Russia’s unsubstantiated claims about secret American biological warfare laboratories in Ukraine are also taking root in the US, uniting COVID-19 conspiracy theorists, QAnon supporters and some supporters of ex-President Donald Trump.
Despite rebuttals from independent academics, Ukrainian leaders, and officials in the White House and Pentagon, the online popularity of the claims suggests some Americans are willing to trust Kremlin propaganda more than US media and the US government.
Like any effective conspiracy theory, the Russian claim rests on a few truths: Ukraine maintains a network of biological laboratories dedicated to pathogen research, and these laboratories have received funding and research support from the United States
But the labs are owned and operated by Ukraine, and the work is not secret. It’s part of an initiative called the Biological Threat Reduction Program, which aims to reduce the likelihood of deadly outbreaks, whether natural or man-made. The US effort dates back to work in the 1990s to dismantle the former Soviet Union’s weapons of mass destruction program.
“The labs are not classified,” Filippa Lentzos, a lecturer in science and international security at King’s College London, told the Associated Press in an email. “They will not be used in conjunction with bioweapons. This is all disinformation.”
That hasn’t stopped the claim from being embraced by some far-right, by Fox News anchors, and by groups making debunked claims that COVID-19 is a US-made bioweapon
On the day of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, an early version appeared on Twitter – in a thread promoting the idea that Russia’s offensive was targeting “US biolabs in Ukraine” – and was soon amplified by conspiracy theory website Infowars. It has spread across mainstream and lesser-known social platforms, including Telegram and Gab, popular with far-right Americans, COVID-19 conspiracy theorists, and supporters of QAnon, the baseless hoax that Satan-worshipping pedophiles are secretly shaping world affairs.
Many of the accounts publishing the claim cite Russian propaganda outlets as sources. When Kremlin officials on Thursday repeated the conspiracy theory and said the US was developing bioweapons that would target certain ethnic groups, it took a few minutes for their quotes to surface on American social media.
Several Telegram users who cited the comments said they trusted Russian propaganda more than independent American journalists or their own democratically elected officials.
“I can’t believe anything our government is saying!” wrote one poster.
Others cited the claim while parroting Russia’s talking points about the invasion.
“It’s not a ‘war,’ it’s a much-needed purge,” wrote a member of a Telegram group popular with Trump supporters called Patriot Voices. “Ukraine has a lot of US government funded bioweapons labs that have created deadly pathogens and viruses.”
TV pundits and high-profile politicians have helped push the claim even further. Fox News host Tucker Carlson devoted segments to promoting the conspiracy theory on his shows Wednesday and Thursday. On Wednesday, Donald Trump Jr. said in a tweet to his 7.3 million followers that conspiracy theories surrounding the labs have proven to be “fact”.
Both Carlson and Trump have misrepresented a State Department official’s testimony before Congress that the US was working with Ukraine to secure materials in the biological labs, suggesting the labs were being used for illegitimate purposes.
However, it is not surprising that a biological research center would contain potentially hazardous material. The World Health Organization said Thursday that it has urged Ukraine to destroy any samples that could pose a threat if released intentionally or accidentally.
While disinformation is a threat in itself, the White House warned this week that the Kremlin’s latest conspiracy theory could be a prelude to a chemical or biological attack that Russia would blame on the US or Ukraine.
“Frankly, this interference is entirely consistent with Russia’s long-standing efforts to accuse the United States of sponsoring bioweapons work in the former Soviet Union,” Avril Haines, director of the United States National Intelligence Agency, said Thursday during a hearing before the Senate Intelligence Committee. “So this is a classic move by the Russians.”
The conspiracy theory was also picked up by Chinese state media and was further reinforced this week by the Chinese Foreign Ministry, which repeated Russia’s claim and called for an investigation.
Milton Leitenberg, arms control expert and senior research fellow at the University of Maryland’s Center for International and Security Studies, noted that Russia has a long history of such disinformation. In the 1980s, Russian intelligence promoted the conspiracy theory that the US created HIV in a laboratory.
Leitenberg said numerous Russian scientists had visited a similar public health laboratory in the Republic of Georgia, but Russia continued to spread false claims about the facility.
“There’s nothing they don’t know about what’s going on there, and they know that nothing they claim is true,” Leitenberg said. “The important thing is that they know that beyond a doubt.”
As the bioweapons claims gain traction in the US, they are likely aimed at a native Russian audience to increase support for the invasion, according to Andy Carvin, senior fellow and editor-in-chief of the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab, tracking Russian disinformation .
Carvin pointed out that the Kremlin had also been spreading hoaxes about Ukraine’s efforts to acquire nuclear weapons.
“It’s a rinse-and-repeat cycle to hammer those narratives home, especially to home audiences,” Carvin said.
Klepper reported from Providence, RI Fichera reported from Philadelphia. Associated Press reporter Nomaan Merchant contributed to this report from Washington.
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