Russian Scientists Speak Out Against Putin's Ukraine Bioweapons Labs Lies

Moscow's claims that there are bioweapons labs in Ukraine under Pentagon control are an "embarrassment to Russia," according to a scientist who was among a group of experts who have debunked the conspiracy theory.

Olga Pettersson, an expert in genome sequencing based in Sweden, told Newsweek that she was stunned at what the Russian foreign ministry had presented as evidence that Ukraine was developing a biological weapons program in cahoots with the U.S.

She was among a group of 10 scientists that has publicly accused the Russian government of lying. Some members of the group are in Russia and have risked their safety to tell the truth.

"If they had any tangible proof, they would not have put those particular documents as an open source because those documents, they prove jack," she said.

The documents in question were produced by Russia's defense ministry, showing orders from Ukraine's health minister on the second day of the Russian invasion.

Russian defense ministry spokesman Maj. Gen. Igor Konashenkov told Tass on March 6 that documents showed Ukrainian and American scientists had been trying to "conceal" a military-biological program involving plague, anthrax, tularemia and cholera.

He said the documents showed labs in the cities of Kharkiv and Poltava had been ordered to destroy collections of bacterial pathogens used for research.

This was repeated on March 7, by Lt. Gen. Igor Kirillov, head of the Russian military's radiation, chemical and biological protection force, who displayed the documents during a briefing in which he questioned the haste of the samples' disposal.

In another briefing, Kirillov said documents on public health projects showed there was a plot to send infected animals to Russia. He also claimed that researchers had sent blood samples to labs in Australia to study "Slavic DNA," which showed there were plans for a biological weapon to only infect ethnic Russians.

The claims were amplified on the world stage by Russia's foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, and its U.N. ambassador, Vasily Nebenzya, but dismissed as "utter nonsense" by the United Nations Security Council when it convened on March 11 at Moscow's behest.

"When I read what Lavrov was saying, it was such stupidity and as a professional, I just could not let it slide," said Pettersson.

As The Intercept reported, starting the scientific fightback against the theory that Western countries feared could be a pretext for Russia to stage its own biological weapons attack was Eugene Lewitin, a biologist who graduated from Moscow State University.

He posted an open letter on Facebook and signed by more than 800 biologists, and Russian university graduates, which said that none of the strains destroyed were dangerous.

He added that they were common to microbiological and even more so to epidemiological laboratories" and condemned how Russian state media had reported the defence ministry's claims. "Stop the false propaganda based on misinformation and hatred," it said.

Examining the Documents

Pettersson, a Latvian and Swedish citizen, was part of a parallel effort involving nine other scientists from Russia, Belarus and France, who examined the documents and debunked Moscow's claims.

In a detailed thread she shared in Russian, which is available in English, the group concluded that creating biological weapons would require "a much larger base of strains than those listed."

They said that documents showed "the Kharkiv lab destroyed only 40 test tubes and the Poltava lab destroyed 24." The group also agreed with Lewitin's conclusion that it's "absolutely evolutionarily impossible" for a bacterium to target a certain nationality.

"Before the war, I used to write about popular science, trying to educate people about what people should not be afraid of," Pettersson told Newsweek. "So I felt responsible as a scientist given the possibility to write in Russian to educate people" about the truth.

"It was such an utter embarrassment of Russia to put such a claim openly, based on those particular papers," she said. "For a scientist, that was such a ridiculous accusation, such a ridiculous notion."

Newsweek has contacted the Russian foreign ministry for comment.

Biohazard sign by lab
The laboratory of the National Reference Center (CNR) for respiratory viruses at the Institut Pasteur in Paris on January 28, 2020, shows a biohazard sticker in this illustrative image. A group of scientists has debunked a conspiracy theory pushed by Russia that Ukraine was preparing biological weapons. THOMAS SAMSON/Getty Images