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Russia’s Unfounded Claims of Secret U.S. Bioweapons Linger On and On

The United States secretly made biological weapons in Ukraine. It trained birds to bring pathogens to Russia. It created Covid-19. It operated labs in Nigeria that developed the monkeypox outbreak this year.

Of the many falsehoods the Kremlin has spread since the war in Ukraine began more than six months ago, some of the most bizarre yet enduring are those that accuse the United States of conducting clandestine biological research programs to wreak havoc around the world. to target.

The United States and others have dismissed the allegations as ridiculous and Russia has provided no evidence. Yet the claims continue to circulate. Sometimes backed by China’s diplomats and state media, they have faded and flowed into international news reports, fueling the conspiracy theories that linger online.

In Geneva, Russia this week ordered an international forum to air its baseless claims again. The Biological Weapons Convention, the international treaty that since 1975 has banned the development and use of weapons made from biological toxins or pathogens, gives member states the power to request a formal hearing on violations, and Russia has invoked the first in a quarter of a century.

“This is Pandora’s military-biological box, which the United States has opened and filled more than once,” said Irina A. Yarovaya, the deputy speaker of Russia’s lower house, the State Duma, last month. She heads a parliamentary committee set up to “examine” US support for biological research labs in Ukraine and elsewhere.

Virtually no Western officials or experts expect Russia to produce facts to corroborate the allegations during the week-long meeting. If the past is a guide, that won’t stop Russia from making them. Experts say Russia will likely use the mere existence of the investigative session, much of which will take place behind closed doors, to give its claims a patina of legitimacy.

The Russian propaganda campaign has sought to justify the invasion ordered by President Vladimir V. Putin, who in April cited a “network of Western bioweapons labs” as one of the threats that forced Russia into action. More broadly, however, the flurry of accusations has sought to discredit the United States and its allies — Ukraine’s most powerful supporters and, increasingly, the source of weapons used to fight Russian forces.

Even if unsupported by facts, the allegations have played a role in pre-existing attitudes toward US dominance in foreign affairs. The result was divisive and doubtful—not necessarily to build support for the Russian invasion, but to shift some of the blame onto the United States and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

The prominence of Russia’s allegations of secret weapons production could also erode confidence in genuine biological research, just as the debate over the origins of Covid-19 has.

“The message is constantly about these labs, and that will erode confidence in that infrastructure and the work being done,” said Filippa Lentzos, a biological threat and security expert at King’s College London. “And it will significantly undermine global biosafety and biosecurity efforts, so it does have an impact.”

Russia added the monkey pox outbreak to its list of US violations in April. Gene. Igor A. Kirillov, the head of the Russian military’s radiological, chemical and biological defense forces, insinuated that the United States started the latest outbreak because it supported four research labs in Nigeria, where the epidemic had begun to spread.

In the months following the general’s comments, according to research conducted by Zignal Labs for The New York Times, there were nearly 4,000 articles in Russian media, many of which were shared on Twitter, Facebook and other social media platforms.

As evidence of a conspiracy, some Russian reports pointed to a 2021 simulation at the Munich Security Conference, an annual meeting of defense officials and experts from around the world. The simulation, intended to test how well countries would contain a new pandemic, posited a hypothetical monkeypox outbreak that started in a fictional country called Brinia and caused 270 million deaths.

The Russian reports were so widely circulated that the advocacy group that designed the exercise, the Nuclear Threat Initiative, a statement in may try to dispel any misconception.

“We have no reason to believe that the current outbreak is a manipulated pathogen, as we have seen no convincing evidence to support such a hypothesis,” the Washington-based organization wrote. “We also do not believe that the current outbreak has the potential to spread as quickly as the fictitious, artificial pathogen in our scenario or to cause such a high death rate.”

Russia’s allegations have appeared in news stories in many countries, especially in Africa and the Middle East, regions that have become diplomatic battlefields between the United States, Russia and China.

State media in China routinely bolster Russian claims about the war with Ukraine and about secret biological weapons research, as part of their own information war with the United States that began with the debate over the spread of Covid-19.

China’s heavily censored internet, which aggressively suppresses unwanted political opinions, has also freely Scattered conspiracy theories about a possible US role in the spread of monkeypox, as Bloomberg reported.

Russia’s efforts to push through the biological weapons claims come from an old Russia propaganda playbook, adapted for the social media age.

RAND Corporation researchers called the Russian strategy a “fire hose of lie” and flooded the public with massive numbers of claims designed to divert attention and cause confusion and mistrust, as well as offer an alternative point of view.

The false claim spread extensively in the years that followed, even appearing at one point on “CBS Evening News With Dan Liever.” The campaign did not end until 1987 when the Reagan administration warned the last Soviet leader, Mikhail S. Gorbachev, who died Tuesday, that it would damage new warming relations with the West.

The current Russian propaganda model has been modified to take advantage of “technology and available media in ways that would have been unimaginable during the Cold War,” it said. the RAND study.

Despite “a blatant willingness to spread partial truths or outright fictions” and disregard for consistency, the strategy can often be convincing to some, especially those with prejudices, one of the authors, Christopher Paul, said in an interview.

“There are still people who believe that the CIA caused AIDS in Africa, even though that idea has been thoroughly debunked,” Paul said. “Not many, but some.”

Like many disinformation campaigns, Russia’s allegations sometimes have a fleeting relationship with facts.

Even before the war in Ukraine, Russia has raised the alarm about US efforts to establish closer defense and research ties with several of Russia’s neighbors, including other former Soviet Union republics.

The United States has poured millions of dollars in aid into those countries under the Biological Threat Reduction Program. The initiative was originally intended to dismantle the remains of post-Cold War Soviet-era nuclear, chemical and biological weapons, including in Ukraine. It has expanded to focus on supporting biological research labs critical to monitoring and preventing the spread of disease.

Russia previously made unsubstantiated claims about a US-funded laboratory in the former Soviet Republic of Georgia, which Russia invaded in 2008.

The foreign ministry said in a response to questions that Russia’s allegations were intended to justify and divert the unprovoked invasion of Ukraine.

Since the beginning of the war, Russia has already made its accusations to the United Nations Security Council. Izumi Nakamitsu, under UN Secretary-General and High Representative for Disarmament Affairs, has twice told the Council that there is no evidence of biological weapons programs in Ukraine.

Although Russian officials have repeatedly promised to provide evidence of the secret weapons research in Ukraine, they have not yet done so.

On Monday, Russia will give a presentation to representatives of the 184 countries that have signed the Biological Weapons Treaty. The United States, Ukraine and other countries could respond later in the week. With no verification or enforcement provisions in the treaty, there will be no official ruling on Russia’s claims, but countries can make their views known on Friday.

dr. Lentzos of King’s College London said that because of its size — and geopolitics — many countries may not be willing to publicly contradict Russia or its biggest lender, China.

The only other time a country that is a member of the Biological Weapons Convention called a special session was in 1997, when Cuba accused the United States of spraying a plume of insects over the country’s crops, causing a devastating plague. caused.

The proceedings were not public, but several countries later submitted written comments on Cuba’s claims and the United States’ retaliation. Only North Korea supported Cuba’s claim. Eight countries — Australia, Canada, Denmark, Germany, Hungary, Japan, the Netherlands and New Zealand — concluded that there was no association. China and Vietnam said it was impossible to determine. (Russia did not answer.)

“There is a large silent majority who just want to sit on the fence,” said Dr. Lentzos. “They don’t really want to take sides, because it could harm their interests anyway. So the big question isn’t ‘Do these guys believe it or not?’ It is the extent to which they are motivated to act on it and speak out.”