The United States was secretly manufacturing biological weapons in Ukraine. It trained birds to carry pathogens to Russia. It created Covid-19. It ran laboratories in Nigeria that caused this year’s monkeypox outbreak.
Of the many falsehoods the Kremlin has propagated since the war in Ukraine began more than six months ago, some of the most outlandish yet enduring have been those accusing the United States of running secret biological research programs to wreak havoc around the world.
The United States and others have dismissed the allegations as absurd, and Russia has not provided any evidence. But the allegations continue to circulate. Occasionally backed by China’s diplomats and state media, they have ebbed and flown in international news reports, fueling conspiracy theories that reverberate around the internet.
In Geneva this week, Russia ordered an international forum to rebroadcast its unsupported claims. The Biological Weapons Convention, the international treaty that has banned the development and use of weapons made from biological toxins or pathogens since 1975, gives member states the power to request a formal hearing on violations, and Russia has launched the first in a quarter . Century.
“This is the military-biological Pandora’s box that the United States has opened and filled more than once,” Irina A. Yarovaya, the deputy chair of Russia’s lower house of parliament, the State Duma, said last month. She chairs a parliamentary committee formed to “investigate” American support for biological research laboratories in Ukraine and elsewhere.
Virtually no Western official or expert expects Russia to present facts supporting the allegations during the week-long gathering. If the past is a guide, that won’t stop Russia from making it. Experts say Russia is likely to use the mere existence of the investigative session, much of which will be held behind closed doors, to lend an air of legitimacy to its claims.
Russia’s propaganda campaign has attempted to justify the invasion ordered by President Vladimir V Putin, who in April cited a “network of Western bioweapons laboratories” as one of the threats compelling Russia to act. More broadly, however, the spate of allegations has sought to discredit the United States and its allies – Ukraine’s most powerful supporters and increasingly the source of the weapons used in the fight against Russian forces.
Even when not supported by facts, the allegations have played into pre-existing attitudes towards American dominance in foreign policy. The result was to sow division and doubt – not necessarily to build support for Russia’s invasion, but to shift some of the blame onto the United States and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.
Publicity about Russia’s secret weapons production allegations could also undermine confidence in genuine biological research, much like the debate over the origins of Covid-19.
“The message is all about these labs and that will undermine confidence in this infrastructure and the work being done,” said Filippa Lentzos, expert in biological threats and security at King’s College London. “And it’s going to significantly undermine global biosecurity and biosecurity efforts, so it has consequences.”
Russia added the monkeypox outbreak to its list of American transgressions in April. General Igor A. Kirillov, the chief of the Russian Army’s radiological, chemical and biological defense forces, implied that the United States sparked the latest outbreak because it supported four research laboratories in Nigeria, where the epidemic began to spread.
In the months following the general’s comments, there were nearly 4,000 articles in Russian media, many of which were shared on Twitter, Facebook and other social media platforms, according to research conducted by Zignal Labs for the New York Times.
As evidence of a conspiracy, some of the Russian reports pointed to a simulation in 2021 at the Munich Security Conference, an annual gathering of defense officials and experts from around the world. The simulation, designed to test how well countries would contain a new pandemic, posited a hypothetical monkeypox outbreak that began in a fictional country called Brinia and caused 270 million deaths.
The Russian reports were so widespread that the advocacy group that designed the exercise, the Nuclear Threat Initiative, issued a statement in May trying to dispel any misunderstandings.
“We have no reason to believe that the current outbreak is an engineered pathogen, as we have seen no compelling evidence to support such a hypothesis,” the Washington-based organization wrote. “Nor do we believe that the current outbreak has the potential to spread as quickly as the fictional, genetically engineered pathogen in our scenario, or cause as high a mortality rate.”
Russia’s allegations have appeared in news reports in many countries, particularly in Africa and the Middle East, regions that have become diplomatic battlegrounds between the United States, Russia and China.
State media in China routinely amplify Russian claims about the war with Ukraine and secret biological weapons research as part of their own information battle with the United States that began with the debate over the spread of Covid-19.
China’s heavily censored internet, which aggressively suppresses unwelcome political opinions, has also freely propagated conspiracy theories about a possible American role in spreading monkeypox, Bloomberg reported.
Russia’s efforts to push the biological weapons claims stem from an old Russian propaganda playbook adapted for the social media age.
Researchers at RAND Corporation dubbed the Russian strategy a “fire hose of lies” and inundated the public with a vast array of claims designed to divert attention and sow confusion and suspicion, as well as offer an alternative point of view.
The false claim circulated widely in the years that followed, even appearing once on the CBS Evening News With Dan Rather. The campaign didn’t end until 1987, when the Reagan administration warned the last Soviet leader, Mikhail S. Gorbachev, who died Tuesday, that doing so would hurt newly warming ties with the West.
According to the RAND study, Russia’s current propaganda model has been adapted to “use technology and available media in ways that would have been unthinkable during the Cold War.”
Despite “a shameless willingness to propagate partial truths or pure fiction” and a disregard for consistency, the strategy can often be compelling to some, particularly those with preconceived notions, one of the authors, Christopher Paul, said in an interview.
“There are still people who believe that the CIA caused AIDS in Africa, even though that idea has been thoroughly debunked,” Mr. Paul said. “Not many, but some.”
Like many disinformation campaigns, Russia’s allegations occasionally have a fleeting connection to fact.
Even before the war in Ukraine, Russia had sounded the alarm about US efforts to forge closer defense and research ties with several of Russia’s neighbors, including other former Soviet republics.
The United States has poured millions of dollars in aid to these countries through the Biological Threat Reduction Program. The initiative was originally intended to dismantle the remnants of post-Cold War Soviet-era nuclear, chemical and biological weapons, including in Ukraine. It has been expanded to focus on supporting biological research laboratories, which are critical to monitoring and preventing the spread of disease.
Russia had previously made unsubstantiated claims about an American-funded laboratory in the former Soviet republic of Georgia, which Russia invaded in 2008.
The State Department, in response to questions, said Russia’s accusations were intended to justify and distract from its unprovoked invasion of Ukraine.
Since the beginning of the war, Russia has raised its allegations before the United Nations Security Council. Izumi Nakamitsu, UN Under-Secretary-General and High Representative for Disarmament Affairs, twice told the Council there was no evidence of bioweapons programs in Ukraine.
Although Russian officials have repeatedly promised to provide evidence of secret weapons research in Ukraine, they have yet to do so.
On Monday, Russia will make a presentation to representatives of the 184 nations that have signed the Biological Weapons Convention. The United States, Ukraine and other countries will be able to respond later in the week. Because the treaty contains no review or enforcement provisions, there will be no official decision on Russia’s claims, but nations can state their positions on Friday.
dr Lentzos, of King’s College London, said the format — and geopolitics — would mean that many countries might not be ready to publicly contradict Russia or its biggest backer, China.
The only other time a member state of the Biological Weapons Convention called a special session was in 1997, when Cuba accused the United States of spraying a cloud of insects over the country’s crops, causing a devastating infestation.
The trial was not public, but several nations later submitted written comments on Cuba’s claims and the United States’ rebuttal. Only North Korea backed Cuba’s claim. Eight countries – Australia, Canada, Denmark, Germany, Hungary, Japan, the Netherlands and New Zealand – concluded there was no link. China and Vietnam said it was impossible to determine. (Russia did not respond.)
“There is a large silent majority that just wants to sit on the fence,” said Dr. lentzos “They don’t really want to take sides because it could harm their interests either way. So the big question isn’t, ‘Do these guys believe it or not?’ It’s about the extent to which they are motivated to act on it and speak up.”