When the invasion of Ukraine began, many thought that Russia would use traditional military tactics and weapons to dominate and eventually take over the country. Instead, the Ukrainian people put up stiff resistance and engaged in a counteroffensive, leveling the field to a greater extent than expected. Embarrassed and faced with the prospect of a stalemate, Russia has indiscriminately bombarded cities and seems increasingly willing to do whatever it deems necessary to take Ukraine. Russia may decide to use biological weapons.
Nuclear explosive weapons are extremely destructive, and radiological and chemical weapons could render critical infrastructure inoperable. Additionally, international mechanisms for responding to nuclear and chemical weapons use are fairly well-defined, but the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BWC), which bans the production and use of biological weapons, provides little in the way of an enforcement mechanism, should countries violate it. Russian leaders could view the use of biological weapons as a way to control and preserve Ukrainian critical infrastructure while denying access to others.
Last year, the US Department of State reported that Russia and North Korea possess active biological weapons programs, with China and Iran not far behind. Even though it is a state party to the BWC, Russia never fully eliminated its biological weapons program, as the convention requires. Russia did not end its biological weapons efforts when the United States ceased its program in 1979, and to this day Russia has not granted other countries full access to its biological weapons laboratories. Russia did not destroy tons of previously weaponized smallpox, plague, anthrax, and other biological agents, choosing instead to bury them on Vozrozhdeniya Island in the Aral Sea. Accordingly, Russia will not need to ramp up efforts to produce biological agents and weapons if it decides to use them in Ukraine.
Russian mis- and disinformation campaigns accusing other countries of using biological weapons attempt to mask Russia’s true intent and divert attention from its own activities in this regard. These campaigns—some of which falsely claim that the United States has been using biological laboratories around the world to develop biological weapons—are complex, multilayered, and mostly unimpeded. Recently, Russian disinformation focused on false allegations about dozens of labs in Ukraine. The labs are not secret and they are not used for biological weapons research or production; they are former Soviet biological weapons research facilities now run by Ukrainian officials who received funding from the US government to develop biological detection and diagnostic capabilities.
The United States and other countries are dusting off old, and developing new, contingency plans for responding to biological attacks in general and a Russian biological attack on Ukraine in particular. Congress has mandated that the US intelligence community increase its biological intelligence activities. The US Department of Defense is conducting a biodefense posture review. These efforts are laudable but should have begun decades ago. At the latest, they should have begun shortly after COVID-19 swept the world and revealed national and global vulnerabilities to biological threats.
Naturally occurring diseases continue to create pandemics. Accidental releases from laboratories occur frequently and will increase as the number of laboratories conducting biological research multiplies. Dual-use biological research continues nearly unabated worldwide. Russia and North Korea are not the only nations pursuing biological weapons, and al Qaeda and the Islamic State are not the only terrorist organizations seeking the asymmetric advantage that biological weapons afford. Russia happens to be the first country in decades whose threatened use of biological weapons has captured our attention. It is unlikely to be the last.
The United States and other nations around the world must follow Europe’s lead and plan for the possibility of biological attacks on Ukraine and elsewhere. They must also view COVID-19 as only the first of many potentially devastating biological events with which the world must contend. The risk of biological catastrophe has never been higher than at this moment.
Earlier this year, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists Science and Security Board set the Doomsday Clock at 100 seconds to midnight. Death is on the doorstep, and disease is ringing the bell.
Editor’s note: This piece is part of a collection of commentary and analysis by Bulletin Science and Security Board members on the Russian invasion of Ukraine. The full collection can be found here.