Russia: Still trying to make biolabs happen
It's not going to happen!
Just a quick dispatch from the frontlines of the information war, today, to check in with a particularly trying bit of propaganda from a QAnon and Kremlin joint venture.
From the very outset of Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine, there has been the pervasive idea that the real reason for this invasion isn’t about Vladimir Putin styling himself as Peter the Great; or seizing new oil and gas reserves; or upping the ante in the great power competition — no.
It all comes down to biolabs.
Briefly: A minor QAnon influencer, who believes that the U.S. government created COVID-19 in a Chinese lab, convinced himself that the American government runs a global network of biowarfare labs. (Why? Because the Russians told him so.) So when Russia launched a flurry of airstrikes on Ukraine’s major cities, he quickly got to work superimposing where the airstrikes hit (cities) and where Ukraine’s biological research facilities are located (cities) and concluded that Putin must be trying to uninstall America’s malign virus factories. In a sense, Putin’s brutal war is an exercise in pandemic prevention.
Well wouldn’t you know that Russia was thrilled to hear it. In the days and weeks that followed, the conspiracy theory worked its way up the chain — from an embassy to Sarajevo, to pro-Russian Telegram channels, to official Kremlin propaganda outlets, to Russian politicians, and ultimately to the Ministry of Defense.
Then it fed back into the West, by way of Tucker Carlson and Glen Greenwald. The snake eats its tail.
To be clear, this is nonsense. The only evidence that Russia — or QAnon, for that matter — has ever managed to supply to back up this idea is that: 1. These labs exist, 2. They are funded by the U.S. government, 3. They study infectious diseases, 4. Ukraine experiences infectious disease outbreaks.
Which, yeah. That’s the point of doing biological research. American funded these labs, originally, to destroy Soviet bioweapons — and is now funding them to help study pandemic-causing pathogens and to ensure biosafety levels are up to snuff to prevent lab leaks.
Of the countries involved, the only one independent assessed to have a clandestine bioweapons program is Russia.
But this is where we’ve been for the past few months: With Moscow continuing to assert this inane conspiracy theory to build bridges amongst conspiracy theorists in the West and to keep bolstering its case at home.
Take this young Russian soldier: When he called home after being captured by the Ukrainians, his mom was quick to exclaim: But the biolabs!
(Just a note that these subtitles are quite rough. There’s a few comments, and some cross-talk, that I cut for simplicity.)
Well the Ministry of Defense is now trying valiantly to go wide with it — alleging involvement from Hunter Biden, tying a supposed bioweapons attack against Cuba, and accusing the United States of experimenting on mentally ill people in their quest to perfect these bioweapons. (While that last allegation has certainly historically been true, these particular allegations are not.)
To give you a sense of just how wild-eyed these statements from the Russian ministry are, the Kremlin is alleging that all yellow fever outbreaks in Africa can be tied back to Washington.
“The interest of the American clients in mosquitoes of this species that are vectors of transmissible infections such as dengue fever, Zika and yellow fever is not accidental,” reads a summary of a Russian-language presentation given earlier this week. “During the last major outbreak of yellow fever in Africa (in 2013), there were 170 thousand cases of the severe form of this disease, including 60 thousand that resulted in death.” Russia is accusing America of “the use of Aedes mosquitoes as biological weapons, exactly the same ones operated by the U.S. military department.”
Russia is actively leaning on Westerns to advance these crazytown claims. American John Mark Dougan made an appearance at an official Russian government hearing in recently to offer his own spin on the conspiracy theory. (I have a little cameo!)
German Thomas Roper followed up, managing to link this secret bioweapons project with the World Economic Forum. (In case you’re playing conspiracy bingo at home.)
Is this effective?
Who’s to say.
It looks increasingly likely that this is not an effort by Russia to launch any kind of biological or chemical weapon attack (thankfully) it has been a very successful effort by Moscow to get its unhinged propaganda into the hands of Western disinformation agents, who deliver the bullshit in their native tongues. I’ll have some more on that in the coming week.
All in all: This can’t be good!
If you want more biolabs content, read and watch my report for the CBC on how the conspiracy took hold.
ProPublica released a deeply distressing and sad report on how disinformation about Critical Race Theory and one particular educator grew into a fervent witch hunt.
Bellingcat has a fascinating look at a Russian agent who tried to slip into the International Criminal Court as an intern.
Music unrelated, this week.