Russia’s false claims regarding secret American biological warfare laboratories in Ukraine are being repeated in the U.S., uniting COVID-19 conspirators, QAnon followers and some Trump supporters.
The claims are popular online despite rebuttals by independent scientists, Ukrainian leaders, and officials at White House and Pentagon. This suggests that some Americans trust Kremlin propaganda more than the U.S. media or government.
The Russian conspiracy theory is based on truths. Ukraine has a network that includes biological labs for research into pathogens. These labs have been supported by funding from the U.S.
The work is not secret, however, as the labs are operated and owned by Ukraine. It is part of the Biological Threat Reduction Program initiative that aims reduce the risk of deadly outbreaks, natural or man-made. The U.S. began its efforts to end the Soviet Union’s weapons of mass destruction program in the 1990s.
Filippa Lentzos (a senior lecturer in science security and international security at King’s College London), stated that “the labs aren’t secret” in an email to The Associated Press. They are not being used in connection to bioweapons. This is all disinformation.
However, the claim has been embraced by Fox News hosts, some far-right people, and groups pushing debunked claims COVID-19 as a bioweapon by the U.S.
An early version of the Russian invasion of Ukraine was posted on Twitter. It was in a thread claiming that Russia was attacking “US biolabs” in Ukraine. This was quickly amplified by Infowars, a conspiracy theory website. It spread to mainstream and less-known social media platforms like Telegram and Gab. This was popular among far-right Americans, COVID-19 conspiracy tyrants, and adherents to QAnon, a baseless hoax in which Satan-worshipping pedophiles secretly control world events.
Many accounts making the claim are citing Russian propaganda sources as sources. On Thursday, Kremlin officials repeated the conspiracy theory, claiming that the U.S. was creating bioweapons to target certain ethnicities. It took just a few minutes for their quotes on American social media.
Many Telegram users who referenced the comments stated that they trust Russian propaganda more than independent American journalists or democratically elected officials.
One poster said, “Can’t believe what our government says!”
Others used the claim to support Russia’s claims about the invasion.
A member of the Telegram group “Patriot Voices”, which is popular among Trump supporters, wrote that it was not a “war” but a “needed cleansing”. “Ukraine has tons of US-funded BioWeapons labs that have created deadly pathogens and virus,” he said.
The claim has been promoted further by television pundits and prominent political figures. Tucker Carlson, Fox News host, dedicated segments to the conspiracy theory on Wednesday and Thursday. Donald Trump Jr. tweeted Wednesday that conspiracy theories about the labs had been proven “fact” to his 7.3million followers.
Trump and Carlson misrepresented testimony of a State Department official claiming that the U.S. was working alongside Ukraine to obtain material for the biological labs. This suggested that the labs were being used in illegitimate ways.
However, it is not surprising that potentially dangerous material would be found in a biological research centre. The World Health Organization announced Thursday that it had asked Ukraine to destroy any potentially hazardous material if they were accidentally or intentionally released.
The disinformation is a threat by itself, but the White House warnedthis Week that the Kremlin’s latest conspiracy theory could lead to a chemical and biological attack that Russia would be blaming on the U.S.A. or Ukraine.
During testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee, U.S. Director for National Intelligence Avril Haines stated that “Frankly this influence campaign is totally consistent with longstanding Russian attempts to accuse America of sponsoring bioweapons research in the former Soviet Union.” This is a classic Russian move.
This conspiracy theory was also picked-up by Chinese state media. It was further amplified by China’s Foreign Ministry this week, which reiterated Russia’s claim, and demanded an investigation.
Milton Leitenberg is an expert on arms control and senior research associate at The Center for International & Security Studies, University of Maryland. He noted that Russia has a history of disinformation. Russian intelligence propagated the conspiracy theory that the U.S. had created HIV in a laboratory in the 1980s.
Leitenberg claimed that many Russian scientists visited a similar public-health lab in Georgia. However, Russia continued to make false claims about the facility.
Leitenberg stated that “they know everything they need to know about what’s happening there” and that they are certain that they have no truth in what they claim. “It is important that they are certain of that.
Although the U.S. is gaining attention to bioweapons, they are likely to be used to incite support for the invasion by domestic Russians, according to Andy Carvin (senior fellow and managing editor at Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab), which tracks Russian disinformation.
Carvin pointed out that the Kremlin also spread hoaxes regarding Ukrainian attempts to acquire nuclear weapons.
Carvin stated, “It’s an endless cycle to reinforce these narratives, especially to domestic audiences.”