Ukraine’s government operates over a dozen laboratories engaged in research on biological warfare defenses and other medical research that could fall into Russian hands, Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines told Congress on Thursday.
Ms. Haines rejected Russian government claims that the facilities are making bioweapons, a theme that has circulated in conservative media as Moscow’s invasion of its smaller neighbor entered its third week.
“We do not assess that Ukraine is pursuing biological weapons, which have been basically the propaganda that Russia is putting out,” Ms. Haines said in testimony before the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence.
The laboratories are working on biodefenses and public health response, she said.
Ms. Haines also said the U.S. government provides assistance or has in the past on issues of laboratory safety, “something we have done globally with a variety of countries.”
Ms. Haines said the work at the Ukrainian labs involved developing medical countermeasures for biological weapons and researching efforts to prevent the spread of COVID-19 pandemic.
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The Pentagon doubled down on Ms. Haines’ denial in a briefing later in the day, warning Russia’s claims that it discovered U.S.-run biological weapons labs inside Ukraine could be a ploy to give Moscow cover for its own future bioweapons attack on the country.
A senior Defense Department intelligence official said the U.S. invested about $200 million since 2005 to help Kyiv eliminate the remnants of the Soviet-run biological weapons programs in the country and find nonmilitary work for the former staffers.
“There are no [Department of Defense] bioweapons labs in Ukraine or anywhere else in the world,” the intelligence official said in a background briefing for reporters at the Pentagon. “The reason we talked about it yesterday and the reason we’re talking about it today is because [the Russians] decided to lie about it.”
Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio, committee vice chair, said comments earlier this week by Undersecretary of State Victoria Nuland highlighted fears the facilities could be taken over as Russian military forces advance throughout Ukraine.
The comments prompted reports in some conservative media outlets that the United States was secretly backing dangerous biological research similar to the American funding for China’s Wuhan Institute of Virology, considered one of two possible origins for the COVID-19 pandemic.
Ms. Haines said the Ukrainian medical facilities and research centers have equipment and store pathogens that require special handling.
“I think that is the kind of thing that Victoria Nuland was describing and thinking about in the context of that,” she said.
“We have to be concerned in the same way that we have to be concerned about a nuclear power plant or other facilities,” she said, “that if they are seized there may be damage done or theft and [the Russians] may in fact misuse some of the material that’s there that’s not intended for weapons purposes but nevertheless can be used in dangerous ways, or that can create challenges for the local population.”
Committee Chair Mark Warner, Virginia Democrat, said he feared Russian control of the laboratories in Ukraine also could be used by Moscow as a “false flag” operation, such as conducting a biological attack and blaming the Ukrainian government for secretly engaging in bioweapons work.
— Mike Glenn contributed to this report.