The Kremlin has made allegations against the U.S. that it operates laboratories in Ukraine and other countries without providing any evidence. It called a Geneva investigative session this week.
The United States secretly produced biological weapons in Ukraine. It taught birds how to bring pathogens into Russia. It invented Covid-19. It ran laboratories in Nigeria, which engineered the monkeypox outbreak this year.
The many lies the Kremlin has spread over the past six months since the conflict in Ukraine, but the most persistent and outrageous are those that accuse the United States of running clandestine biological research programs around the world.
The accusations have been dismissed by the United States, others, and Russia has not provided any proof. The claims keep on going. They are sometimes supported by China’s diplomats, state media and have been reported in international news reports. This has fueled conspiracy theories that linger online.
This week, Russia called for an international forum in Geneva to voice its unsupported claims. The international treaty on biological weapons, which has prohibited the creation and use of weapons made from biological toxins or other pathogens since 1975, allows member countries to request a formal hearing. Russia invoked this first one in a quarter century.
Irina A. Yanovaya, deputy chair of Russia’s lower house, the State Duma said that “this is the military biological Pandora’s box, which America has opened and filled more times than once.” The parliamentary committee she is leading was created to investigate American support for biological research labs in Ukraine and other countries.
No Western experts or officials expect Russia to present evidence supporting the allegations during the week-long gathering. Russia will continue to make them, as the past has shown. Experts believe Russia will use the mere existence and nature of the investigative session to support its claims.
Russia’s propaganda campaign sought to justify President Vladimir V. Putin’s order to invade Ukraine. In April, Putin cited a “network Western bioweapons laboratories” as one reason Russia had to act. The flurry has attempted to discredit the United States as well as its allies, Ukraine’s most powerful supporters, and increasingly the source of arms being used against Russian forces.
The accusations, even if unsupported by facts, have played into preexisting attitudes towards American dominance in international affairs. This has led to division and doubt, not necessarily to support Russia’s invasion but to shift some of the blame towards the United States and North Atlantic Treaty Organization.
Russia’s claims about secret weapons production may also undermine confidence in biological research. This is similar to the debate over origins of Covid-19.
Filippa Lentzos from King’s College London, an expert in biological threats, stated that “the message is continually about these labs” and that it will undermine confidence in that infrastructure as well as the work being done. It will also significantly harm global biosafety efforts and biosecurity efforts.
In April, Russia added monkeypox to the list of American transgressions. General Igor A. Kirillov of the Russian Army’s radiological, chemical, and biological defense force insinuated that America had caused the current outbreak, as it provided support for four research labs in Nigeria, where the epidemic first spread.
According to Zignal Labs research for The New York Times, nearly 4,000 articles were published in Russian media within the first three months following the comments. Many of these articles were shared on Twitter, Facebook, and other social media platforms.
Some Russian reports pointed out that a simulation would be held at the Munich Security Conference in 2021, an annual gathering of experts and defense officials from all over the globe, as evidence of a conspiracy. To test the effectiveness of countries in fighting a new pandemic, the simulation simulated a monkeypox outbreak, which occurred in a fictional country called Brinia, and resulted in 270 million deaths.
The Russian reports were so popular that the Nuclear Threat Initiative, an advocacy group, published a statement to dispel any misinformation.
The Washington-based organization wrote that they have no reason not to believe the current outbreak is caused by an engineered pathogen. They also haven’t seen any evidence that would support this hypothesis. “We don’t believe the current outbreak can spread as quickly as the engineered pathogen in our scenario, or cause as high a rate of case fatalities.”
Russia’s allegations have been reported in numerous countries, including in Africa and in the Middle East. These regions have become diplomatic battlegrounds for the United States, Russia, and China.
China regularly amplifies Russian claims regarding the war with Ukraine, and secret biological weapon research as part of its information battle with the United States. This began with the debate about Covid-19.
China’s highly censored internet has also freely circulated conspiracy theories regarding a possible American role, Bloomberg reported.
Russia’s attempts to promote biological weapons claims stem from an old Russia propaganda strategy, which has been adapted for the age of social media.
The Russian strategy was called a “firehose of falsehood” by researchers at RAND Corporation. It inundates the public with a multitude of claims designed to distract attention and cause distrust and confusion, as well as offering an alternative viewpoint.
This strategy dates back to the Cold War.
The K.G.B. effected a 1983 experiment at Fort Detrick, Md. According to documents at the Wilson International Center for Scholars’ Digital Archive, an anonymous letter was planted in an Indian newspaper claiming that the United States created the virus that causes AIDS.
In the years that followed, the false claim was widely circulated. It even appeared on CBS Evening News with Dan Rather. The Reagan administration warned Mikhail S. Gorbachev that the campaign would harm newly-warming relations with the West.
According to , the RAND study, Russia’s current propaganda model has been modified to make use of “technology and media in ways that were impossible during the Cold War.”
Christopher Paul, one of the authors said that despite “a shameless willingness disseminate partial facts or outright fictions” as well as a disregard for consistency, the strategy can be persuasive to many, especially to those with preconceived biases.
“There are still people that believe in the C.I.A. Paul stated that AIDS was caused by the C.I.A. “Not many, but some.”
Russia’s disinformation campaign claims sometimes have a passing connection to facts.
Russia raised concerns about U.S. attempts to establish closer defense- and research ties with Russia’s neighbours, including former Soviet republics.
Under the Biological Threat Reduction Program, millions of dollars have been poured into these countries by the United States. This initiative was initially intended to destroy Soviet-era chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons, as well as those in Ukraine. The initiative has now expanded to support biological research laboratories, which are vital to prevent disease spread.
Russia made claims previously that were not supported about a lab American-funded in Georgia’s former Soviet republic. Russia invaded Georgia in 2008.
In response to questions, the State Department stated that Russia’s accusations were made to justify and distract from its invasion of Ukraine unprovoked.
Russia has made its allegations to the United Nations Security Council since the beginning of the war. The U.N.’s under secretary general and high representative of disarmament affairs, Izumi Nakamitsu stated twice to the Council that there was no evidence for any biological weapons programs in Ukraine.
Despite repeated promises by Russian officials to prove the secret weapons research in Ukraine they have yet to do so.
Monday will see Russia present to representatives of the 184 countries that have signed the Biological Weapons Convention. The United States, Ukraine, and other countries can respond later in this week. The treaty does not contain any enforcement or verification provisions. However, the United States, Ukraine, and other countries will be able to respond on Friday.
Dr. Lentzos from King’s College London stated that many countries may not be willing to contradict Russia or China because of its format and geopolitics.
Only once has a member country of the Biological Weapons Convention called a special session, it was 1997 when Cuba accused the United States for spraying a plume with insects on its crops, resulting in a severe infestation.
Although the proceedings were not open to the public, several countries submitted written observations regarding Cuba’s claims as well as the United States’ response. Only North Korea supported Cuban’s claim. Eight countries — Australia Canada, Denmark Germany, Hungary Japan, New Zealand, Japan, Hungary, Japan and Hungary — concluded that there was no connection. China and Vietnam denied that it could be determined. (Russia did not respond.
Dr. Lentzos stated that there is a large silent majority who just want to be on the sidelines. They don’t want to choose sides because it could harm their interests. The big question isn’t “Do these guys believe it?” It’s “To what extent do they feel motivated to take action and speak up.”