The conspiracy theory about Ukrainian army developing bioweapons and aspiring to acquire a 'dirty bomb' became a culprit of the Kremlin propaganda. A tactic applied by Soviet disinformation since at least 1949 has soared again and was picked up by fringe movements, causing damage to vitally important threat-reduction initiatives.
Tracing the roots of the tales
In early March 2022, days after launching a full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Russian authorities and media begun spreading stories about 30 secret laboratories in 14 different sites in Ukraine, supposedly run by or in collaboration with the US, dedicated to creating biological weapons.
This followed similar allegations on March 6, ten days after the beginning of the invasion, claiming that Ukraine was attempting to build a plutonium-based “dirty bomb” by using leftover from the abandoned Chernobyl nuclear power plant.
This builds on a previous statement on the eve of the invasion by Russia’s president Vladimir Putin, who claimed that the authorities in Kyiv “went as far as aspire to acquire nuclear weapons,” presenting this as one of the reasons to justify the invasion.
Over four months later, no evidence has been provided for any of the allegations, even though the Russian Federation now enjoys direct access to the very regions of Ukraine where it had claimed US authorities were storing hazardous biological material.
Features of the stories
This case study discusses key rhetorical features of these stories to determine possible reason behind their invention and anticipate their future implications.
It is worth starting by noting that these stories all share three key characteristics: vagueness, internal contradiction, and (chrono)logical inconsistency.
Vagueness: Dropping the ‘nuclear’ word for more impact
The vagueness stands out in particular from the earliest story: Putin’s claim that authorities in Kyiv “went as far as to aspire” to get nukes, an extremely vague allegation that does not mean anything concrete.
So, what purpose did the allegation serve?
The statement was part of a much longer speech seeking to justify the invasion through historical revisionism, demonization of Ukrainians, and sweeping allegations against “Nazis” in power in Kyiv.
Read in the context of the speech, the allegation to “aspire” to get nuclear weapons appears almost as an afterthought, suggesting that the claim was probably added to increase the sense of moral righteousness to stir up support for the war.
This would explain why the statement was not elaborated upon until a few days after the invasion, when the claim morphed into the unsubstantiated accusation of Ukraine seeking to build a “dirty bomb”.
Internal contradiction: Manufactured secrecy
The other statements stand out more for their internal contradiction: claims about “secret” biological laboratories conducting dangerous research are, in fact, based on openly-available information from US and Ukrainian authorities themselves.
The laboratories in question, as well as the collaborations with the US, the EU and the WHO to reduce the impact of deadly pathogens and research new vaccines were known to exist before: many countries have internationally-connected facilities and projects for biological security research, especially since the COVID-19 pandemic.
As Russian state-owned news agency TASS itself reports, the legal basis for US-Ukraine research cooperation is the ‘Agreement Concerning Cooperation in the Area of Prevention of Proliferation of Technology, Pathogens and Expertise That Could Be Used in the Development of Biological Weapons’ (our emphasis), signed by the US Department of Defense and Ukraine’s Health Ministry in 2005.
This publicly-available document was part of a series of agreements signed by the US and several former Soviet countries to keep hazardous bio-chemical material inherited from decrepit Soviet facilities under control, prevent their leak or sale to third countries or terrorist organizations, and develop effective counter-measures.
Statements by Russian authorities regarding the Ukrainian facilities, use already-debunked claims of connections between US politicians’ relatives and Ukrainian research labs to suggest of secret activities “disclosed”, “revealed” thanks to exclusive documents that the Ministry of Defence got hold of.
They fail to note, however, that the terms of said agreements are already publicly available on the websites of the relevant Ukrainian agencies.
As they try to manufacture a sense of secrecy from publicly-available information, Russian authorities’ statements need to remain incoherent to avoid being found lacking in evidence.
For this reason, they “draw attention” to the need for “clarification” regarding “true objectives” of activities they “revealed” from public documents, even though the objectives are already listed in the documents themselves.
The Russian Federation’s authorities speak of “risks” related to deadly pathogens, citing old episodes of mishandling, but failing to note that they were recognized by US authorities, which took responsibility and enacted counter-measures accordingly.
The Kremlin also repeats claims of scandals related to similar laboratories in Georgia: these claims were invented in 2018 by Russian media, who lied by misrepresenting standard, WHO-approved drugs against Hepatitis C as “untested drugs”, concocting stories of sinister US plots to experiment them on unknowing subjects.
Those who do not know that the original claims were already proven false will get an increased sense that what is happening in Ukraine is part of “something” broader, a pattern of sorts, and will be more likely to believe the new claims.
Due to the internal contradiction between allegations of secret plots on the one hand, and public availability of information on the other hand, the Russian Federation’s authorities must maintain vagueness and obfuscate details to sustain the sense of fear, threat, and panic.
In practice, this means that the allegations do not do anything to address a concrete issue and only have the effect of spreading fear to demonize an opponent.
(Chrono)Logical inconsistency: A story that should have been told earlier
The timing of allegations cast doubt on their logical coherence. The earliest claim by Putin, as discussed, was too vague to mean anything, but the “substantial” stories - the one about the dirty bomb, and those about the biological labs - were provided as rationale to justify Russia’s invasion.
Pro-Kremlin media, populist tabloids, and conspiracy theories’ websites from the fringe to the mainstream picked up the claims and echoed them, feeding the narrative of moral justification of the “special military operation” to de-militarize Ukraine.
The issue is that these claims had started to be used as evidence of the need to “neutralize” Ukraine only after the invasion had already started.
Up until then, stories about Ukraine’s labs were present in Russian disinformation channels as part of the Kremlin’s general media offensive related to COVID-19 or to discredit other countries in general, but they did not appear in the list of “threats” Putin requested to be addressed as a condition to not invade Ukraine.
If these allegations were remotely justified, why voicing them only one and a half week after the beginning of the invasion?
Explaining the statements
The bizarre timing leads to suspect that these stories were invented along the way as an attempt to justify the Kremlin’s actions ex post. But if this is the case, the question is: why?
By the time these stories started to circulate, two scenarios that the Kremlin was heavily betting on were not materializing: Ukraine’s military was not going to collapse after a quick blitzkrieg, and neither was Western unity against the Russian Federation’s aggression.
This might have put the Kremlin’s planners, who expected the war to be over so quickly as to force the West to accept a fait accompli, in front of the need to legitimize a protracted illegal military presence by delegitimizing Ukraine as a “rogue state”.
It would also explain the equally strange choice to rely on public documents to manufacture a sense of secrecy and threat: As these were already available, they provided an easily accessible source of material that could be quickly put to use by simply misrepresenting them.
This is a disinformation tactic that the Kremlin has vast experience with and can easily and rapidly produce, as it has been engaging with it since at least 1949.
Impact of disinformation
They are also being well-received and echoed by media such as Fox News, which pushed similar false claims about weapons of mass destruction leading up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq.
Although the politicians who give resonance to the story do not appear to have major influence in the West yet, the Kremlin-spread disinformation is already doing real damage.
As many vitally important threat-reduction initiatives are sponsored by or carried out in collaboration with the US or the EU, spurious allegations have the effect of delegitimizing international cooperation in research.
In fact, the know-how from biological laboratories involved in threat-reduction is what gave many countries a key frontline defence against COVID-19.
The Russian allegations are already leading some to cast doubt on similar initiatives in other parts of the world. Others are going one step further: Upon pressure from Russia, Armenia has already scaled down its cooperation with the US on research on dangerous pathogens.
The dangers of disseminating fear and mistrust about international cooperation on biological threats during a global pandemic, and especially as experts warn that future pandemics loom ahead, are obvious.