Ukraine’s President, the White House, the Pentagon, and the State Department have all debunked the claim.
Russian Propaganda Spreads in U.S.
A particularly insidious piece of Russian misinformation claiming that the U.S. is funding secret bioweapons labs in Ukraine has taken root among Americans in recent days after being propagated by multiple public figures.
Propagandists were recorded on social media spreading the claim as early as Feb. 24, when Russia officially invaded Ukraine, in an attempt to justify the move. Shortly after, the misinformation was amplified by InfoWars and began to take hold in fringe, far-right conspiracy groups including QAnon.
The false claim, however, really began to gain traction after Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fl.) asked Victoria Nuland, the undersecretary of state for political affairs, whether Ukraine has biological or chemical weapons during a congressional hearing Tuesday
“Ukraine has biological research facilities, which, in fact, we are now quite concerned Russian troops, Russian forces, may be seeking to gain control of,” she responded. “So 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.”
The State Department later clarified that Nuland was referring to diagnostic and biodefense laboratories, which are different from biological weapons facilities and intended to counter biological threats.
Rubio also made the same distinction in another hearing Thursday, where he noted that “there’s a difference between a bioweapons facility and one that’s doing research.”
Still, a Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman quickly used Nuland’s remarks to claim the comment was proof of America’s “illegal and criminal activity on Ukrainian soil.”
That claim was then rapidly spread by numerous conservatives, including Fox News host Tucker Carlson, who echoed the Russian talking point the same night on his show.
“Nuland just confirmed that the Russian disinformation they’ve been telling us for days is a lie and a conspiracy theory and crazy and immoral to believe is, in fact, totally and completely true,” he said.
Carlson even noted that numerous fact checks had debunked this claim, but still embraced the Russian propaganda as truth. The next day, Russian state TV featured Carlson’s segment.
Former congresswoman and 2020 presidential hopeful Tulsi Gabbard also went on Carlson’s show to discuss the matter, suggesting at one point that there is possibly a cover-up aimed at hiding dangerous pathogens in the Ukrainian labs.
She later doubled down on those claims on Twitter Sunday, claiming there were “US-funded biolabs in Ukraine which if breached would release & spread deadly pathogens to US/world.”
Donald Trump Jr. also tweeted out the conspiracy to his 7.4 million followers, as did sitting U.S. Rep. Thomas Massie (R-Ky).
The officials noted that, like most other countries, Ukraine has public health laboratories that work to research and prevent the spread of dangerous diseases. Some of those labs receive funding from the U.S., the European Union, and the World Health Organization — as is the case with many other nations.
According to a factsheet from the Department of Defense released Friday, in 2005, the agency, under the Republican George W. Bush administration, began providing backing for institutions in Ukraine to “support peaceful and safe biological detection and diagnostic capabilities and to reduce the threats posed by pathogens.”
The factsheet noted that since then, the U.S. “has invested approximately $200 million […] supporting 46 Ukrainian laboratories, health facilities, and diagnostic sites.”
The agency also debunked Gabbard’s assertion that pathogens had been removed from labs as part of a coverup by pointing out that when Russia declared war, Ukraine’s Ministry of Health ordered “the safe and secure disposal of samples” limiting “the danger of an accidental release of pathogens should Russia’s military attack laboratories.”
Other officials also noted that the same year the U.S. began the lab-funding effort, the Pentagon signed an agreement to assist the Health Ministry to make sure the country’s labs studying diseases would not be used to make biological weapons.
The idea that these U.S.-backed labs are somehow secret and hidden from the public is also untrue. The laboratories are part of the Biological Threat Reduction Program, an initiative with the goal of reducing deadly outbreaks. The program has and continues to be a matter of public knowledge, including on the official webpage for the U.S. Embassy in Ukraine.
This latest Russian misinformation campaign does not come as a shock given the country’s continued efforts to spread propaganda about the ongoings in its war on Ukraine. While members of the public have expressed astonishment over how firm a grip this particular false claim has had on Americans, experts in the field are unsurprised.
For years, Russia has been planting seeds for the claim that former Soviet Union nations are making biological weapons at U.S.-funded labs, despite the fact that experts and journalists have never found evidence. Still, the rapid proliferation of this misinformation underscores the power Russian propaganda has to influence Americans, and how those Americans are willing to believe it above numerous government sources.
See what others are saying: (Snopes) (The New York Times) (The Washington Post)
Russia Takes Over 900 Azovstal Fighters Prisoner as Mariupol Surrenders
Ukraine said the soldiers successfully completed their mission, but the fall of Mariupol represents a strategic win for Putin.
Azovstal Waves the White Flag
Russia’s foreign ministry announced on Wednesday that it had captured 959 Ukrainians from the Azovstal steelworks, where besieged soldiers have maintained the last pocket of resistance in Mariupol for weeks.
A ministry spokesperson said in a statement that 51 were being treated for injuries, and the rest were sent to a former prison colony in the town of Olenivka in a Russian-controlled area of Donetsk.
The defense ministry released videos of what it claimed were Ukrainian fighters receiving care at a hospital in the Russian-controlled town of Novoazovsk. In one, a soldier tells the camera he is being treated “normally” and that he is not being psychologically pressured, though it is unclear whether he is speaking freely.
It was unclear if any Ukrainians remained in Azovstal, but Denis Pushilin, the head of the self-proclaimed republic of Donetsk, said in a statement Wednesday that the “commanders of the highest level” were still hiding in the plant.
Previously, estimates put the number of soldiers inside Azovstal around 1,000.
Ukraine officially gave up Mariupol on Monday, when the first Azovstal fighters began surrendering.
Reuters filmed dozens of wounded Ukrainians being driven away in buses marked with the Russian pro-war “Z” symbol.
Ukraine’s deputy defense minister said in a Tuesday statement that the Ukrainian prisoners would be swapped in an exchange for captured Russians. But numerous Russian officials have signaled that the Ukrainian soldiers should be tried.
Mariupol Falls into Russian Hands
After nearly three months of bombardment that left Mariupol in ruins, Russia’s combat mission in the city has ended.
The sprawling complex of underground tunnels, caverns, and bunkers beneath Azovstal provided a defensible position for the Ukrainians there, and they came to represent the country’s resolve in the face of Russian aggression for many spectators.
Earlier this month, women, children, and the elderly were evacuated from the plant.
The definitive capture of Mariupol, a strategic port city, is a loss for Ukraine and a boon for Russia, which can now establish a land bridge between Crimea and parts of Eastern Ukraine controlled by Russian separatists. The development could also free up Russian troops around Mariupol to advance on the East, while additional reinforcements near Kharkiv descend from the north, potentially cutting off Ukrainian forces from the rest of the country.
The Ukrainian military has framed events in Mariupol as at least a partial success, arguing that the defenders of Azovstal completed their mission by tying down Russian troops and resources in the city and giving Ukrainians elsewhere more breathing room.
It claimed that doing so prevented Russia from rapidly capturing the city of Zaporizhzhia further to the west.
See what others are saying: (The Guardian) (BBC) (BBC)
Convoy of Up to 1,000 Vehicles Evacuates Refugees From Mariupol as Russian War Effort Stalls
Russia may have lost a third of its ground invasion force since the war began, according to British military intelligence.
Hundreds Make It Out Alive
A convoy of between 500 and 1,000 vehicles evacuating refugees from the southern port city of Mariupol arrived safely in the Ukrainian-controlled city of Zaporizhzhia on Saturday.
People have been trickling out of Mariupol for over two months, but the recent evacuation was the single biggest out of the city thus far. Russian troops, who control most of the city, did not allow the convoy to leave for days, but eventually, they relented.
The convoy first traveled to Berbyansky some 80 kilometers to the west, then stopped at other settlements before driving 200 kilometers northwest to Zaporizhzhia. Many refugees told reporters they took “secret detours” to avoid Russian checkpoints and feared every moment of the journey.
Nikolai Pavlov, a 74-year-old retiree, told Reuters he had lived in a basement for a month after his apartment was destroyed.
“We barely made it,” he said. “There were lots of elderly people among us… the trip was devastating. But it was worth it.”
63-year-old Iryna Petrenko also said she had stayed in Mariupol initially to take care of her 92-year-old mother, who subsequently died.
“We buried her next to her house, because there was nowhere to bury anyone,” she said.
Putin’s Plans Go Poorly
In Mariupol, Ukrainian fighters continue to hold the Azovstal steelworks, the only part of the city still under Ukrainian control.
On Sunday, a video emerged appearing to show a hail of projectiles bursting into white, brightly burning munitions over the factory.
The pro-Russian separatist who posted it on Telegram wrote, “If you didn’t know what it is and for what purpose – you could say that it’s even beautiful.”
Turkey is trying to negotiate an evacuation of wounded Ukrainians from the factory, but neither Russia nor Ukraine have agreed to any plan.
After nearly three months of war, Mariupol has been left in ruins, with thousands of civilians reportedly dead.
“In less than 3 month, Mariupol, one of Ukraine’s fastest developing & comfortable cities, was reduced into a heap of charred ruins smelling death, with thousands of people standing in long breadlines and selling their properties out to buy some food. Less than three months,” Illia Ponomarenko, a reporter for The Kyiv Independent, tweeted.
On Sunday, the United Kingdom’s defense ministry estimated that Russia has likely lost a third of its ground invasion forces since the war began.
Moscow is believed to have deployed as many as 150,000 troops in Ukraine.
The ministry added that Russian forces in Eastern Ukraine have “lost momentum” and are “significantly behind schedule.” Moreover, it said Russia failed to achieve substantial territorial gains over the last month while sustaining “consistently high levels of attrition.”
“Under the current conditions, Russia is unlikely to dramatically accelerate its rate of advance over the next 30 days,” the ministry concluded.
Sweden also signaled on Sunday that it will join Finland in applying for NATO membership.
See what others are saying: (The Daily Beast) (U.S. News and World Report) (The Hill)
Israel Moves to Build Over 4,000 West Bank Settlements as Palestinian Homes Demolished
The Israeli military is proceeding with a plan to evict at least 1,000 Palestinians from the West Bank.
Settlers Get Ready to Move in
On Thursday, a military planning body in the Israeli-occupied West Bank approved the construction of 4,427 housing units, according to the watchdog group Peace Now.
“The State of Israel took another stumble toward the abyss and further deepened the occupation,” Hagit Ofran, an expert at Peace Now, said via the Associated Press.
The plan is the largest advancement of settlement projects since President Joe Biden took office in the United States.
The U.S. opposes settlement expansion and said as much when the plan was first announced last week, but critics say Washington has done little to pressure Israel to stop.
In a statement, U.N. Mideast envoy Tor Wennesland called the settlements a “major obstacle to peace.”
“Continued settlement expansion further entrenches the occupation, encroaches upon Palestinian land and natural resources, and hampers the free movement of the Palestinian population,” he said.
In October, Israel approved some 3,000 settlement homes despite a U.S. rebuke. There are currently over 130 Israeli settlements in the West Bank harboring almost 500,000 settlers, in addition to the nearly three million Palestinians living in the territory.
Palestinians Pushed Off Their Land
On Wednesday, the same day Israeli soldiers allegedly shot and killed Al-Jazeera journalist Shireen Abu Akleh, the military demolished at least 18 buildings in the West Bank, including 12 residential ones.
Israel’s supreme court has also ruled that eight Palestinian hamlets can be expelled, potentially leaving at least 1,000 Palestinians homeless.
The area targeted is known as the Masafer Yatta, and its residents say they have been herding animals and practicing traditional desert agriculture there for decades, long before Israel took over the West Bank in 1967. Israel, however, claims there were no permanent structures there before the military designated it a firing zone in the 1980s
“What’s happening now is ethnic cleansing,” Sami Huraini, an activist and a resident of the area, told the Associated Press. “The people are staying on their land and have already started to rebuild.”