Major General Igor Kirillov, the commander of Russia’s Radiological, Chemical and Biological Defense Troops, stated, on October 4, that renewed construction is occurring at a series of alleged biological laboratories in Ukraine, Azerbaijan and Uzbekistan, purportedly being financed by the United States. Most likely, Kirillov claimed, “under the guise of peaceful research, [the US] is building up its military-biological potential” (RIA Novosti, October 4). He also pointed to the Richard G. Lugar Center for Public Health Research in Georgia, asserting that this facility represented only a small element within a much more extensive military-biological program operated by the Pentagon on the territory of several states adjacent to Russia. “There is data that the United States is developing delivery tools for biological weapons, which is contrary to the agreements to ban them,” he posited (Mil.ru, October 4). About a month before Kirillov’s press-conference, Igor Georgadze, a former member of the Soviet KGB and a former head of Georgia’s state security ministry, launched a heavily publicized campaign against the Tbilisi-based Lugar Center in the Russian media. He professed that he obtained thousands of pages of documents from “Georgian friends” that contained “strange facts” (Tvzvezda.ru, September 16; Rossiyskaya Gazeta, Sputnik-georgia.ru September 11). It should be noted that General Kirillov’s claims were also based on Georgadze’s report.
Since the late 1990s, when the United States first established partnerships in biological studies with several former Soviet republics, Moscow has repeatedly suggested that such cooperation represented a threat to Russia. 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 seeks 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 various bio-threat reduction projects in Russia, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Georgia, Azerbaijan and Ukraine (see EDM, April 17; Dtra.mil, Nap.edu, accessed October 10).
Last April, 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). During the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) foreign ministerial meeting in Almaty, on June 11, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov informed his Kazakhstani counterpart of Moscow’s dissatisfaction regarding the US Caspian Sea logistic project (see EDM, April 26) and the US-established bio laboratories in Kazakhstan (Kommersant, June 11).
Moscow’s stated concerns regarding laboratories and aforementioned bio-research cooperation in the former Soviet space are motivated by two main goals. First, it uses the “biological weapons laboratories” narrative as a propaganda tool to frighten local populations and try to pressure its regional neighbors into abandoning their cooperation with Washington. Second, Russia alleges that the research being undertaken at these regional facilities could allow for the disclosure of Soviet/Russian military and biological secrets to the United States (Vpoanalytics.com, April 2, 2017). It should be noted that these so-called “military-biological” labs supposedly operating near Russian borders are explicitly named as a threat in Russia’s most recent National Security Strategy document (Kremlin.ru, December 31, 2015).
Moscow’s latest claims were uniformly rejected by not only the United States but also Georgia, Azerbaijan and Uzbekistan. Pentagon spokesperson Eric Pahon stated, “[T]he US is not developing biological weapons in the Lugar Center,” and the lab, a joint human and veterinary public health facility, is owned and operated by the Georgian National Center for Disease Control and Public Health (NCDC), not the United States. According to Pahon, “The mission of the Lugar Center is to contribute to the protection of citizens from biological threats, promote public and animal health through infectious disease detection, epidemiological surveillance, and research for the benefit of Georgia, the Caucasus region and the global community” (Washington Post, October 4). “We are always ready to accept Russian experts and any volunteers. Come, have a look and verify there is nothing similar to what they say is happening here,” Paata Imnadze, the head of the NCDC scientific council, said (Sputniknews.com, October 6). In turn, the Azerbaijani Ministry of Defense’s press department declared, “There are no laboratories controlled by another state on Azerbaijani territory. Therefore, their reconstruction is out of the question” (Contact.az, October 15). “We have never heard about it,” asserted an official from Uzbekistan’s Ministry of Defense (RIA Novosti, October 4)
The primary reason for why Moscow has again resurrected its “Pentagon bio-weapons laboratories” narrative is likely connected to a need to distract public opinion from the global condemnation Russia has been receiving for its role in cyber-attacks and assassinations in Western countries. This was confirmed in a statement made by the head of the State Duma Defense Committee, Vladimir Shamanov, who admitted, “We say: you blame us groundlessly for all sorts of Skripals [alluding to former Russian double-agent Sergei Skripal, poisoned last summer by Russian security operatives on British soil using a deadly chemical nerve agent] and other illicit activities, without presenting facts. So let us jointly conduct inspections, we are ready for this.” Duma Deputy Shamanov, who is also a former commander of the Russian Airborne Troops, further emphasized that Russia will take diplomatic and military measures in response to the deployment of alleged US military-biological programs in states adjacent to the Russian Federation, particularly in Georgia (TASS, October 4). It should be noted that despite Tbilisi’s invitation (see above), Moscow refused to participate in an upcoming monitoring exercise that will be organized by the Georgian National Center for Disease Control and Public Health this coming November. The Russian foreign ministry rebuked the gesture, claiming that “Georgia’s NATO [North Atlantic Treaty Organization] supervisors have planned that event” and “it is prepared to mislead the international community about the true status of this object [the Lugar Center facility]” (Mid.ru, October 5). The foreign ministry statement thus additionally highlighted that Moscow’s main target in its claims against the “Lugar laboratories” is not Georgia or any of the other aforementioned former Soviet republics, but the West itself. As such, the Kremlin may also be trying to present itself as a defender of Russian and neighboring citizens from the US’s “evil biochemical weapons program.” This narrative may be especially attractive for the Kremlin in the face of Vladimir Putin’s decreasing domestic popularity.