Everything new is well-forgotten old. Or why Russia still insists on 'secret US biolabs in Ukraine'

Everything new is well-forgotten old. Or why Russia still insists on ‘secret US biolabs in Ukraine’

Photo: ua.depositphotos.com / kwanchaidp
28 October 2023
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From the very beginning of the full-scale invasion, “American biolabs in Ukraine” have been regularly mentioned by Russian propagandists. Allegedly, they are one of the reasons why Russia is defending itself, because the “evil US and NATO” have surrounded it with their laboratories producing biological weapons, such as deadly viruses programmed against Russians, and much more, as the authors of such fakes can imagine. “Secret biolabs” is an old, tried-and-true narrative that Russia always turns to when it needs to justify its actions. Its roots date back to the time of the Soviet Union when it accused America of creating and using biological weapons.

What did it all start from?

Overall, Russian speculations about American biolabs date back to the times of the USSR. As claimed by the American scientist Milton Leitenberg, from 1949 to 1988, the Soviet Union conducted an almost continuous information campaign against the USA, accusing them of using biological weapons. For example, in the 1980s, the Soviet Union tried to convince the world that “HIV was created by Americans and deliberately released in Africa to annihilate the African population.” After the lie was exposed, Gorbachev had to apologize to US President Ronald Reagan. Russians have continued this tradition.

As an independent state in the global information space, Russia began with the revival of some Soviet-era fakes, including the claim that “the USA, together with South Africa, developed a bomb that would kill all ‘blacks’ and leave whites alive, and with Israel, a bomb that would only kill Arabs.” In Russia, “devious” Americans supposedly “imported Colorado beetles,” which is why they had such poor potato harvests. In general, any outbreaks of infectious diseases worldwide or other troubles are presented and continue to be presented as the work of the USA.

Ukraine came into the focus of Russian propagandists after it began to renovate, with the support of the United States, former Soviet research facilities, which were involved in the development of biological weapons. Alongside other countries formed after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Ukraine participates in the Cooperative Biological Threat Reduction Program (a subprogram within the broader Cooperative Threat Reduction Program since 1991, known as the Nunn-Lugar Program). Over the past two decades, the program has provided support to 46 Ukrainian laboratories, medical institutions, and diagnostic centers. The collaboration focuses on improving healthcare and agricultural measures. In contrast, the Kremlin falsely portrays this peaceful cooperation as supposed military biological activity by the USA abroad.

The first fakes about biolabs

Fakes about biolaboratories began to emerge en masse in 2010-2013. The newspaper “2000” systematically wrote about “American labs producing biological weapons for terrorists” in Ukraine.

The newspaper “2000” is a nationwide political weekly, published in Kyiv since 1999. From March 14 to April 11, 2014, the publication temporarily did not come out, but the internet portal “2000.ua” continued to operate. In 2017, the website was blocked for spreading disinformation about Ukraine. The newspaper only referred to Russian politicians and scientists as international experts, spreading the myth of Russia as a reliable and equal partner to Ukraine.

As of 2023, the publication no longer operates: copies of the newspaper are not being published, and the internet address does not exist. However, mentions of the work of one of the pro-Russian media outlets have been preserved, and some materials are still available on other websites and forums. “Detector Media” writes that often the journalists of the newspaper, lacking real evidence, presented opinions of “experts” as facts. An example of one such comment: “We consulted with an expert who worked in the early 80s as a researcher at a secret facility in Zagorsk (Russia). For understandable reasons, we don’t mention his last name — he had the highest level of access to state secrets (No. 1, or ‘special significance’). The interlocutor expressed the opinion that what is happening in our country regarding the implementation of the American project to reduce biothreats is an experiment in creating advanced forms of so-called genetic-biological weapons.”

During that period, Ukrainians were frightened by the spread of infections such as plague, Siberian ulcer, cholera, and avian flu from these laboratories. It was reported that the buildings were constructed with violations of standards, particularly in ventilation, which posed risks of deadly viruses escaping outside. Moreover, in Vinnytsia, the laboratory was located near a school, and in Simferopol — near a park in the city center. Additionally, no material was complete without mentions of “terrorists”. For example, a quote from an article about the Vinnytsia laboratory: “A high-security infections laboratory in the city center provokes biological terrorism”.

In 2018, the investigative community InformNapalm exposed the planning and shooting of a series of reports about chemical laboratories in Georgia and Ukraine in 2013. Russian journalist Oleksandr Rogatkin, in particular, was engaged in this at the request of the “News of the Week” program. It was during this time that reports aired on Russian channels about the destruction of chemical weapons from Syria in Russian plants. News about the construction of biolabs along the border with Russia was meant to explain the presence of poisonous substances in Syria. However, the materials were never published: the newly elected Georgian government declared friendship with Russia, so such accusations did not fit into the television narrative of the time. In Ukraine, the Revolution of Dignity began, and Rogatkin shifted his focus to the topic of “the war of Donbas against Ukraine.”

New realities, new details

After Russia’s invasion of Crimea and parts of Donetsk and Luhansk regions, the rhetoric slightly changes. The adjective “military” starts to appear next to the phrase “American biolabs.” Fakes directly related to the military begin to emerge. In 2016, the terrorist group “DPR” reported the deaths of over 20 Ukrainian soldiers due to an unknown virus administered by field medics. Russians decided to add details:

  • They identified the virus as the “California flu,” which is immune to all modern drugs.
  • Experiments with the virus were allegedly conducted in an American laboratory near Kharkiv (located near a base belonging to US military experts), from where it leaked.
  • Not only did 20 Ukrainian soldiers die, but another 200 people were also hospitalized.

However, there were no “secret labs in Kharkiv,” nor were there any reports of such a widespread illness or viral infections among military personnel in the Ukrainian Ministry of Defense.

However, there were no “secret laboratories in Kharkiv” or mass diseases and viral infections among military personnel. There is no information from the  Ministry of Defense of Ukraine about such a mass disease.

Furthermore, Russia used the narrative about biolabs to undermine the population’s trust in the Ukrainian government. For instance, this was done through local supporters of the “Russian world” ideology, such as former school director and mayoral candidate in Kherson, Tetiana Tomilina. On regional television, she referred to a regular sanitary-epidemiological station in the city center as a “secret” U.S. laboratory.

Russian propaganda spread fakes about biolabs in Europe just as actively as in the Ukrainian information space. To bolster their propaganda, Russia employs Western “experts” and foreign media. For example, in 2017, two articles with similar titles appeared almost simultaneously: “Why is the USA turning Ukraine into a biological bomb?” by Serbian journalist Zoran Milosevic, and “The USA is turning Ukraine into a biological bomb” by Russian Arina Tsukanova. A few years later, the ideas from their works would become part of the propagandist campaign led by Viktor Medvedchuk. Milosevic wrote that the USA was expanding its network of military biological laboratories in the former Soviet republics, encircling Russia and creating a threat to it. Meanwhile, Ukraine, after the “color revolution” of 2014, turned into a large base for such facilities. It hosts 15 American labs, while in Georgia there are only a few, and in Kazakhstan — just one. This is why epidemics frequently occur in Ukraine, about which the government and media largely remain silent. Another voice echoing the Kremlin’s narrative in Europe is Bulgarian journalist Dilyana Gaytandzhieva. In 2018, she started her own blog, where she consistently publishes accusatory materials about the USA, including in matters of bioweapon development in Ukraine.

Another wave of fakes after a full-scale invasion

Therefore, it’s not surprising that the “evergreen” myth resurfaced and gained traction with the onset of full-scale invasion in 2022. Everything follows the same old principles, but with current emphases. The U.S. biolabs in Ukraine are now also NATO military facilities. As for Ukrainians, they are now supposedly getting infected with viruses not through the usual “leaks from poorly designed laboratory premises,” but through “mosquito bites.”

Factories damaged by Russian forces’ strikes in temporarily occupied territories began to be used by Russians to produce propagandist videos. The pharmaceutical company “Microkhim” plant in Rubizhne gained popularity in this regard. It played the role of a “Ukrainian-American laboratory” twice: it was featured in reports by the channels “Russia-1” (July 2022) and “Zvezda” (January 2023). The information from these segments was refuted by the company itself and the Luhansk Regional Military Administration.

After the start of the large-scale invasion, pro-Russian Polish media claimed that in a secret laboratory in Kharkiv, allegedly under the control of U.S. experts, they were researching how bats transmit diseases to humans. Slovakian media expanded on this fake news, stating that during “experiments” in the Kharkiv biolab, 20 Ukrainian soldiers had allegedly died and another 200 were wounded. This same disinformation was also spread to the Italian audience. To bolster its external influence, Russia utilizes forged documents as its “evidence base.” Russian propagandist media in Germany write that, allegedly, official documents found by Russia confirm that the USA has been funding Ukrainian laboratories producing biological weapons since 2015.

Why does Russia spread fakes about biolabs?

Among all of Russia’s current statements about the activities of so-called “biolabs” in Ukraine, several main objectives for their dissemination can be highlighted. Firstly, Russia is trying to justify its invasion of Ukraine. For example, in July 2022, the Secretary of Russia’s Security Council, Nikolai Patrushev, stated that Russia was “forced” to intervene in Ukraine due to the activities of US biolabs on its territory. This narrative is also echoed by pro-Russian European media outlets. One such article suggests that the US and NATO are conducting a biological weapons operation in Ukraine, and Russia is “eliminating” this threat.

Later, the Kremlin accused Germany of allegedly conducting its own military-biological program in Ukraine. In reality, Germany initiated the Biosecurity Program back in 2013. Within the program, Germany assists nine partner countries in combating biological threats. This includes working to reduce the risk of spreading biological pathogens and developing early detection systems for disease outbreaks. Chemical and biological weapons expert Richard Guthrie assures that Russia spreads fakes about biolabs to psychologically influence and intimidate people. Ultimately, people may lose trust in the government, be afraid to consume products or drinking water in a certain region, and, as a result, consider leaving.

Another widespread narrative from Russia is the idea of “external control” under Ukraine by Western states. Russian representatives claim that the US, through the biolabs, wants to control the entire world.

Secondly, Russia is making every effort to suggest that biolabs exist in Ukraine in order to preemptively shift responsibility for the use and production of weapons of mass destruction. Putin threatened Ukraine that he would use nuclear weapons if there was a “threat” to Russian territories. The leadership of Russia intimidates its own population with statements about the production of bioweapons in Ukraine and potential outbreaks of epidemics. As an example, in March 2022, the head of “Roscosmos,” Dmitry Rogozin, stated that Ukraine was testing “ethnic weapons” that could target a specific ethnicity — Russians. This sounds familiar, doesn’t it?

Thirdly, Russia attempts to divert the attention of international partners from real war crimes in Ukraine and uses diplomatic forums to do so. While Russians were killing civilian populations, Russia’s Permanent Representative to the UN, Vasily Nebenzia, called for a meeting of the UN Security Council. During the meeting, Nebenzia spread false accusations about Ukrainian labs funded by the US. However, Nebenzia failed to mention the crucial fact that a similar program was conducted by the US in Russian labs until 2014.

The reaction of the global community

To counter Russian disinformation about biolabs, foreign countries have issued public statements. The US refuted Russia’s false claims as early as 2020 when disinformation about biolabs was actively spread in an attempt to divert attention from the topic of the coronavirus. The US Embassy in Ukraine stated that dangerous pathogens do not fall into the wrong hands and called Russia’s claims a lie.

Furthermore, Russia tries to accuse Ukraine of engaging in such activities themselves. In 2021, the US State Department reported that Russia continues to support an offensive biological weapons program and violates its obligations under the Biological Weapons Convention. A similar statement was released by the US on March 14, 2023.

An example of Russia’s use of chemical and biological weapons is the poisoning of Russian opposition figure Alexei Navalny in 2020. German doctors confirmed that Navalny was poisoned with the nerve agent “Novichok.” The same nerve agent was used on March 4, 2018, to poison former Russian GRU colonel Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in the British city of Salisbury. Later, British police identified two Russian citizens who entered the country using passports under the names Alexander Petrov and Ruslan Boshirov as the prime suspects. Also, in 2016, Russian dissident Oleksandr Litvinenko was poisoned with radioactive polonium, most likely with the approval of the Russian dictator.

In response to false claims, in March 2022, the  U.N. High Representative for Disarmament Affairs Izumi Nakamitsu, stated that there is no evidence of a biological weapons program in Ukraine. During a UN meeting, the US Deputy Representative, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, added that Russia has a list of false accusations against other countries for the violations it commits itself. The US and its partner countries are concerned that Russia’s claims about an American bioweapons program in Ukraine are aimed at preparing for its own chemical or biological attacks in Ukraine.

The UK’s Permanent Representative to the UN, Barbara Woodward, confirms that Russia has not provided any real evidence of the existence of military biolabs, apart from distorted official documents and copied images from Wikipedia. Woodward later emphasized that Russia’s conspiracy theories are simply cluttering the agenda.

Furthermore, Professor Roman Velfel, who heads the Munich Institute of the Bundeswehr, personally visited the laboratories in Kharkiv. Previously, Russia claimed that 20 Ukrainian soldiers were killed and another 200 injured as a result of “experiments” with bioweapons in the Kharkiv lab. In reality, this laboratory provides consultations and conducts research on diseases in agricultural animals such as cows and pigs. According to Roman Velfel, Russia’s accusations of bioweapons development in Ukraine are completely baseless.

Russia is trying to build an empire of fake narratives about biolabs, adding more and more “new details.” Despite all attempts, it fails to shift responsibility for its crimes onto Ukraine, as its disinformation campaign does not withstand any scrutiny. While Russia tries to cloud the international information space with its disinformation, the diplomatic and economic isolation of the aggressor continues. Efforts to sow distrust and create a rift between Ukraine and the West only strengthen international support against Russia.

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