China has criticized the United States for operating laboratories storing a large quantity of dangerous viruses in Ukraine after a Russian defense official claimed to have obtained evidence about the facilities.
The official criticism does not go as far as to claim that the facilities produce bioweapons, as Russian and Chinese media reports have claimed. The US has said the mission is not weaponry but public health.
In a regular media briefing on Tuesday, Zhao Lijian, spokesperson for the Chinese Foreign Ministry, urged the US to disclose specific information about bio-labs and related facilities in Ukraine as soon as possible, including which viruses are stored and what research has been conducted.
Russian Defense Ministry spokesman Igor Konashenkov raised the topic on Sunday when he said that that employees of Ukrainian bio-labs had been told urgently to destroy hazardous pathogens including plague, anthrax, cholera, tularemia and other lethal diseases infecting agents on February 24.
US Undersecretary of State Victoria Nuland said in testimony Tuesday before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that the US does have biological research facilities in Ukraine and it is working with the Ukrainians on how they could prevent any of the research materials from falling into the hands of the Russian forces. Nuland said if there was a biological attack in Ukraine, it would definitely be done by the Russians.
As for how Zhao’s challenge fits in with China’s overall policy on the Russian invasion of Ukraine, his remarks may represent a return to the overtly critical stance against the US that had been evident when Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying on February 23 blamed the Americans for having driven five waves of NATO expansion eastward all the way to Russia’s doorstep and for having deployed advanced offensive strategic weapons in breach of its assurances to Russia.
Since February 24, when Russian troops began a full-scale invasion of Ukraine, China had taken a neutral stance in the arguments between the West and Russia and urged all sides to resolve conflicts through diplomatic negotiations.
In a virtual meeting with French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz on Tuesday, Chinese President Xi Jinping called for peace and “maximum restraint to prevent a massive humanitarian crisis” in Ukraine. Xi specifically denounced the West’s sanctions against Russia but he also expressed China’s willingness to play a positive role on the Ukraine issue.
The foreign ministry spokesman’s comments on Tuesday at a news conference in Beijing were somewhat sharper.
“The biological military activities of the US in Ukraine are merely the tip of the iceberg,” he said, adding that the US had 336 biological labs in 30 countries and also conducted biological military activities at the Fort Detrick base at home.
“According to the data released by the US, it has 26 biological laboratories and other related facilities in Ukraine which has indeed attracted great attention,” Zhao Lijian said.
He added that the US Department of Defense controls 336 biological laboratories in 30 countries around the world – whose mission Washington describes “cooperating to reduce biosecurity risks and strengthening global public health.”
“For the sake of the health and safety of people in Ukraine, neighboring regions and beyond, we call on relevant sides to ensure the safety of these labs,” Zhao said in a response to a Shenzhen TV reporter’s question. “The US should disclose specific information as soon as possible, including which viruses are stored and what research has been conducted.”
“What is the true intention of the US? What has it done specifically? The international community has long-held doubts,” Zhao said. “We urge the US to give a full account of its biological military activities at home and abroad and subject itself to multilateral verification.”
Zhao’s comments came after the Chinese newspaper Global Times on Tuesday morning published an article entitled “The 15 US bio-labs are exposed; the Russian defense ministry has evidence.”
Citing Konashenkov’s comments, the Global Times report said Russian troops had found evidence of a US-financed military biological program developed in Ukraine. It said the US had violated international law by operating these labs.
“We have received documents from Ukrainian bio-lab employees on the urgent destruction on February 24 of particularly dangerous pathogens of plague, anthrax, tularemia cholera, and other lethal diseases,” Konashenkov said in a video on Sunday. “It’s clear that with the launch of the special military operation the Pentagon was seriously worried about disclosure of secret biological experiments in Ukraine.”
Konashenkov also released two pages of documents and said they detailed Ukraine’s plans to study biological weapons. He said the Russians were still studying the documents.
Prior to this, Russian state-owned media in early February had accused the US of developing biological weapons in a network of labs in Ukraine. Media from the United States and United Kingdom have done fact-checks of the allegations and described them as Russian disinformation and false claims.
According to the website of the US Embassy in Ukraine, the US Department of Defense’s Biological Threat Reduction Program (BTRP) collaborates with partner countries to counter the threat of outbreaks (deliberate, accidental, or natural) of the world’s most dangerous infectious diseases. Its 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.
On February 25, Robert Pope, the director of the Cooperative Threat Reduction Program, said the Russian invasion of Ukraine could put at risk a network of US-linked labs in Ukraine that work with dangerous pathogens.
“There is no place that still has any sort of infrastructure for researching or producing biological weapons,” Pope said, adding that the US government maintained that the facilities were public and animal health labs operated by Ukraine.
He said if the electrical power was lost or the ventilation system was damaged, the pathogens could be potentially infectious in the region around the facility. Pope’s comments were quoted by the US-based Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.
On February 26, the Global Times, which is a unit of the People’s Daily, in a report quoted Pope’s comments in a straightforward way but added that the US-sponsored bio-labs in Ukraine had remained “a bit mysterious.”
Following Konashenkov’s comments and Zhao’s calls for more information from the US, Chinese state media have widely reported about the bio-labs in Ukraine, as well as the United States’ biological military activities at the Fort Detrick base.
China News Agency on Tuesday evening published an article entitled “Secrets of bio-labs in Ukraine exposed? Pentagon is scared” saying that the US had obstructed the establishment of a Biological Weapons Convention (BWC) verification mechanism and tried to cover up its overseas biological weapon research.
It said that the Russian troops obtained documents in Kharkiv showing that the US had ordered the destruction of samples of pathogens in its sponsored labs in Ukraine. It criticized the US for operating a “devil base” at the Fort Detrick miliitary facility – which it said had reported many cases of leakages of chemical and biological substances since 2001 – and of obstructing the establishment of a BWC verification mechanism for two decades.
The US State Department’s Nuland said on Tuesday that “Ukraine has biological research facilities, which, in fact, we are now quite concerned Russian forces may be seeking to gain control of. 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.”
Replying to a question raised by US Senator Marco Rubio about Russia’s claims that there were biological weapons in Ukraine, Nuland said, “It is classic Russian technique to blame the other guy for what they’re planning to do themselves.”
Follow Jeff Pao on Twitter at @jeffpao3