Elizabeth and Cat Zakrzewski. “Facebook and TikTok ban Russian state media in Europe.” 28 Feb 2022.

Interfax-Ukraine. “SBU: No Biological laboratories in Ukraine.” Kyiv Post. 8 May 2020.

Kirby, Jen and Jonathan Guyer. “Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, explained.” Vox. 28 Feb 2022.

Lomsadze, Giorgi. “Does the US Have a Secret Germ Warfare Lab on Russia’s Doorstep?” .coda.19 Apr 2018.

McCarthy, Bill. “Hangings, guillotines and Gitmo: Going behind Real Raw News’ sensational (and fabricated) headlines.” 24 Sep 2021.

U.S. Department of State. “Agreement between the Department of Defense of the United States of America and the Ministry of Health of Ukraine Concerning Cooperation in the Area of Prevention of Proliferation of Technology, Pathogens and Expertise that could be Used in the Development of Biological Weapons.” 29 Aug 2005.

U.S. Embassy in Ukraine. “US-Ukraine Partnership to Reduce Biological Threats.” Posted 22 Apr 2020.

U.S. Embassy in Ukraine. “Biological Threat Reduction Program.” Accessed 28 Feb 2022.

Weber, Andrew. Senior fellow at the Council on Strategic Risks and a member of the Arms Control Association board of directors. Email to FactCheck.org. 28 Feb 2022.

White House. “Remarks by President Biden on Russia’s Unprovoked and Unjustified Attack on Ukraine.” 24 Feb 2022.

 

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