Bio-tech and chemical weapons: the myth busting

In an effort to distract from their unjustified invasion of Ukraine, Russia is leading a disinformation campaign accusing the United States of funding Ukrainian labs that make biological and chemical weapons. The United States does indeed fund labs in Ukraine, but the funding is related to a partnership that began in 2005 between the US Department of Defense and the Ukrainian Ministry of Health designed to stop the emergence of infectious diseases from the region. According to the United States embassy in Ukraine, “the US Biological Threat Reduction Program works with Ukrainian officials to “consolidate and secure pathogens and toxins of security concern in Ukrainian government facilities.” (Gimore, 2022) The labs are hosted in Ukraine because following the collapse of the Soviet Union, the United States launched a mission to secure old Soviet weapons facilities and turn them for good use. According to one article, although the US does fund these labs, local governments are in control of decision-making and day-to-day perations. (Gimore, 2022)

The Russian disinformation campaign, which has picked up steam since the invasion, is actually not a new claim. Dating back to 2018, Russia has accused the United States of hosting these facilities within Ukraine and other former Soviet republics. Although not in Ukraine, one lab, the Richard Lugar Center for Public Health Research, has been at the center of the Russian disinformation campaign. According to one source, the Lugar lab began receiving the bulk of disinformation targets after Russian agents tried to murder a former Russian spy in England. (Lentzos, 2018) One can only assume that this disinformation stems from the desire of the Russian government to shift the focus from their use of such weapons, to try and place culpability on the part of the Americans, likely to appeal to a domestic audience. Within Lentzos’ piece, he writes:

Nevertheless, Russia’s messaging has only become more aggressive over the course of the fall. In early October, the head of Russian special forces for nuclear, biological, and chemical protection, Major-General Igor Kirillov, claimed that the Lugar lab is part of a larger US effort to build up its military biological potential and gain control of national collections of dangerous pathogens. Russia views this as a direct security threat. Going a
step further, the chair of the Russian parliament’s committee on defence, Colonel-General Vladimir Shamanov, threatened that “Russia will take diplomatic and military measures in response to the deployment of the large-scale US military-biological program in states bordering the Russian Federation, in particular Georgia.” (2018)

Although these specific claims are from 2018, the motivations of the Russian government have not changed. They are more than ever trying to find a way to evade responsibility for their war crimes, and the use of such propaganda, based on a sliver of truth (the fact the US does have labs in Ukraine and Georgia) is an attempt to manipulate the public to believe their accusations.

As Rachel Gilmore writes, their propaganda is not only effective in Russia but also in the United States. Public figures such as Fox News host Tucker Carlson have highlighted this conspiracy theory. In fact, on one of his nightly episodes, he said, “The Russian disinformation they’ve been telling us for days is a lie, and a conspiracy theory, and crazy, and immoral to believe — is in fact totally and completely true.” (Gimore, 2022) Carlson and the American far-right group QAnon have shared their belief in the conspiracy promoting it on its forums. In addition, the Global Times, which is directly connected to the Chinese Communist Party, published an editorial on March 11, 2022, with the headline “The US owes world an answer on bio-lab.” Interestingly enough, when one inserts a google search for “Biotechnology and laboratories used in the war,” this article is a top result.

According to a research report conducted by the Brookings Institute, popular American podcasters, such as Charlie Kirk and Steve Bannon, have promoted the conspiracy theory several times on their shows. Within the report, the authors note: Overall, 30 podcast episodes in our data set repeated the false claim that the US government funds biological weapons facilities in Ukraine. Of those, 27 episodes supported the bioweapons narrative. Three episodes aired the narrative without endorsing or refuting it. As of March 21, 2022, 12 of the 13 shows that gave credence to the conspiracy are in Apple’s Top 100 for the category “News.” Two of these shows are currently in the Top 10. Notably, while many prominent political podcasters on the right embraced the bioweapons conspiracy, at least one did not: The Ben Shapiro Show devoted a segment of an episode to debunking the narrative. ( Brandt, Wirtschafter, and Danaditya, 2022)

Disinformation such as this, where the source may not be known to the general public as unreputable, is highly dangerous and only gives more fuel to the Russian-led disinformation campaign.

Works Cited

Brandt, Jessica, Valerie Wirtschafter, and Adya Danaditya. “Popular podcasters spread Russian disinformation about Ukraine biolabs.” Brookings Institution, 23 March 2022, https://www.brookings.edu/techstream/popular-podcasters-spread-russian-disinformation-about-ukraine-biolabs/.

Accessed 10 June 2022.
Gilmore, Rachel. “Russia says the US is making bioweapons in Ukraine. Here’s the reality – National | Globalnews.ca.” Global News, 10 March 2022,
https://globalnews.ca/news/8673062/russia-ukraine-conspiracy-misinformation-bioweapo ns-biolab/.

Accessed 10 June 2022.
Global Times Editorial Board. “US owes world an answer on bio lab: Global Times editorial.” Global Times, 11 March 2022, https://www.globaltimes.cn/page/202203/1254649.shtml.

Accessed 10 June 2022.
Lentzos, Filippa. “The Russian disinformation attack that poses a biological danger.” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, 19 November 2018, https://thebulletin.org/2018/11/the-russian-disinformation-attack-that-poses-a-biological-danger/amp/.

Accessed 10 June 2022.
Price, Ned. “The Kremlin’s Allegations of Chemical and Biological Weapons Laboratories in Ukraine – United States Department of State.” State Department, 9 March 2022, https://www.state.gov/the-kremlins-allegations-of-chemical-and-biological-weapons-labor atories-in-ukraine/.