This morning (11 March), the Security Council will convene for an open meeting on Ukraine, under the agenda item “Threats to international peace and security”. Russia requested the meeting, citing allegations of military biological activities in the country. High Representative for Disarmament Affairs Izumi Nakamitsu and Under-Secretary-General for Political and Peacebuilding Affairs Rosemary DiCarlo are expected to brief. Ukraine is expected to participate under rule 37 of the Council’s provisional rules of procedure.
The Council has held three briefings on the situation in Ukraine since Russia launched its military assault on 24 February. These meetings addressed the humanitarian situation (on 28 February and 7 March) and the safety of nuclear sites (on 4 March). They were requested by Albania and the US, the penholders on Ukraine, together with several members, including European members of the Council. (For more information, see our 5 March What’s in Blue story.) Today’s meeting will be the first meeting convened by Russia on the conflict.
Today’s meeting follows Russian allegations of US support for military biological research in Ukraine. On 6 March, Russian Ministry of Defence Spokesperson Major General Igor Konashenkov told journalists that Russia’s military had uncovered evidence of US-funded military biological programmes in Ukraine, including documents confirming the development of “biological weapons components”. The US, he added, instructed Ukraine’s Ministry of Health to eliminate “stored stocks of dangerous pathogens” following Russia’s incursion into Ukraine. In a video statement issued yesterday (10 March), Konashenkov maintained that, according to the documents, the US “planned to organise work on pathogens of birds, bats and reptiles in Ukraine in 2022”.
At a separate briefing yesterday, the Russian Defence Ministry accused the US of supporting military biological research in Ukraine and Georgia with the objective of creating “bio-agents capable of selectively targeting different ethnic populations”. Speaking to journalists at a press conference following the first high-level diplomatic meeting between Ukraine and Russia held on 10 March in Antalya, Turkey, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said that the US had established several military biological laboratories in Ukraine in violation of the 1972 Convention on the Prohibition of Biological and Toxin Weapons. The experiments conducted in these laboratories, he added, “were absolutely not peaceful”.
The US has labelled Russia’s allegations as disinformation. In an 8 March press statement, US Department of State Spokesperson Ned Price dismissed Moscow’s accusations as “total nonsense”, stressing that it is “an obvious ploy by Russia to try to justify further premeditated, unprovoked, and unjustified attacks on Ukraine”. At an 8 March US Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on Ukraine, US Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Victoria Nuland confirmed that “Ukraine has biological research facilities” and that the US is working with Ukraine on preventing “any of those research materials from falling into the hands of Russian forces”. In a 9 March statement to the media, the US Department of State clarified that Nuland referred to “Ukrainian diagnostic and biodefence laboratories during her testimony, which are not biological weapons facilities”.
At a press conference yesterday (10 March), Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Zhao Lijian said that “the international community has long been concerned about US bio-military activities” and criticised the US for describing these concerns as disinformation. At a previous press conference on 8 March, Lijian suggested that the US should “announce the relevant details [of its experiments] as soon as possible, including which viruses have been stored and which research has been carried out”.
At today’s meeting, Nakamitsu is expected to call on all parties to uphold their commitments under the Chemical Weapons Convention and the Biological Weapons Convention. In this regard, she may reiterate the message conveyed by the Spokesperson for the Secretary-General Stéphane Dujarric during a 9 March press briefing, in which he said that the World Health Organization (WHO) is “unaware of any activity on the part of the Ukrainian Government which is inconsistent with its international treaty obligations, including on chemical weapons or biological weapons”. Nakamitsu is also likely to call on parties to refrain from using weapons whose attacks are indiscriminate, including the use of heavy explosive weapons in populated areas. According to the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), most civilian casualties thus far have been caused by the use of explosive weapons with a wide-impact area, including “shelling from heavy artillery and multi-launch rocket systems, and missile and air strikes”. As at 10 March, the OHCHR has recorded 1,506 civilian casualties, including 549 deaths, since the outbreak of the conflict, while noting that these figures are likely to be an underestimate.
DiCarlo is expected to reiterate Secretary-General António Guterres’ call for the cessation of hostilities and renewed diplomatic engagement. She may also brief Council members on recent humanitarian developments, including the situation in the southern city of Mariupol, where civilians are facing an acute shortage of food, water, fuel and electricity. DiCarlo and Council members may reference the 9 March incident in Mariupol, in which Russia bombed a maternity hospital, reportedly killing three civilians and injuring 17 people. Russia has claimed that the facility had been taken over by militants and repurposed into a striking base for Ukrainian nationalists.
At today’s meeting, Council members are expected to condemn the development, possession, or use of biological and chemical weapons by any country. They may call on all parties to ensure the safety of relevant laboratories in Ukraine. Some members, particularly China and Russia, are expected to urge the US to fulfil its international obligations and provide clarifications on its domestic and foreign biological military activities and accept multilateral verification of these activities.
Several members are expected to denounce Russia’s accusations. The UK and the US are likely to warn that Russia is using disinformation tactics as a pretext for further escalation and the possible use of chemical or biological weapons in Ukraine. On 8 March, the UK Ministry of Defence tweeted that Russia’s narrative is “currently likely being amplified as part of a retrospective justification” for its invasion of Ukraine. These members may say that Moscow has a history of falsely blaming western countries for developing biological weapons, including Russia’s accusation in 2020 that the US had created the COVID-19 virus.
These Council members may also draw parallels between Russia’s military operation in Ukraine and its actions in Syria. At yesterday’s (10 March) monthly Council briefing on the chemical weapons track in Syria, the UK emphasised that Russia has a long history of diversion and denial regarding the use of chemical weapons, adding that in 2017, Russian President Vladimir Putin asserted that a chemical assault attributed to the Syrian regime by the UN was a story invented by the West.