On April 12—on the eve of the United States’ and its allies’ airstrikes against Syria in response to the recent chemical attack in Douma—Russian foreign ministry press secretary Maria Zakharova stated that the US, through programs financed by the Pentagon, is creating a network of microbiological laboratories in the Caucasus and Central Asia. She added that “the very fact of the large-scale medical-biological activities of the Pentagon on the borders of Russia” causes particular concern for Moscow (Mid.ru, April 12). The timing of Zakharova’s statement is notable, occurring within weeks of the poisoning in the United Kingdom of Russian double-agent Sergey Skripal and his daughter with a Russian-produced nerve agent and soon after Bashar al-Assad’s forces attacked civilians in Douma with chlorine gas. As such, these charges of US biological weapons programs in the Caucasus and Central Asia appear to form part of Moscow’s asymmetric response to growing scrutiny over Russia’s use of or indirect enabling of chemical weapons attacks, as well as its general confrontation with the West.
Since the late 1990s, when the United States first established partnerships in biological studies with several post-soviet republics, Moscow has repeatedly suggested that such cooperation represented a threat to Russia. The main targets of scorn for Russian officials and experts have tended to be the so-called “Lugar laboratories” in Georgia, Azerbaijan and, recently, in Kazakhstan. These biological research facilities were built as part of the Nunn-Lugar Biological Threat Reduction program, named after its leading US Senators, Sam Nunn and Richard Lugar. The program sought to dismantle the former Soviet Union’s massive biological weapons research, development and production infrastructure. Moreover, it aims to prevent the proliferation of expertise, materials, equipment and technologies that could contribute to the development of biological weapons. Under the program, the US Defense Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA) has carried out bio-threat reduction projects in Russia, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Georgia, Azerbaijan and Ukraine (Dtra.mil, Nap.edu, accessed April 17, 2018).
In Azerbaijan, the DTRA, in partnership with Baku, has helped upgrade a network of regional diagnostic laboratories throughout the country, created a national electronic disease reporting system, and conducted technical training in clinical, epidemiological, laboratory and veterinary practices. It has also improved biological safety and security measures. Finally, it has partnered with local scientists on endemic disease research projects as well as provided equipment, technical management and oversight support for construction of the Azerbaijani-funded Central Reference Laboratory (Az.usembassy.gov, accessed April 17, 2018; Defense.gov, April 17, 2013).
In Georgia, the DTRA helped construct the Public Health Research Center, which was recently upgraded to Biosafety Level-2 with funds from the US government (Ge.usembassy.gov, accessed April 17, 2018). Similarly, with US support, Kazakhstan carried out multiple biological security improvements. In the 1990s, it dismantled a large-scale biological weapons program; and now it is working to bolster the security of biological materials, gainfully employ those with dual-use knowledge in the biological sciences, and expand public health capacities (Belfercenter.org, January 2017). The Central Reference Laboratory opened in 2015, in Almaty; it offers high-security lab space to study dangerous diseases and provides early warnings of potential outbreaks. Additionally, the facility offers stable employment to scientists who might otherwise be tempted to sell their high-level and potentially destructive knowledge to hostile groups (Caravan.kz, September 9, 2016; National Geographic, September 13, 2013).
Moscow’s spurious accusations leveled against the aforementioned cooperation fall into three main categories: a) the United States, in cooperation with local scientists, is conducting research that could potentially be used for the production of bacteriological weapons; b) the transfer of information and samples of pathogens to the US may mean the disclosure of military and biological secrets not only of the Soviet Union, but of Russia, its legal successor; c) along with the disclosure of Soviet secrets to Washington, such activities by Georgia, Azerbaijan and other post-Soviet states threaten Russia’s interests (Vpoanalytics.com, April 2, 2017). Although these allegations have been repeatedly refuted by officials and experts of Georgia, Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan, the dissemination of negative information about these laboratories has intensified in recent years (see EDM, July 30, 2013; Apsny.ge, November 9, 2017; Haqqin.az, September 3, 2016; 365info.kz, August 5, 2015; Tengrinews.kz, January 16, 2014).
High-level Russian foreign ministry officials have accused the US of violating the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (RIA Novosti, May 25, 2016; Vz.ru, September 1, 2016). Moreover, Gennady Onishchenko, a former head of the Federal Service for the Protection of Consumer Rights and the country’s Chief Sanitary Physician, alleged that the DTRA-supported laboratories in the post-Soviet space are an important part of the US biological weapons program. He also stated that US military microbiologists in Georgia can purposely infect mosquitoes with the Zika virus (Cnsnews.com, October 15, 2013; Komsomolskaya Pravda, February 16, 2016).
In 2016, several media outlets in Armenia blamed the Richard Lugar Public Health Research Center in Georgia for the death of more than ten people from swine flu (H1N1), an absurdity recognized even in the Russian media (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, January 20, 2016). Negative information about the aforementioned laboratories has also appeared in Azerbaijani and Kazakhstani media (Bakumedinfo.com, May 1, 2017; Kt.kz, April 8, 2017). Recently, Dagestani journalists, led by Mukhtar Amirov, alleged that the Georgian laboratory dispersed biological weapons in Dagestan and Chechnya. Moreover, Amirov wrote up a petition, addressed to Vladimir Putin, asking the president to initiate “an investigation into the activities of the [Georgian] Lugar laboratory in connection with the threat to the biological safety of Russian citizens,” and calling for the imposition of sanctions against individuals and legal entities related to this facility (Kavkazr.com, March 30, 2018; Dag.aif.ru, February 19).
The persistent Russian narrative alleging that the US is cooperating with several former Soviet republics in violation of the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention Treaty provides Moscow with a useful justification for putting additional pressure on its post-Soviet neighbors as well as an asymmetric tool in its confrontation with the West. In line with Soviet tradition, Moscow often uses offensive measures under the justification of defensive efforts. Indeed, in recent years, Russia repeatedly used supposed bacterial or biological threats in order to impose economic sanctions on several neighboring states (Ceps.eu, September 2014; Global Risk Insights, June 30, 2015). And in the face of its intensifying confrontation with the US, Zakharova’s recent statement blasting the “Lugar laboratories” in the former Soviet space may well have been meant as a diplomatic warning to Washington: Moscow may use this “biological threat” as a pretext to put additional pressure on Western partners in the region in retaliation to the strikes on Syria’s chemical weapons program.