World·Analysis

How a QAnon conspiracy theory about Ukraine bioweapons became mainstream disinformation

More than a quarter of Americans polled at the end of March said they believe that the United States has been developing bioweapons in labs across Ukraine — a conspiracy conceived, crafted, and amplified by QAnon and the Russian government.

It started as a fringe belief. Now it's an official stated reason for Russia’s invasion

The bio-level 3 and 4 research lab at the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases at Fort Detrick is seen in this file photo from Sept. 26, 2002. On Feb. 24, a theory emerged that Moscow was out to destroy a clandestine U.S. weapons program in 'biolabs' across Ukraine. (Olivier Douliery/AFP/Getty Images)

More than a quarter of Americans polled at the end of March said they believe that the United States has been developing bioweapons in labs across Ukraine — a conspiracy conceived, crafted and amplified by QAnon and the Russian government.

Five weeks ago, that conspiracy theory was little more than a fringe belief. Today, it is an official stated reason for Russia's brutal invasion. And it could be a sign of what President Vladimir Putin is plotting next.

"There's zero basis in fact for doing anything in bioweapons or any kind of research like that at all," said Robert Pope, a senior official at the U.S. Defense Threat Reduction Agency. He says this pattern goes back to Soviet propaganda, trying to establish that America has been developing weapons to destroy the Russian people.

"This is purely a Russian propaganda effort to try and undermine the work the United States is doing," said Tom Moore, a non-proliferation expert who has worked in the U.S. Senate and at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

"The smoking gun isn't even a mushroom cloud in this case. It's not even a provable vial of anthrax anywhere. We've gotten rid of all that. This is purely political."

It started with a tweet

Bioweapons remain a firm red line in international war. During the Cold War, both the United States and the Soviet Union weaponized agents like anthrax and smallpox but never deployed them on any large scale. Anthrax can be deployed against an enemy and be transmitted organically when spores get into the body, while smallpox can spread through person-to-person contact among military personnel or civilians.

The U.S. shuttered its bioweapons research program in the late 1960s, while the Soviets continued their development right up until the fall of the Berlin Wall. Fears of bioweapons research have continued, however.

On Feb. 24, in the hours after Russian airstrikes began hitting military and civilian targets across Ukraine, a theory emerged that Moscow was out to destroy a clandestine U.S. weapons program in "biolabs" across Ukraine.

A tweet by user @WarClandestine claims that the intent of Russia's invasion of Ukraine is to destroy supposed U.S.-backed bioweapon labs. (Twitter/War Clandestine)

In the weeks before the invasion, Twitter user @WarClandestine had largely been tweeting about the occupation taking place in Ottawa. In previous months, the account also promoted QAnon conspiracy theories, telling his followers to trust "the plan" to return former U.S. President Donald Trump to power.

Then the account, run by a user only just recently identified as Jacob Creech, a former member of the Virginia National Guard, shared a map plotting "biolabs" in Ukraine. He cited "speculation" that Russia may be targeting its airstrikes for those labs.

"China and Russia indirectly (and correctly) blamed the U.S. for the [COVID-19] outbreak, and are fearful that the U.S./allies have more viruses (bioweapons) to let out," he wrote.

@WarClandestine's tweets about U.S.-backed biolabs in Ukraine racked up thousands of re-tweets. (Twitter/War Clandestine)

The tweets racked up thousands of retweets. The claims were quickly run, verbatim, on conspiracy website Infowars hours later, with a blaring headline: "Russian Strikes Targeting U.S.-Run Bio-Labs in Ukraine?"

In the days that followed, this conspiracy theory would percolate through a string of anti-vaccine, QAnon, and pro-Russian social media networks. @WarClandestine was suspended by Twitter multiple times, but screengrabs of his tweets were shared widely.

Theories like this are fairly common among those who ascribe to QAnon — which holds that there is a corrupt "deep state" in the U.S., responsible for rigging elections, developing COVID-19, and trafficking children into sex slavery. Only Trump, they believe, has been able to effectively fight this corrupt shadow regime.

In particular, QAnon dogma has long believed that Ukraine is a refuge for deep state actors. 

Russian propaganda 

The very tenets of @WarClandestine's theory relies on Russian propaganda. When he first launched the theory in late February, he pointed to comments made to a Russian newspaper in 2021 by a close Putin advisor that "more and more biological laboratories under U.S. control are growing considerably in the world and by a strange coincidence, mainly by the Russian and Chinese borders."

The comments echo a concerted effort made by Moscow and Beijing to suggest that the U.S. was responsible for the COVID-19 virus — a push that coincided with mounting domestic criticism of their governments' autocratic handling of the pandemic.

Russia and China have also used the United Nations to allege the U.S. is running a clandestine bioweapons program, in violation of the Biological Weapons Convention.

But experts say Russia and China are keen to deflect criticism of their own programs.

An example of one of many Russian website pushing the bioweapons theory, rusdozor.ru, features an image of Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky. (rusdozor.ru)

"They say, 'No, I know you are, but what am I?' That's what they've been doing, in this age of false equivalence, for some time now," said Moore.

All three countries are signatories to the largely non-binding Biological Weapons Convention, but only the United States publishes details about its efforts to comply with it. An independent global health review ranks the U.S. first in the world in terms of biosafety, biosecurity and transparency.

Russia makes it 'official'

On Feb. 27, the Russian Embassy in Sarajevo posted an update to its Facebook page, writing that in addition to Moscow's stated reasons for invading Ukraine, the "demilitarization and denazification" of the country, it was also because the U.S. was "filling Ukraine with biolabs, which were — very possibly — used to study methods for destroying the Russian people at the genetic level."

@WarClandestine picked up on the news with glee: "My hypothesis was correct!" he wrote on a freshly created Twitter account. The #biolabs hashtag began trending on Twitter and TikTok.

In the days that followed, a raft of Russian-language channels on Telegram, a platform popular in Russia and Ukraine, began sharing posts about these rumoured bioweapons labs. Sputnik News, a Kremlin-run propaganda agency, published a report accusing the government of deleting documents proving the labs' existence.

Russia Ambassador to the UN Vassily Nebenzia shows documents during a UN Security Council emergency meeting in New York on March 11, 2022. The Security Council held the meeting at the request of Moscow, after it accused the U.S. of funding research into the development of biological weapons in Ukraine. (Timothy A. Clary/AFP/Getty Images)

In early March, former Russian president Dmitry Medvedev gave an interview where he mused that Russia did not know who ran or managed Ukraine's biological facilities, and suggested they could lead to an infectious disease outbreak. On March 3, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told a news conference that the U.S. had "developed pathogens" in those Ukrainian biolabs.

By March 11, the Russian Ministry of Defence was holding news conferences alleging that the U.S. bioweapons program involved deliberately infecting birds and dispatching them to fly into Russia.

"There's zero basis in fact" for those allegations, Pope said. No credible independent review has backed up these claims. 

"There is no conspiracy," Moore said. "There is no man behind the curtain."

WATCH | Robert Pope on how the Russian government spreads disinformation:

Robert Pope on how the Russian government spreads disinformation

2 months ago
Duration 0:31
Robert Pope of the U.S. Defense Department's Defense Threat Reduction Agency describes how the Russian government exploits fear to help spread disinformation.

'Tiny grains of truth'

On March 12, the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs shared an infographic on Twitter: It connected two Ukrainians, Ulana and Marko Suprun, to a man in an SS uniform.

"Ukraine's biolabs were funded by the Pentagon to develop biological weapons," the ministry wrote. "These labs in Ukraine were subordinate to the Health Ministry. In the summer of 2016, Barack Obama's Democrat administration sent U.S. national Ulyana Suprun (born and raised in the U.S.) to Ukraine, where she became health minister of Ukraine."

When asked about the tweet in late March, Ulana Suprun laughed. The ministry correctly identified her as the former minister of health for Ukraine; her husband, as the founder of Stop Fake, an anti-disinformation agency; and her father, an American Ukrainian. But that's where the accuracy ends. 

The tweet includes a line to Ulana's grandfather: A man in a Nazi SS uniform.

"That's not my grandfather!" she told CBC News from Kyiv. 

"What was striking was how they put the story together. It's how disinformation works, right?" she said. "Tiny grains of truth. And then they mash them together." 

That's exactly what's at the core of the biolabs conspiracy theory.

WATCH | Justin Ling on how the conspiracy theory about biolabs in Ukraine went viral:

Justin Ling on how the conspiracy theory about biolabs in Ukraine went viral

2 months ago
Duration 1:44
Investigative reporter Justin Ling exposes how a conspiracy theory about biolabs in Ukraine started with a single tweet, went viral, exploded into the mainstream and eventually became part of the official Russian narrative to justify its invasion of Ukraine.

U.S. biological research in Ukraine

The U.S. does fund biological research in Ukraine through its Department of Defence — just as it does in dozens of countries around the world.

That program began in the 1990s, after the fall of the Soviet Union, which maintained an expansive bioweapons program. Two U.S. senators, Sam Nunn and Richard Lugar, began worrying about a network of those laboratories that were now the responsibility of newly independent governments with little expertise in biosafety.

Those efforts were eventually consolidated into the Defense Threat Reduction Agency.

"These programs represented a really, really, really forward step in an area where the United States and the Soviet Union never really achieved a whole lot of progress," Moore said. He worked for Sen. Lugar for a decade, starting in the early 2000s. "This is why we're doing it today."

A damaged gas mask lies on the pavement at a Russian position which was overran by Ukrainian forces, outside Kyiv, Ukraine, Thursday, March 31, 2022. (Vadim Ghirda/The Associated Press)

In its earliest form, the program sent American experts into labs throughout Europe to help local scientists identify dangerous pathogens, and either destroy or better secure them. New labs were built, security protocols were established and staff were trained. 

Over time, as the bulk of the bioweapons program was dismantled — "we got rid of what we could co-operatively get rid of," Moore said — the program turned its attention to figuring out how to better monitor and prepare for infectious disease outbreaks.

That included helping those former Soviet states and satellites safely store viruses and bacteria collected from nature.

In 2018, then-Health Minister Suprun embarked on an effort to modernize Ukraine's biosafety and biosecurity system, working with Pope's agency. Those attempts were consistently maligned by Moscow as nefarious.

Worry of a 'false flag' attack

On March 8, as U.S. Undersecretary of State Victoria Nuland testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee about the escalating war in Ukraine, Sen. Marco Rubio, in an apparent attempt to rebut the emerging propaganda, asked Nuland: "Does Ukraine have chemical or biological weapons?"

"Ukraine has biological research facilities," Nuland said, stressing the word "research." What's more, she said, the U.S. government was "quite concerned Russian forces may be seeking to gain control of [them]."

This has been a long-standing concern. When Suprun was health minister, Russian forces seized control of two biological research facilities in the eastern city of Donetsk and an anti-plague research facility in Crimea.

"Every single strain of bacteria or virus has been genetically sequenced and it is identifiable," she said.

The fear was that, should Russia gain access to those samples, it could "release them somewhere in the world and blame Ukraine, because they can be identified as being Ukrainian," she said.

WATCH | Russia accused of 'false flag' tactics over bioweapons claim:

Russia accused of ‘false flag’ tactics over bioweapons claim about U.S., Ukraine

2 months ago
Duration 2:04
The United Nations says there’s no evidence to prove Russia’s claim that Ukraine ran biological warfare laboratories with U.S. support. Ukraine expressed concern that Russia’s claim could be a ‘false flag’ tactic designed to allow the Kremlin to use its own biological weapons against Ukrainians.

The U.S. State Department has repeatedly warned that Russia may be plotting a "false flag" chemical or biological weapons attack. Rubio, at the committee hearing, noted that Russian disinformation outlets were already raising the spectre of a Ukrainian-directed biological weapons attack.

"If there's a biological or chemical weapon incident or attack inside of Ukraine, is there any doubt in your mind that it would be the Russians that would be behind it?" he asked. 

"There is no doubt in my mind, senator," Nuland replied. "And it is a classic Russian technique to blame the other guy for what they're planning to do themselves."

'It's a joke'

The conspiracy theory had gotten so well-established that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky himself addressed it, in an interview with independent Russian journalists at the end of March.

"It's a joke," he said in Russian. "There's nothing for me to explain. There's nothing here. We'd love to, but there's nothing here. No nuclear weapons, no chemical biolaboratories, no chemical weapons. These don't exist."

Zelensky, centre, walks in the town of Bucha, just northwest of the Ukrainian capital Kyiv on April 4, 2022. (Ronaldo Schemidt/AFP/Getty Images)

There is also no clear indication that Russia intends to use any kind of non-conventional weapons in Ukraine. Moore says the real utility of this biolabs conspiracy is in the information war.

"This is purely for the consumption of the masses," he said. "This is purely to flood the zone."

But weakening Western resolve has a real strategic benefit for Moscow.

Marko Suprun, the host and producer with anti-disinformation agency StopFake, said Moscow hopes to destroy the "congressional unity" that informs the U.S. response to the war. If even a few politicians take to the biolabs conspiracy theory, he said, "you suddenly slow everything down, and instead of getting more Javelins [anti-tank missiles], you get less Javelins." 

"They call it a war of attrition," Marko said. "Disinformation is targeted politics of attrition."


WATCH | How the dangerous Ukrainian "biolabs" myth went mainstream, from CBC's The National: 

How a QAnon conspiracy theory about Ukraine ‘biolabs’ went mainstream

1 month ago
Duration 9:04
Investigative reporter Justin Ling exposes how a QAnon conspiracy theory about U.S.-funded 'biolabs' in Ukraine morphed into mainstream disinformation, and what that could suggest about Russia's own dangerous ambitions.

Corrections

  • An earlier version of this story said that anthrax, like smallpox, can be spread through person-to-person contact. In fact, anthrax can be transmitted organically when spores get into the body.
    Apr 10, 2022 11:48 AM ET

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Justin Ling is a Montreal-based journalist and the host of Uncover: The Village. He has written for the Globe & Mail, The Guardian, Foreign Policy, VICE News and others.

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