The US has accused Russia of “outright lies” as it denied renewed accusations from Moscow that Washington is operating biowarfare labs in Ukraine.
Instead, the US said Russia might be laying the groundwork for another terrible escalation of its attack on Ukraine, by unleashing chemical or biological weapons.
This week Russia has repeated its accusations of several years that the US is working with Ukrainian laboratories to develop biological weapons.
Such assertions in Russian media increased in the run-up to Moscow’s military move into Ukraine and were made as recently as Wednesday by foreign ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova.
“The Russian accusations are absurd, they are laughable and you know, in the words of my Irish Catholic grandfather, a bunch of malarkey. There’s nothing to it. It’s classic Russian propaganda,” Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said on Wednesday.
In a statement, also released on Wednesday, State Department spokesman Ned Price said Russia was “inventing false pretexts in an attempt to justify its own horrific actions in Ukraine”.
“It is Russia that has active chemical and biological weapons programs and is in violation of the Chemical Weapons Convention and Biological Weapons Convention,” Mr Price said.
““Russia has a track record of accusing the West of the very crimes that Russia itself is perpetrating.”
Mr Price described the statements as an “obvious ploy” to justify further attacks on Ukraine.
“We fully expect Russia to continue to double down on these sorts of claims with further unfounded allegations,” he said.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki, citing what she called Russia’s “false claims”, wrote on Twitter: “It’s Russia that has a long and well-documented track record of using chemical weapons, including in attempted assassinations and poisoning of Putin’s political enemies like Alexey Navalny.”
There was no immediate response from the Russian embassy in Washington. Russia has denied any attacks on Mr Navalny.
On Wednesday, Ms Zakharova said Russia had documents showing the Ukrainian health ministry had ordered the destruction of samples of plague, cholera, anthrax and other pathogens before February 24, when Russian forces moved into Ukraine.
Ms Zakharova said the documents unearthed by Russian forces showed “an emergency attempt to erase evidence of military biological programs” financed by the Pentagon.
“Ukraine strictly denies any such allegation,” a Ukrainian presidential spokesperson said.
Like many other countries, Ukraine has public health laboratories researching how to mitigate the threats of dangerous diseases. Its laboratories have received support from the US, European Union and World Health Organisation.
The Pentagon’s Biological Threat Reduction Program has worked with Ukraine to ensure the security of pathogens and toxins stored in the laboratories.
‘Barbaric’ attack on maternity hospital condemned
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky claims Russia’s bombing of a maternity hospital in Mariupol is “proof of a genocide of Ukrainians”.
“The hospitals are ruined, the schools are ruined, the churches are ruined, ordinary buildings and all the dead people, dead children,” Mr Zelensky said in a video message posted to Telegram late on Wednesday.
“A strike on a maternity hospital is a final proof, proof of a genocide of Ukrainians taking place.”
Mr Zelensky also called on Europeans to condemn the “Russian war crime”.
“Europeans! Ukrainians! Citizens of Mariupol! Today we have to be united in condemning this Russian war crime in which is reflected all the evil that Russian occupants brought to our land,” he said.
The US has condemned the hospital attack in the besieged city of Mariupol as “barbaric”.
Wednesday’s bombing, which authorities said injured women in labour and left children in the wreckage, is the latest grim incident of the 14-day invasion, the biggest assault on a European state since 1945.
It came despite a Russian pledge to halt firing so at least some trapped civilians could escape the city, where hundreds of thousands have been sheltering without water or power for more than a week.
“Russian forces do not fire on civilian targets,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said.
Russia calls its incursion a “special operation” to disarm its neighbour and dislodge leaders it calls “neo-Nazis”.
Ukraine’s foreign ministry posted video of what it said was the hospital, showing holes where windows should have been. Huge piles of smouldering rubble littered the scene.
“It is horrifying to see the type of the barbaric use of military force to go after innocent civilians in a sovereign country,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said.
UN Human Rights body spokeswoman Liz Throssell said “the incident adds to our deep concerns about indiscriminate use of weapons in populated areas and civilians trapped in active hostilities in numerous areas”.
The Donetsk region’s governor said 17 people were wounded in the incident, and Ukraine accused Russia of breaking a ceasefire.
Russia blamed Ukraine for the evacuation’s failure.
Among more than two million refugees from Ukraine, the United Nations Children’s Fund said more than a million children had fled since the invasion started. At least 37 had been killed and 50 injured, it said.
About 48,000 Ukrainians have fled through humanitarian corridors, Interfax Ukraine news agency said. Local officials said while some had departed, Russian forces were preventing buses from evacuating civilians from Bucha, a town near Kyiv.
Pressure on Moscow intensified on Wednesday, as the World Bank’s chief economist said Russia was edging close to defaulting on its debt. The Kremlin is trying to shore up the economy and plans to respond to a US ban on its oil and energy exports as the rouble drops to record lows.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov arrived in Turkey for talks on Thursday with Ukraine foreign minister Dmytro Kuleba.
Ukraine was seeking a ceasefire, liberation of its territories and to resolve all humanitarian issues, Mr Kuleba said, adding: “Frankly…my expectations of the talks are low.”
Moscow demands that Kyiv take a neutral position and drop aspirations of joining the NATO alliance.