Since last weekend, Russian propaganda outlets have been screaming about the “discovery” of evidence of Pentagon bioweapons labs in Ukraine. The “evidence” they display is images of some authentic-looking documents that appear to be orders from the Ukrainian Ministry of Health instructing some laboratories to destroy their samples of deadly pathogens. There are also documents from two of these laboratories, in Poltava and Kherson, confirming that this destruction has been carried out. The idea that this is evidence of some American plot is part of a tried-and-true Russian conspiracy theory, as I’ll explain below, but it’s already become an effective one even in the U.S. On Wednesday, Donald Trump Jr. referenced it on Twitter.
What is going on here? The Russian Ministry of Defense gave a well-publicized public briefing Monday about the documents and the “secret labs,” and Russian prosecutors are claiming they might initiate a criminal case on the “creation of Biological weapons in Ukraine.” A reporter on RT (Russia’s English-language propaganda TV channel) claimed that this is “in blatant violation of international law, and more specifically, it is in violation of article 1 of the U.N. Convention on the Prohibition of Biological and Toxic Weapons.”
This sudden jump from documents purporting to show that research laboratories in a conflict zone wisely destroyed their pathogen samples straight to “secret American biowarfare program in Ukraine” is so sudden that it should be bewildering, but Russian propagandists are counting on repetition and old narratives to convince the convincible.
Like most of the most terrible lies, it builds on a foundation of truth, albeit a very shallow one. There are laboratories in Ukraine that receive funding from the U.S. government as part of the defense threat reduction program. The USSR had a massive secret biological weapons program known as Biopreparat, and when the USSR collapsed the scientists and facilities did not just evaporate. The U.S. program, run as part of the Cooperative Threat Reduction Program under the Defense Threat Reduction Agency, provides funding to prevent the proliferation of bioweapons and make sure that the next plague does not emerge accidentally from an old Soviet lab. This involves helping make sure scientists with the skills that could be used to create bioweapons stay at home and work on important medical research instead (so they are less likely to get poached by higher-paid gigs in China, or Iran, or North Korea, for example). This program involves upgrading the facilities in the former USSR where the remnants of the Soviet bioweapons program might lay in order to ensure their security and guard against theft or accidental leaks.