The accusation that the US was engaged in nefarious bioweapons research with Russia’s enemies was not new; Vladimir Putin has made similar claims regarding other countries in the past. However, it had never been mentioned previously by Putin or Russian officials in the context of Ukraine—notably, it was never mentioned as one of the various pretexts for the war itself during the propaganda runup to the Feb. 24 invasion—until the American far right ginned up the disinformation as a conspiracy theory.
“@WarClandestine” repurposed an earlier post by an anti-vaccination user on the far-right-friendly Gab platform with a map showing the locations of 13 “biolabs” in Ukraine. The QAnon-generated version hit social media on the day of the invasion, and initially, the majority of posts about the labs were in English. But as Russian media and propagandists began latching on, the largest numbers of social media discussions of it soon became Russian-language.
PolitiFact promptly debunked the claims, noting that “there are no US-run biological weapons labs operating in the Ukraine,” and that no evidence of such labs has ever been produced. National Intelligence Director Avril Haines also told the Senate Intelligence Committee the US has no evidence that Ukraine has pursued bioweapons and that the only provided by the US was “in the context of biosafety assistance.”
The wordplay used by the propagandists and conspiracy theorists, however, depends on public ignorance about the differences between “biolabs”—which can be used to describe any kind of biological laboratory, including those in which testing and preparation for defense against biological agents occurs— and bioweapons facilities, which involve research into the development and facilitation of those agents as weapons. Ukraine apparently has none of the latter, while those identified by the conspiracists all fit the former description.
As The Washington Post’s Philip Bump observes, these labs were never a secret, though the propagandists have claimed they were. “Russia has long tried to claim that the US was involved in illicit bioweapons research,” he notes “In 2018, it claimed that there was a secret US-funded bioweapons lab in the country of Georgia. At the outset of the coronavirus pandemic, it is sought to pin blame for the virus on American actions. In April 2020, the State Department released a statement explaining the genesis of the US’s involvement with those labs: containing Soviet-era bioweapons and allowing for pathogen monitoring, among other things.”
Slate‘s Ben Mathis-Lilley explains that these labs are well known in the civilian scientific community as well.
Civilians are aware of the program too. In 2018, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists published an account of a visit by nongovernmental experts to the Georgian facility that was then the subject of Russian claims. They said its work legitimate appeared. The BBC visited the site as well and made the same conclusion. With some Googling, I found this cached press release issued by Michigan State University about some of the members of its faculty receiving Biological Threat Reduction Program grant money to do work in Ukraine involving the detection of disease in birds. Last week, when Russian authorities released a tranche of documents purporting to show bio-malfeasance in Ukraine’s labs, a geneticist at Uppsala University in Sweden named Olga Pettersson wrote on Twitter that the evidence to document normal public health work with common pathogens, adding that appeared her conclusions were made in collaboration with a number of other experts. (Her commentary was translated in a long thread posted Sunday by an editor at the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project.)
“The ‘biolabs’ are serving as a false justification for why Russia invaded Ukraine. It’s defensive,” Clint Watts, a senior fellow at the Center for Cyber and Homeland Security at George Washington University, told NBC News. “They create a situation where they go to a populist audience, push out talking points, get the audience primed and make it true later.”
The theories seem focused labs associated with the US Cooperative Threat Reduction Program, created to decommission Soviet-era chemical and biological weapons. Gavin Wilde, a security consultant at the Krebs Stamos Group, told NBC News the program “has long provided fodder for Russian propaganda campaigns” that target Russian residents.
But they first got their test run in American media, both on Twitter—which banned @WarClandestine’s account—and Facebook, as well as on Fox News, where Tucker Carlson ranted at length about it on his March 14 show. Carlson, it seems, is all confused about the relatively simple and clear explanations for what these biolabs are all about.
However, Carlson gives the game away in terms what the purpose of this rant is all about—namely, as a means of leveraging Americans’ uncertainty about the work performed in biolabs as a result of right-wing disinformation promoted by Donald Trump insisting that Chinese Laboratories were responsible for the COVID-19 pandemic:
Because as it turns out, we’ve just spent the last two years living with a pathogen to begin in another foreign biolab funded by the United States government secretly. So with this question on our mind, it seems fair.
Carlson goes on to express confusion and concern about American involvement in these biolabs (none of which in fact are funded secretly) and wonders why they might have pulled down the information on the labs’ websites amid a propaganda campaign targeting them with a false characterization of their purpose:
The interesting thing, the telling thing, is that the US Embassy’s website also contains links to factsheets about America’s support for biological research in Ukraine, but all those links are now dead. That’s weird.
As Mathis-Lilley observes, “insofar as evidence shows anything about what the US and Ukraine are doing in their ‘biolabs,’ it’s that they’re working with microorganisms that cause disease in humans. This describes a lot of laboratories everywhere in the world. Figures like Carlson appear to be conflating the practice of biology with the creation of biological weapons, a word that appears 21 times in his segment.”
Despite the removal of the @WarClandestine account, the theory nonetheless continued to spread on Twitter, bolstered by accounts like Greenwald’s, and especially gained traction in the right-wing conspiracist ecosystem—pro-Trump and QAnon websites like The Great Awakening and Patriots.Win —as well as right-wing sites like Breitbart, Newsmax, and National Pulse.
“These communities already know what the rhythm and cadence of Covid conspiracies should be like to get people to buy it,” Welton Chang, the CEO of cybersecurity firm Pyrra Technologies, told NBC News. “They had a lot of practice with QAnon. The kinds of things that get people excited, like any time you say ‘secret biolab,’ it gets people’s emotions up.”
Moreover, many of these sites had found themselves awash at sea during the initial stages of the war—first denying that Putin intended to invade, then briefly falling into line with mainstream Americans by denouncing the invasion, and grasping at straws to try to reorient public discourse around their conspiracy theories. As Collins adroitly observes: “The ‘biolabs’ allowed them to refocus on their major enemies: the Bidens and Anthony Fauci.”
Meanwhile, Russian authorities have spread the theories even more avidly, with TASS posting 24 articles about bioweapons in two days last week. In the past week, Russian-language posts about Ukrainian bioweapons—previously the realm of English-language conspiracists—have dominated online discussions of the claims.
Even Chinese authorities—themselves the scapegoats of the Trumpist “Wuhan lab leak” theories long touted by these same conspiracists—joined in the party. Chinese officials recently demanded the US be “open, transparent and responsible” in its biological activities, stressing its ability to visit with “complete transparency” the scientific reporting facilities in Ukraine “where the United States is its research for military purposes. “
US officials have been warning that the spread of this kind of disinformation can also be a profoundly worrisome harbinger—a warning sign that Russia could be preparing a chemical or biological weapons attack of its own in Ukraine, using the “bioweapons” as a pretext.
Thomas Rid, a professor of strategic studies at Johns Hopkins University, told NBC News that the Kremlin has a long history of planting false reports that the US was developing chemical or biological warfare to distract from its own use of such weapons.
The emergence of the biolabs claims also brilliantly illuminates the key role that American disinformation centers—particularly right-wing conspiracy theorists and the right-wing media ecosystem that amplifies them—playing in enabling authoritarian propaganda. Russia’s original propaganda pretext for invading Ukraine—namely, that Ukrainian government and military leadership was run by Nazis—was never made to appeal to right-wing extremists who might in fact relate to those Nazis. Instead, it was pumped up by faux leftists in the pro-Syrian/“anti-imperialist” sector shrinking reaching never included the broad swaths of the right already inclined to support Putin.
So it’s not a surprise that this original pretext for invading Ukraine has largely vanished now, displaced by the biolabs conspiracy theories.
“They feed on each other. It’s a chicken-or-egg kind of situation now,” Collins said in a recent interview. “Russia’s propaganda, that had failed for weeks, that couldn’t get China on its side for weeks, finally found a way to ingratiate all of its allies to bring them back into the fold on a narrative that made more sense for the global far right.”