The Allegation That “U.S. Biological Weapons Labs in Ukraine” Are Russian Disinformation


Russian disinformation often starts with a point of fact, which is then twisted into a full-fledged conspiracy theory. The technique facilitates its diffusion and rooting among the supporters of the country. Note how quickly the party line spoken by the Russian Foreign Ministry was adopted by Carlson.

In this case, Russia has for years sown the ground to claim that the United States has installed biological warfare laboratories in Ukraine and other former Soviet republics. Then, brief remarks from Victoria Nulandthe Under Secretary of State, were twisted to provide “confirmation” of the disinformation program.

Russian claims about Ukrainian labs bear the hallmark of the Soviet Union’s long-running campaign of false claims that the United States used biological weapons. The KGB, for example, in the early 1980s spread false claims that a US-funded research project in Pakistan was sending “killer mosquitoes” to Afghanistan, leading to local outrage which ended the program.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, former officials admitted the fabrications. But Russian disinformation about bioweapons resumed in earnest after Vladimir Putin took over in 1999, according to an article from 2021 in the review of non-proliferation by Milton Leitenberg from the University of Maryland. Leitenberg says the effort is designed to distract from Russia’s own biological weapons program.

Just as the Soviet Union tried to sow fear in Pakistan, Russian officials and media have gradually sought to raise questions about US labs in Ukraine and other former Soviet republics.

In 2015, the Russian public news channel Rossiya-24 aired a one hour alarming report. Tens of thousands of pigs in Ukraine and Georgia were dying from a mysterious disease – and the reporter claimed that US-funded biological research facilities in those countries were to blame.

This was an improved version of an earlier claim. Three years earlier, Gennady Onishchenko, then head of Russia’s consumer protection agency, accused Georgia of “economic sabotage” by introducing the African swine fever (ASF) virus into Russia. He pointed to the creation a year earlier in Georgia of the Richard Lugar Center for Public Health Research, named after the former US senator who led efforts to eliminate dangerous weapons in former Soviet states. The facility was the first in the region to meet Biosafety Level 3 standards, meaning it was equipped to study serious or fatal human diseases.

Onishchenko grimly noted that the lab director had once been Georgia’s intelligence chief and that he could not understand why American “military doctors” and “epidemiologists” were stationed in Georgia “on our borders.”

Eventually, Russian officials alleged this ASF – who killed nearly 800,000 pigs in Russia and neighboring countries between 2014 and 2017 – was developed in the Georgian laboratory with the aim of reducing Russian pork imports. (Never mind that the outbreak began in 2007, four years before the lab was built.)

Attacks on US-funded labs in the region became even more pronounced after Britain said in 2018 that the Russian government was responsible for the attempted murder of former Russian spy Sergei Skripal via the novichok nerve agent.

Here are the grains of truth that Russian officials use to spread their propaganda. The labs were originally funded by the Pentagon’s Defense Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA), as part of its Cooperative Biological Engagement Program. And laboratories are studying African swine fever, but with the aim of preventing its spread.

AT a 2017 conference organized by the DTRA, for example, a Ukrainian official described laboratory efforts to improve the diagnosis, surveillance and prevention of African swine fever in wild boar populations. Another official discussed how Ukrainian scientists set up a monitoring program for certain soft ticks, which transmit the disease to pigs. Then a third official present on efforts to trace tularemia and anthrax in animals such as wild boar.

All these efforts go in the direction A declaration published on the website of the US Embassy in Ukraine – that the program helps “ensure that Ukraine can detect and report outbreaks caused by dangerous pathogens before they pose security threats or stability”. The United States and Ukraine in 2005 had signed an agreement under which the Ministry of Defense, at no cost to Ukraine, would assist the Ministry of Health in ensuring that Ukrainian laboratories studying diseases could not be used to develop biological weapons and to better detect, diagnose and monitor infectious disease outbreaks.

“Russian accusations that the Lugar Center and other biological laboratories in the Caucasus and Central Asia are producing banned biological weapons are unfounded,” he added. wrote biological threat expert Filippa Lentzos in 2018. “Last week, a group of international experts, including this author, visited the Lugar Center at the invitation of the Georgian government. We had access to all areas of the site, reviewed relevant documentation and interviewed staff, and concluded that the Center is very transparent. Our group did not observe anything out of the ordinary, or that we would not expect to see in a legitimate installation of this type.

Nevertheless, despite constant debunking, Russian propaganda that the United States has bioweapons labs in Ukraine took hold, especially on the right, with the hashtag #usbiolabs trending on Twitter at the start of the Russian invasion. from Ukraine. “Would the Russian invasion of Ukraine be justified if it was for biodefense? demand Robert W. Malone, a prominent vaccine skeptic, on March 9.

The latest iteration of that claim was sparked by a brief exchange during a March 8 Senate hearing between Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and Nuland. Rubio asked if Ukraine possessed biological or chemical weapons. Nuland responded by talking about the research labs and the US fear that Russia would have access to them.

“Ukraine has biological research facilities, which, in fact, we now fear Russian troops, Russian forces, are trying to take over,” Nuland replied. “So we’re working with the Ukrainians on how they can prevent any of these research materials from falling into the hands of Russian forces if they approach.”

Following the lead of the Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman – who claimed Nuland’s comment was evidence of US “illegal and criminal activities on Ukrainian soil” – Carlson and many others on the right concluded that this meant the labs were truly organic. weapons facilities.

Carlson briefly acknowledged numerous fact checks that had previously debunked the claim, but later adopted the latest Russian version as the truth. Russian state television then featured Carlson’s take the next day, completing the circle.

Donald Trump Jr happily tweeted a clip of Nuland, saying, “Well, it went from conspiracy theory to Senate testimony in about 6 days… It took six months to go from conspiracy theory to fact.”

In reality, Nuland’s statement about “biological research facilities” did not confirm the claims of biological weapons labs. African swine fever, for example, is not a human pathogen. But it devastates pigs and can be used as an economic weapon, so it is considered by the United States to be a potential biowarfare agent, especially in countries (like the United States) that have little experience with it. .

In 2019, a group of experts from Eastern Europe assessed that a “lone wolf” without any special training in microbiology, financial backing or specialized laboratory equipment could launch such an attack. They said the African swine fever virus was particularly dangerous due to its high virulence, lack of vaccine and devastating impact on pig production.

Asked to expand on Nuland’s comment on Thursday, Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines noted medical facilities “all have equipment, pathogens, or other things that you have to have restrictions on because you have to make sure they’re treated and handled appropriately.” She said the Russians are concerned about misusing materials, even if not designed for weapons, “in ways that are dangerous or create challenges for the population.”

The World Health Organization, an agency of the United Nations, told Reuters on Thursday that he had “strongly recommended to the Ukrainian Ministry of Health and other responsible agencies to destroy high-risk pathogens to prevent any potential spills.”

Gigi Gronvall, an associate professor at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health who served for 10 years on the Defense Department’s Threat Reduction Advisory Board, said it’s likely the Russians won’t find much more in labs on ASF than they already know, given the prevalence of ASF in Russia. But she recently published a study on the state of life science research in Russia and found it anemic.

“If there was no lab, the Russians would still say there was a lab there,” Gronvall said.

Under Putin, Russia has a biological weapons program, a program it has clearly used to target its adversaries. Yet he has tried to cover up his activities by repeatedly accusing the United States, through facilities it has funded in countries like Ukraine, of having its own bioweapons program.

Like we said, it’s straight out of the old Soviet playbook. But that doesn’t mean eminent commentators like Carlson should be so quick to fall for it.

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