Russia convened a special UN Security Council meeting on Friday to discuss what the Kremlin said were “secret” research laboratories the US allegedly has in Ukraine to develop biological weapons. The Russian allegations are rooted in an unlikely conspiracy theory that has been promoted by both China and the pro-Trump conspiracy movement QAnon.
As Russia’s attack on Ukraine enters a third week, Russia’s deputy ambassador to the UN, Dmitri Polianski, convened the Security Council on Friday to raise the issue of the “biological activities” of the US military in Ukraine.
Polianski accused Washington of developing biological weapons in research laboratories throughout the country. Earlier this week, Russia’s defense ministry said there was a network of US-funded biolaboratories in Ukraine working on establishing a mechanism “for the covert transmission of deadly pathogens” and conducting experiments with bat coronavirus samples. Russia claimed this was being done under the auspices of the US Department of Defense and was part of a US biological weapons programme.
On unregulated social media platforms – including Telegram and 8chan – this conspiracy theory has become incredibly popular, racking up hundreds of thousands of hits each day.
This is not the first time since the beginning of the war in Ukraine that Moscow has put this far-fetched theory on the table. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said in early March that he had proof that “the Pentagon has developed pathogens in two military laboratories in Ukraine”.
This is Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov directly repeating this conspiracy theory, claiming (per translation) America “built two biological war labs, and they have been developing pathogens there, in Kyiv and in Odessa.” pic.twitter.com/KDk33rP4Gd
— Justin Ling (@Justin_Ling) March 3, 2022
Russia’s permanent UN representative, Vasily Nebenzya, described the alleged biological weapons plot in detail on Friday, warning that bats, birds and even insects could soon be spreading “dangerous pathogens” across Europe.
Washington, Kyiv as well as the United Nations have denied the existence of biological weapons laboratories in the country.
Britain’s ambassador to the UN, Barbara Woodward, said Russia had used the Security Council to utter “a series of wild, completely baseless and irresponsible conspiracy theories”.
As early as January, the US Department of Defense felt it necessary to post a video on YouTube in response to a flood of rumours about alleged US military experiments in “secret” laboratories on the border between Russia and Ukraine.
The US has openly admitted to having helped establish dozens of research laboratories in former Soviet bloc countries. The facilities, which were intended to help destroy the remnants of the USSR’s nuclear and chemical arsenal, are currently being used to monitor the emergence of new epidemics.
But there is nothing “secret” about the facilities, which appear on public lists giving their locations. They are also 100 percent run by the governments of the countries in which they are located. The United States only partly finances the equipment.
Nevertheless, the conspiracy theory continues to gain traction and is finding new adherents outside of Russian borders.
A useful conspiracy for China China called on the US last month to be open, transparent and responsible in reporting its overseas military biological activities. Beijing also stressed the importance of being able to visit with “complete transparency” the scientific facilities in Ukraine “where the United States is conducting its research for military purposes”. Since then, major Chinese media such as the Global Times have not missed an opportunity to offer a platform to Russian officials who promote the conspiracy theory.
Yevgeniy Golovchenko, a specialist in Russian disinformation campaigns at the University of Copenhagen, is not surprised by China encouraging these rumours about secret US biolabs in Ukraine. “We should not forget that there have already been heated exchanges between Beijing and Washington about secret laboratories during the Covid-19 pandemic,” he told FRANCE 24, referring to the controversy surrounding the origin of the Sars-Cov-2 virus. While some Western conspiracy theorists believe it was manufactured in a laboratory in Wuhan, China has accused the US army of being behind its emergence.
For Beijing, this new conspiracy theory has arrived at the right time. It allows China to show support for its ally Vladimir Putin without committing too openly to the invasion of Ukraine, explained Golovchenko.
At the same time, the Russian rhetoric is in line with Chinese propaganda about the coronavirus. Beijing hopes to demonstrate that if Washington is able to develop biological weapons secretly under the Russians’ nose, why wouldn’t the United States have developed a dangerous virus in another of their “secret labs”?
But the Russian disinformation theory has also found supporters in the heart of the United States. Followers of QAnon, a conspiracy theory that alleges Trump is saving the United States from a satanic group of paedophiles, were among the first to justify the invasion of Ukraine as a Russian attempt to destroy dangerous military laboratories.
People close to Trump, such as former strategist Steve Bannon and Republican Senator Marco Rubio, have officially asked the White House for explanations about the activity in these Ukrainian laboratories.
From the Colorado potato beetle to AIDS For decades, Moscow has consistently accused Washington of secretly developing biological weapons. This has been a common thread of Russian propaganda since the beginning of the Cold War in 1949, explained Milton Leitenberg, an American expert on weapons of mass destruction, in a 2021 study on the history of the subject. Moscow suggested in 1950 that the United States was sending Colorado potato beetles that had been infected with a new virus to poison potato crops in East Germany.
Russia has been particularly effective in promoting the idea that the US weaponises viruses for use against its enemies. Golovchenko noted that a particularly effective disinformation campaign along these lines ran from 1985 to the end of the 2000s, when the Kremlin claimed that Washington “was the source of the AIDS virus and was using it to target African and African-American populations”.
The AIDS conspiracy theory appeared in “2,000 newspapers across 25 countries” since 1985, noted Leitenberg. In his study he pointed out that well-known personalities from the African-American community publicly expressed varying levels of support for this conspiracy theory, including “Will Smith, Bill Cosby and Spike Lee”.
Muddying the waters ahead of an attack?This latest biological-weapons conspiracy theory allows Moscow to characterise the United States as the real enemy in the war. For the Russian government, it is a way of justifying the invasion to a domestic population that considers Ukraine to be friendly to Russia.
“This theory presents Ukraine as simply the territory on which Russia is fighting to put an end to dangerous American activities,” said Golovchenko.
The Biden administration fears that the frequent repetition of the bioweapons claims might be an indication that Moscow is planning to use such weapons itself and wants to muddy the waters beforehand. The next step could be for Moscow to mount a “false flag” operation in Ukraine.
Jen Psaki, the White House press secretary, called the Russian accusations “preposterous” in a tweet last Wednesday and said the United States “does not develop or possess such weapons anywhere”.
“Now that Russia has made these false claims, and China has seemingly endorsed this propaganda, we should all be on the lookout for Russia to possibly use chemical or biological weapons in Ukraine, or to create a false flag operation using them,” she wrote on Twitter on March 9, adding: “It’s a clear pattern.”
We took note of Russia’s false claims about alleged U.S. biological weapons labs and chemical weapons development in Ukraine. We’ve also seen Chinese officials echo these conspiracy theories.
— Jen Psaki (@PressSec) March 9, 2022
While it is impossible to know what the Kremlin has in mind, such a move would makes sense from a propaganda perspective, said Golovchenko.
“For the time being, the Russian government continues to claim that this is only a limited military operation in Ukraine and it is forbidden to talk about the ‘war’ in Russia. But the longer the fighting goes on, the harder it will be for the authorities to maintain this line,” Golovchenko observed.
“They will have to find a justification to switch to full-scale war.”
This article was translated from the original in French.
© Studio graphique France Médias Monde