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Russian State-Sponsored Amplification of Bio Lab Disinformation Amid War in Ukraine

Posted: 24th March 2022
By: INSIKT GROUP
Russian State-Sponsored Amplification of Bio Lab Disinformation Amid War in Ukraine
Insikt Group

Editor’s Note: The following post is an excerpt of a full report. To read the entire analysis, click here to download the report as a PDF.

The following report reviews Russian state-sponsored and US domestic narratives of alleged US bioweapon development facilities in Ukraine, before and during Russia’s ongoing war against Ukraine. This report will be of most interest to government groups, journalists, and industry professionals seeking an understanding of the historical precedent, and where, how, and why Russian influence networks target US-supported biological research facilities with false or misleading information. Research was conducted using the Recorded Future® Platform and other open sources.

Executive Summary

Insikt Group has identified a cohesive Russian state-sponsored disinformation effort attempting to undermine the Cooperative Threat Reduction (CTR) bio laboratories based in Ukraine. These efforts revolve around the central narrative that Russian intelligence and military assets have located “proof” that Ukraine, under the direction of the United States, was developing various biological weapons for deployment in the Donbas region of Ukraine and in Russia, against ethnic Russian populations. It is almost certain these narratives are false and are yet another attempt to justify Russia’s war in Ukraine. 

Russian allegations of Ukrainian bioweapons development is a longstanding narrative spanning several decades, rather than a new pretext, that has been significantly amplified since the Russian government began its war against Ukraine. Unlike prior Russian government attempts at creating a pretext for the war, including Russian President Vladimir Putin’s campaign to “denazify” Ukraine and allegations of genocide against ethnic Russians in the Donbas, a narrative of Ukraine developing bioweapons has likely been viewed in the Kremlin as more successful, resulting in near-constant coverage, especially among fringe media sources both Russian and Western. Given that the Russian government has dedicated resources to undermine CTR bio laboratories since the fall of the Soviet Union, these disinformation narratives have an established foundation of credulity among foreign and domestic audiences that subscribe to dangerous conspiracy theories, including those that believe in QAnon and various COVID-19 conspiracies. Traction among these sources has very likely encouraged the Russian government to further amplify this narrative through their influence ecosystem, thereby creating an amplification feedback loop.

Key Judgments

  • The Russian government's influence ecosystem is very likely coordinating the spread of disinformation regarding US-supported biological research facilities in Ukraine, consistent with historical Russian influence operations. 
  • Historical examples of successful Russian influence efforts against US-funded biological laboratories have very likely laid a foundation of credulity regarding US involvement in these facilities and general misunderstandings about the origin of these programs and their current status. 
  • At the same time, US domestic actors, including those that subscribe to conspiracy theories involving QAnon, COVID-19, and the “deep state”, are also discussing and amplifying disinformation about Ukrainian biological research laboratories. 
  • Russian influence actors likely believe that they have identified a successful justification for its invasion of Ukraine based on coverage of the narrative in fringe sources and audiences that believe in notable dangerous conspiracy theories.
  • It is almost certain that Russian influence actors will continue to promote negative bio laboratory narratives across all elements of the Russian influence network, based on perceived successes in reaching and influencing outside audiences thus far.
  • Online discussions of Ukrainian bio laboratories surged only after Russia committed to a full-scale invasion of Ukraine on February 24, 2022. These mentions appeared sporadically in Russian-language sources but were nearly nonexistent among tracked English-language sources initially. 
  • There is no evidence provided by the Russian government indicating that Ukrainian bio laboratories were engaging in bioweapons research or development; rather, it is almost certain that these facilities are operating solely within the bounds of defensive medical research.

Background

At the height of the Soviet Union, Soviet Socialist Republic (SSR) states stockpiled the largest number of biological weapons in history, including the manufacturing of 20 tons of smallpox per year. When the Soviet Union fell and following the independence of several states under the former Soviet Bloc, the US Department of Defense (DoD) created and implemented the Cooperative Threat Reduction (CTR) Program (also known as the Nunn-Lugar CTR, named for US Senators Sam Nunn (D-GA) and Richard Lugar (R-IN)), within the DoD’s Defense Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA). 

The program, created following the passage of the Soviet Threat Reduction Act of 1991, sought to “secure” and “dismantle” weapons of mass destruction (including biological weapons) and their associated infrastructure “in former Soviet Union states (and beyond)”. At the time, it was widely feared that remaining regimes such as Iran and North Korea would attempt to obtain these stockpiles and deploy them abroad amid the international power vacuum. 

As part of these efforts, the CTR financially supported the modernization of several US-funded bio laboratories in Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Kazakhstan, and Uzbekistan under the Biological Threat Reduction Program (BTRP) to secure Soviet-era bioweapon capabilities. Some of the BTRP’s initial successes include

  • The destruction of 12 tons of weaponized anthrax and 150 tons of anthrax weapons agents buried in pits on Vozrozhdeniye Island, Uzbekistan
  • The dismantling of various bioweapon and pathogen production facilities in Kazakhstan and Georgia, respectively
  • The creation of a destruction facility in Shchuch’ye Oblast, Russia, which has been used to dismantle artillery munitions filled with nerve agents (more than 1.9 million munitions as of 2003) 
As the global threat environment changed over the years, the BTRP further extended to partner with countries across the globe, including in Africa, Asia, and Europe, and has since largely transitioned into public health research, biological threat reduction, the study of infectious diseases, and medical countermeasure development.

 

Editor’s Note: This post is an excerpt of a full report. To read the entire analysis, click here to download the report as a PDF.