Russia continues to claim that the United States is supporting an illegal biological weapons lab in Ukraine.
Linda Thomas-Greenfield, the U.S. ambassador to the U.N., claimed that Russia is stoking fears of biological weapons in order to pave the way for a “false flag” operation.
“Russia has repeatedly – repeatedly – accused other countries of the very violations it plans to perpetrate,” she said. “We continue to believe it is possible that Russia may be planning to use chemical or biological agents against the Ukrainian people.”
President Biden reiterated these claims on March 22, asserting that Russia’s allegations are a “clear sign [Putin is] considering using both.”
In brief, Russia is attempting to sow seeds of mistrust in order to distract from its illegal invasion of Ukraine.
Like so many things in this war, this is nothing new. Russia has made such claims before, and they have lied to cover up past accidents related to its biological weapons.
More troubling, however, is the terrible history of biological weapons being used in this region with devastating affect and tragic consequences.
The Black Death was the scourge of Asia, Europe and North Africa in the 14th century.
Many historians believe that the plague entered the West by way of Kaffa (now Feodosiya, Ukraine), a Genoese trade center on the eastern shores of the Crimean Peninsula.
It was traders fleeing the city in 1347 who carried the plague to Constantinople and ultimately to Italy, killing over 25 million Europeans in under five years.
These traders likely became infected through a very crude biological weapons system – plague-infected corpses launched over the city walls by catapult – used by the Golden Horde Mongols during their siege of Kaffa that began in 1346.
Efforts to quell the spread of the plague within the city during the siege were unsuccessful, with countless citizens becoming sick and dying. Those who were able to escape took the plague with them to other parts of Europe.
Many historians believe this to be the first modern use of biological weapons, but it would not be the last.
The Russians used the same tactic against the Swedes at Reval in 1710. In 1763, British forces gave smallpox-infected blankets to Native Americans during Pontiac’s Rebellion.
World War I upped the ante, with Germany initiating formal programs to infect Allied livestock being sent to the front lines. They even attempted to unleash an epidemic on St. Petersburg in 1915.
Germany’s use of chemical and biological agents ultimately led to the 1925 Geneva Protocol, which banned the use of such weapons in warfare. Nevertheless, Japan and Russia (both signatories to the protocol) embarked on massive research programs.
Throughout all of World War II, the Empire of Japan conducted biological weapons research on over 3,000 subjects in what was known as Unit 731. The Russian biological agent program dates to 1920; it was not made public until after the 1979 Anthrax accident at Sverdlovsk.
In 1972, 160 nations joined the Biological Weapons Convention, which prohibited the development, production and stockpiling of biological and toxic weapons. While the BWC went further than Geneva, it lacks any means of enforcement, and no entities were formally tasked with verifying compliance.
As the world now contemplates the possible use of biological weapons in Ukraine by Russia, we must be reminded why they are considered inhuman and too horrific to ever be used.
First, biological agents kill indiscriminately.
Once a biological weapon is released, the agent cannot tell the difference between civilian and soldier. It will kill non-combatants, children and the elderly with no remorse. It will kill ally and foe equally.
Second, many biological agents inflict tremendous suffering on victims.
In the case of 14th-century Kaffa, countless people suffered the pain of boils and internal bleeding, ultimately leading to death.
This is not a quick death on the battlefield. It is a death that can take days or weeks, depending upon the agent, all the while the victims are in agony, with anyone trying to care for them at high risk for infection.
Third, biological agents cannot be controlled.
During the siege of Kaffa, the Mongols did not intend to infect Europe – a major trading partner that had enriched the Golden Horde – but biological agents are unpredictable and uncontrollable upon release.
If we have learned nothing from the COVID-19 pandemic, it is that viruses and bacteria do not follow human rules of engagement. They do what they want.
Therefore, as the conflict in Ukraine continues, the moral community needs to speak out in opposition to any use of biological weapons. We must hold any world leader accountable who would develop, stockpile or use biological weapons.
Like the longtime opposition of many faith communities to the use of nuclear weapons, equal energy must be given to stand against biological weapons. We must urge world leaders to adopt enforcement mechanisms for the BWC, and to hold accountable any nation that violates the agreement.
These are horrors that must be eradicated. We do not want to see an equivalent to the Black Death reemerge from Ukraine due to the use of biological weapons.