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Ukraine is not developing biological weapons, US intelligence official assures senators

Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines. (Kent Nishimura/Los Angeles Times/TNS)

Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines told lawmakers Thursday that Ukraine is not pursuing biological or nuclear weapons, a claim that U.S. officials have described as part of a broader Russian campaign of disinformation.

“We do not assess that Ukraine is pursuing either biological weapons or nuclear weapons, which have been some of the, basically, propaganda that Russia is putting out,” Haines said.

On Wednesday the White House and Pentagon similarly dismissed Russian allegations, which have been echoed by Chinese officials, that the U.S. is developing chemical and biological weapons in Ukraine.

U.S. officials have warned that such claims are often used by Russia as justification for using biological weapons.

“Now that Russia has made these false claims, and China has seemingly endorsed this propaganda, we should all be on the lookout for Russia to possibly use chemical or biological weapons in Ukraine, or to create a false flag operation using them. It’s a clear pattern,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said in a tweet Wednesday.

Ukraine does have a dozen biological research labs focused on medical countermeasures such as containing pandemics or disease outbreaks, Haines said. The U.S. assists with health and safety in those labs as it does in several other countries, she said.

“Frankly this influence campaign was completely consistent with long-standing Russian efforts to accuse the United States of sponsoring bio weapons work in former Soviet Union [states],” Haines said. “This is a classic move by the Russians.”

The comments from Haines and other intelligence officials came during a public hearing with members of the Senate Intelligence Committee on worldwide threats.

National Security Agency Director General Paul M. Nakasone helped explain one of the lingering questions about Russia’s strategy in its invasion of Ukraine: Why is it not engaging in more cyberattacks to Ukrainian infrastructure?

Ukraine has experienced three or four cyberattacks, according to Nakasone. He said it could be partly a strategic move by Russia, but also that the United States helped harden Ukrainian cyber networks in the years before the war began.

“A tremendous amount of work was done prior to the actual invasion, work that was done by my agency, work that was done by cyber command, by interagency, by a series of private sector partners that hardened the infrastructure of Ukraine,” Nakasone said.

Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., also pressed Haines on what intelligence there is that Russia doesn’t see the U.S. providing anti-aircraft and anti-tank weapons to Ukraine as escalatory, but would see providing the country with planes that way.

“I don’t see a lot of common sense between this distinction,” Cotton said.

Democrats and Republicans have both pushed the administration to help facilitate the transfer of MiG-29s to Ukraine from Poland and other countries that still use the Soviet-era aircraft. Cotton and others questioned if the Biden administration was pushing the intelligence community to give it political cover for not facilitating the exchange and questioned why it would be OK if the planes came directly from Poland without the U.S. as a middleman.

Haines acknowledged the question of what could escalate the conflict was a fine line to tread, but added that the decision fits the most recent intelligence.

“We’re in a very challenging position, right, where we are obviously providing enormous amounts of support to Ukraine as we should and need to do, but at the same time trying not to escalate the conflict into a full-on NATO or U.S. war with Russia,” she said.

Defense Intelligence Agency Director Lt. Gen. Scott Berrier said that the greatest needs right now are humanitarian aid, small arms, artillery and rockets. And he believes that Russia sees a difference between anti-aircraft or anti-tank weapons and planes that could cross into Russian air space.

There is a way to get these planes to Ukraine without getting the U.S involved, Sen. Ben Sasse, R-Neb., said.

“It’s not impossible to figure out a way to solve the problem if we wanted to solve the problem. Women and children are being bombed,” Sasse said. “There’s more we can do and we should be going faster.”


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