Politics

Let’s Talk About Those Ukrainian Biolabs

Tucker Carlson and Glenn Greenwald are just asking questions about their new favorite topic. Turns out there are some simple answers.

A black and white image of hands holding a Petri dish with  penicillin mold in it.
Bettmann/Getty Images Plus

It’s time to check in on Tucker Carlson and Glenn Greenwald, the odd couple of right-libertarian contrarianism. Having previously downplayed the idea that Russia presented a serious humanitarian or security problem to the world, the duo have moved on to exploring the idea that Ukraine might have been harboring secret bioweapon labs, a hypothesis widely promoted by both the Kremlin and American conspiracy theorists.

To quickly rewind: In the lead-up to Vladimir Putin’s invasion, Greenwald disparaged claims about the threat to Ukraine as hyperbole repeated by the corporate media on behalf of the military-industrial complex. (He was careful never to say flat-out that Russia wouldn’t invade Ukraine, but, for example, referred to one report that it was planning to do so before the Olympics ended on Feb. 20 as an example of “CIA fraud.” The invasion began Feb. 24.) Carlson expressed incredulity that any American would organically care about Ukrainian people, arguing on many occasions that Putin was a strong, admirable leader who had been made into a boogeyman by elite multiculturalists because he understood the importance of territorial sovereignty and national purity.

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Those takes were cast ruthlessly into the dustbin of history when Russia’s armed forces invaded Ukraine and launched a universally condemned strategy of intentionally killing civilians. It’s been a slightly embarrassing time to have spent the last several years saying on TV that only hysterical Democratic fantasists and CIA stenographers would be concerned about Putin destabilizing the rest of the globe and violating international law.

But Greenwald and Carlson now have a new slant: The U.S. and Ukraine were possibly manufacturing biological weapons that presented a legitimate threat to Russian security. In a monologue last week, Carlson said “the Biden administration” is possibly “funding secret biolabs in Ukraine.” In videos, Substack posts, and tweets, Greenwald has asserted that “we don’t know if biological weapons are in Ukraine” and said U.S. denials of their existence are suspicious and unconvincing.

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Where, exactly, did this story come from?

As reported by NBC News, Foreign Policy, and Politifact, Russia’s government has been promoting the accusation that the United States is financing biological weapons research throughout the former Soviet bloc since at least 2018. The claim is premised on the existence of something called the Biological Threat Reduction Program, which is run by the U.S. Department of Defense and operates (among other places) in lab facilities in ex-USSR countries such as Ukraine and Georgia. The U.S. has dabbled in terrifying biological weapon research here and there, as did the Soviet Union, so the idea that there might be ongoing, clandestine work in the field is, in the abstract, not the most far-fetched of possibilities. A State Department official named Victoria Nuland also said in congressional testimony last week that “Ukraine has biological research facilities which, in fact, we are now quite concerned Russian troops, Russian forces, may be seeking to gain control of.”

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Where the theory breaks down, however, is the absence of evidence that these labs are involved in making weapons, or in any other kind of malfeasance. There is a plausible official explanation for the threat reduction program’s creation, which is that stockpiles of potentially dangerous biological material in the former USSR needed to be destroyed or secured after the Cold War ended. There’s also a plausible explanation for its continued existence even in countries that no longer possess weapons material, which is that expertise in detecting, studying, and containing deadly microbes has public health benefits that are of use to U.S. allies.

The program has never been a secret, either. It’s part of nonproliferation activity that was promoted and touted for years by former Republican Sen. Dick Lugar; it’s been discussed in open hearings for years; it’s described in mundane budget materials on the Department of Defense comptroller’s website. There has specifically been a page of information about its Ukraine-specific work (including links to fact sheets about individual lab sites) on the U.S.’s Ukrainian Embassy site since at least April 2020. Related programs even ran in Russia during the friendlier days of the early 2000s.

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Civilians are aware of the program too. In 2018, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists published an account of a visit by nongovernmental experts to the Georgian facility that was then the subject of Russian allegations. They said its work appeared legitimate. The BBC visited the site as well and made the same conclusion. With some Googling, I found this cached press release issued by Michigan State University about some of the members of its faculty receiving Biological Threat Reduction Program grant money to do work in Ukraine involving the detection of disease in birds. Last week, when Russian authorities released a tranche of documents purporting to show bio-malfeasance in Ukraine’s labs, a geneticist at Uppsala University in Sweden named Olga Pettersson wrote on Twitter that the evidence appeared to document normal public health work with common pathogens, adding that her conclusions were made in collaboration with a number of other experts. (Her commentary was translated in a long thread posted Sunday by an editor at the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project.)

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So insofar as evidence shows anything about what the U.S. and Ukraine are doing in their “biolabs,” it’s that they’re working with microorganisms that cause disease in humans. This describes a lot of laboratories everywhere in the world. Figures like Carlson appear to be conflating the practice of biology with the creation of biological weapons, a word that appears 21 times in his segment. (“Secret” comes up 19 times.)

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They are also airing a theory that got much of its momentum from the most certifiably nutso corners of the internet. The current set of allegations regarding work in Ukraine, according to a cybersecurity firm cited by NBC, were first posted in February on the far-right social media site Gab. On Feb. 24, the day of the Russian invasion, they were posted on a Twitter account that has also circulated allegations related to QAnon, the theory that Democrats operate secret pedophilia and cannibalism clubs. From there they were picked up by Infowars, the conspiracy site which has also aired, uh, allegations that NASA runs slave colonies on Mars. Those posts, and Russian (and Chinese) government claims, are the reason this issue is in the news.

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Reached by direct message for comment, Greenwald said that he is “not saying evidence exists to say there are bio weapons programs in Ukraine” and that his objection “is to US media outlets calling it false without knowing that.” He added that “there is a lot of circumstantial evidence that makes the question valid and reasonable to ask” and pointed to a Reason.com post making similar points. He points in particular to Nuland’s claims that it would be dangerous for the Ukraine facilities to be captured by Russia as evidence that there could be weapons research going on there.

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So that’s his position. But should we really be spending a week-plus asking whether there are weapons of mass destruction being manufactured in Ukraine when the allegation originated with Infowars? Wouldn’t that be taking the exact opposite wrong lesson from WMDs never having been found in Iraq, by helping a belligerent world power justify its violations of international law? Isn’t it ironic and a little sad—if not unprecedented—that Glenn Greenwald, scourge of every liar and profiteer who promoted the “war on terror,” is now giving oxygen to an even less credible mirror image of the WMD “evidence” Dick Cheney used as an excuse to send Halliburton into Iraq? I don’t know—I’m just asking questions.

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