Russia has accused Ukraine and the US at the UN security council of a plot to use migratory birds and bats to spread pathogens, raising alarm among other council members that the accusations could be intended to provide cover for future Russian use of biological weapons.
The Russian permanent representative to the UN, Vasily Nebenzya, delivered a lengthy account of the alleged biological weapons plot, and said the birds, bats and insects supposedly intended to spread disease would cross Ukraine’s western border.
“We call upon you to think about a very real biological danger to the people in European countries, which can result from an uncontrolled spread of bio agents from Ukraine,” Nebenzya said. “And if there is a such a scenario then all Europe will be covered.
“The risk of this is very real given the interests of the radical nationalist groups in Ukraine are showing towards the work with dangerous pathogens conducted together with the ministry of defence of the United States.”
The remains of buildings and vehicles in Kharkiv as Russian attacks continue. Photograph: Anadolu Agency/Getty Images
The United Nations high representative for disarmament, Izumi Nakamitsu, said the UN was “not aware of any biological weapons programmes” in Ukraine, and pointed out there was an official channel for governments to raise any concerns about violations of the biological and toxin weapons convention banning their use.
In response to Nebenzya’s claims, several member states on the security council warned that it could be a disinformation campaign ahead of a planned Russian attack inside Ukraine.
“The intent behind these lies seems clear and it is deeply troubling,” said Linda Thomas-Greenfield, the US ambassador to the UN. “We believe Russia could use chemical or biological agents for assassinations as part of a false flag incident or to support tactical military operations.”
Before the UN session, the Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, expressed similar concerns.
“Allegedly, we are preparing a chemical attack,” Zelenskiy said in a video address on Thursday. “This makes me really worried, because we’ve been repeatedly convinced: if you want to know Russia’s plans, look at what Russia accuses others of.”
Russian forces have continued their advance into Ukraine, bombing cities in the west of the country, including Lviv, Lutsk and Ivano-Frankivsk.
Elsewhere, satellite photos appeared to show a massive convoy outside Kyiv had largely dispersed and redeployed. The US space technology company Maxar said its pictures showed armoured units had fanned out through towns and forests in the area, with artillery moved into potential firing positions.
In Moscow, Vladimir Putin announced 16,000 foreign “volunteers” from the Middle East were ready to fight with Russian-backed forces in eastern Ukraine to “help” the people living in the Donbas region. In a meeting with Russia’s defence minister, Sergei Shoigu, Putin also said western-made weapons including Javelin and Stinger missiles that were captured by the Russian army would be handed to Donbas forces.
As heavy shelling continued across eastern Ukraine’s towns and cites, Ukrainian authorities reported Russia had killed more civilians than soldiers. Russian forces were also reported to have hit a psychiatric hospital near Izyum, a town in the Kharkiv region. The regional governor, Oleh Synegubov, called it a “war crime against civilians [and] genocide against the Ukrainian nation”. He said 330 people had been in the hospital at the time, including wheelchair users and people unable to move. The exact number of casualties is still to be established.
In the besieged port city of Mariupol conditions remain desperate, with people trapped inside indoor shelters with no heat, electricity and little or no food. More than 1,300 people had died in the 10-day siege, said Ukraine’s deputy prime minister Iryna Vereshchuk. “They [Russia] want to destroy the people of Mariupol. They want to make them starve. It’s a war crime,” she said.
The Associated Press spoke to an exhausted-looking resident as he pulled a cart loaded with bags down an empty street flanked by damaged buildings in the port city. “I don’t have a home any more. That’s why I’m moving,” Aleksander Ivanov said. “It doesn’t exist any more. It was hit, by a mortar.”
A member of the Ukrainian armed forces takes a photograph of a damaged church after shelling in Mariupol on Thursday. Photograph: Evgeniy Maloletka/AP
More than 400,000 people remain trapped in Mariupol, which is surrounded by Russian forces, and basic supplies are running out. About 200,000 are believed to want to leave amid continuous Russian bombardment but have not been able to do so despite the daily declaration of humanitarian corridors.
A UN spokesperson said there were credible reports of Russians using cluster munitions in populated areas. Cluster munitions, which scatter small bombs over a large area, are banned by more than 100 countries, including the UK, but not Russia, Ukraine or the US.
More than 2.5 million people have fled Ukraine and a further 2 million are internally displaced, UNHCR, the UN refugee agency, said on Friday. The grim toll for Ukrainian civilians comes amid growing fears that Russia could stage a chemical attack, as senior Russian officials recycled old conspiracy theories about alleged western-made biological weapons.
The head of the Russian military’s radiation, chemical and biological protection troops, Igor Kirillov, said on Thursday that US-backed labs in Kyiv, Kharkiv and Odesa were working on pathogens custom-designed to target Russians and other Slavs. According to Russian-state media, Kirillov alleged the US planned to exploit Ukraine’s “unique geographical position” by sending migratory birds carrying deadly diseases into Russia.
The Russian foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, made a similar claim on Thursday, alleging that US-backed labs in Ukraine were working to “develop ethnically targeted biological weapons”. The director of the CIA, William Burns, told the US Senate intelligence committee that Russia could be laying the groundwork for a chemical or biological attack, which it would then blame on the US or Ukraine in a “false flag operation”.
“This is something, as all of you know very well, [that] is very much a part of Russia’s playbook,” he said. “They’ve used these weapons against their own citizens, they’ve at least encouraged the use in Syria and elsewhere, so it’s something we take very seriously.”