Russian Propaganda About Bioweapons Finds a Home in the United States
Russia has long accused the United States—falsely—of funding research in former Soviet republics. Now it has a new audience.
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.
In fact, just days before Russia began its propaganda barrage about these documents, the head of the Cooperative Threat Reduction Program Robert Pope expressed concern about the effects of the war in Ukraine. In an interview with the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, Pope said that he did not believe that Russian forces would deliberately target any of the Ukrainian biolabs because they “know enough about the kinds of pathogens that are stored in biological research laboratories,” However, Pope was concerned that the facilities could be damaged by conflict, which could lead to disastrous consequences.
As the chaos of war approaches these Ukrainian labs, it would be wise to preemptively destroy the samples of deadly diseases held in these labs. After the war new samples could be ordered and research could resume, so why risk an accident? This is probably what the orders from the Ukrainian ministry of health are about, the orders that Russia claims are proof of a bioweapons program. It is not an uncommon phenomenon when it comes to conspiracy theories, especially those used in propaganda: taking documents or activities that are unremarkable and spinning them into a narrative (ideally a pre-existing narrative) that turns them into shocking evidence of a vile plot.
And this is nothing if not new “evidence” for a pre-existing propaganda narrative. For years Russia has claimed there is a massive secret American bioweapons program that uses facilities in the former Soviet states surrounding Russia. There is, of course, no secret biological weapons program coordinated or funded by the U.S., and if somehow, as part of some illegal government conspiracy, there was such a secret American program it would be kept in highly secure facilities in the U.S.; it would never leave our shores. This line of slander goes all the way back to the Cold War, most famously when the KGB and allied Communist intelligence agencies conducted an extensive propaganda campaign declaring that the U.S. had genetically engineered HIV. The COVID-19 pandemic has given this kind of propaganda a new impetus. (It looks like this campaign is getting imitated by Communist Chinese propagandists, too.)
Ukraine is one of the countries that has long been mentioned in Russian propaganda as the location of secret American bioweapons labs. The story has also been a staple of pro-Russian Ukrainian messaging, dating even before the Maidan Revolution. It has regularly appeared in the campaign literature of the largest pro-Russian party in Ukraine, Opposition Platform For Life. Party leader Viktor Medvedchuk has repeatedly emphasized the lie that there are 15 Pentagon bioweapons labs on Ukrainian territory. Medvedchuk is an old friend of Putin and a likely candidate for the future leader of any Russian proxy state in Ukraine.
Even before this latest propaganda push there was a noticeable uptick in emphasis as Russia expanded the war in Ukraine. On February 27, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov claimed that Russia had intelligence that the Pentagon was worried about its “chemical and biological facilities” in Ukraine, specifically in Kyiv and Odesa. This push serves an important purpose for Russia in generating an excuse for a lack of evidence. If Russia ends up occupying a portion of eastern Ukraine that contains these alleged labs, they should be able to show clear evidence of these nefarious American bioweapons to the world. But if it was destroyed by the dastardly servants of America before they got there, then that would explain why there is so little evidence!
This is like if Voice of America and had NPR insisted on the theory that Saddam moved his chemical weapons to Syria before the 2003 invasion at the very start of the Iraq war, even before American troops had reached Baghdad. Of course, if more evidence is needed, Russia will generate it. Who knows what kinds of documents they can produce, alter, or forge as they capture more and more Ukrainian territory.
In addition to reinforcing an old story and preparing for a disappointing lack of evidence, there are other possible reasons Russia is emphasizing this narrative now, as its invasion continues. If Putin decides to try to turn Ukraine into Syria, and besiege and destroy major cities while deliberately attacking civilians and civilian infrastructure, there will be outbreaks of disease. Russian propagandists will have a handy excuse for these epidemics: As with everything else, they are the fault of the Americans.
And, as noted above, the Russians are getting an assist from the fringe right in America. In testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, U.S. Under Secretary of State Victoria Nuland highlighted U.S. government fears that Russia would capture some biological laboratories in Ukraine and then implied that they could release pathogens or chemical weapons and blame the Ukrainians for the attack. Aided by Trump Jr.’s tweet, the conspiracy theory is spreading rapidly on the right. Given the funding of dangerous research in Wuhan, China, done by the NIH (initially obfuscated by some in authority) the ground is prepared for more stories about the funding of dangerous research in Ukraine, especially if it provides an opportunity to harp on about the “Deep State.” We may be seeing the introduction of a whole new conspiracist line on the American right about American bioweapons in Ukraine—one that Russian propagandists are perfectly positioned to further exploit.
Andrew Fink received his Ph.D. from the law school at Leiden University in 2020 on the history of propaganda, conspiracy theories, and violent extremist ideologies.