To hear some corners of the internet tell it, Russian President Vladimir Putin has a very good reason for invading Ukraine: the destruction of U.S.-funded bioweapons labs in the region.
There’s just one problem with this allegation — experts have visited the labs tied to this program, and found the claim isn’t true.
The conspiracy theory has picked up traction in recent days, breaking free from Telegram chat rooms and Facebook comments to a new platform: international news. Fox News’ Tucker Carlson took centre stage in television sets across the continent Wednesday night and delivered an impassioned monologue about the “secret labs in Ukraine.”
“The Russian disinformation they’ve been telling us for days is a lie, and a conspiracy theory, and crazy, and immoral to believe — is in fact totally and completely true,” Carlson said on air.
He speculated about what they could be “doing” in the labs, adding he has to “assume” there’s a “military application” to the research.
He made that leap based on a clip he aired of U.S. Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs, Victoria Nuland, who testified during a U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing this week.
When pressed on whether Ukraine has chemical or biological weapons, Nuland replied that Ukraine has “biological research facilities.”
“We are now quite concerned Russian troops, Russian forces may be seeking to gain control of (those facilities),” Nuland added.
To hear Carlson tell it, she had just confirmed the entire conspiracy theory. But the truth is more nuanced, according to multiple experts, government documents, and investigators.
Here are the facts.
The U.S. does fund labs — but they're not making weapons
Most conspiracy theories start with a sliver of truth, and this one is no different, according to Carmen Celestini, who is a post-doctoral fellow with the Disinformation Project at Simon Fraser University.
“Usually there is some type of nugget of truth, or there is a question that no one wants to ask,” she explained.
“And so when you ask that question…people start creating their own narratives and their own answers for those questions.”
The thread of truth that started this web of conspiracies was a real 2005 partnership between the U.S. Defence Department and the Ukraine Ministry of Health. The two decided to work together to try to stop the spread of infectious diseases — not to create them.
As a part of this pact, the U.S. Biological Threat Reduction Program works with Ukrainian officials to “consolidate and secure pathogens and toxins of security concern in Ukrainian government facilities,” according to the U.S. Embassy in Ukraine.
This allows for “peaceful research and vaccine development,” the website says, and helps ensure dangerous pathogens don’t fall into the wrong hands.
As for the reason this lab is in Ukraine, of all places, the answer is simple: the fall of the Soviet Union.
The U.S. Cooperative Threat Reduction Program, which has been around since the ’90s, was launched, in part, to secure old Soviet weapons left behind in countries like Ukraine and Georgia, after the fall of the Soviet Union.
The labs for this program benefit from U.S. funding, but they are run entirely by local governments, and do not manufacture any bioweapons whatsoever, according to the U.S. government and multiple independent fact-checks.
This work, and the research labs associated with it, have been the subject of disinformation campaigns for years. So much so, that the U.S. government made an informative video to debunk the false claims.
Just this week, after the Chinese Foreign Ministry and multiple Russian officials parroted the false claims about the labs manufacturing bioweapons, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki posted a fact check on Twitter.
“The United States is in full compliance with its obligations under the Chemical Weapons Convention and the Biological Weapons Convention and does not develop or possess such weapons anywhere,” she wrote.
“It’s Russia that has a long and well-documented track record of using chemical weapons, including in attempted assassinations and poisoning of Putin’s political enemies like Alexey Navalny.”
Those who lean towards believing conspiracy theories might not be willing to believe Psaki’s tweets, nor the U.S. government’s publications — but Dr. Filippa Lentzos, co-director of the Centre for Science and Security Studies at King’s College London, went the one of these labs with a team of experts to find the truth.
In 2018, she published her findings from the lab in Georgia.
“We were given access to all areas of the site, examined relevant documentation, and interviewed staff, and concluded that the Center demonstrates significant transparency,” Lentzos wrote.
“Our group observed nothing out of the ordinary, or that we wouldn’t expect to see in a legitimate facility of this sort.”
Why do some people believe the disinformation?
Russia has been actively spreading the disinformation about the U.S. manufacturing bioweapons in a bid to shore up support for their invasion of Ukraine, according to the U.S. government.
Russian Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Maria Zakharova held a press conference this past Wednesday, during which she detailed allegations of an “emergency cleanup of military biological programs by the Kyiv regime.”
She said these programs were “financed by the United States of America” and it is “out of the question” that the programs were peaceful science-focused — even though that’s exactly what they were.
There are a number of reasons why people might fall prey to this disinformation. They might give in to the incessant propaganda from Russian bots, Celestini said. Misinformation also usually touches on something that scares us, she added, which can make you drop your usual critical thinking skills.
But there’s also another element driving the spread of this conspiracy: QAnon.
QAnon is a big-tent conspiracy theory that can be interpreted in a number of ways, according to Celestini. At its core, however, is the completely unfounded theory claimed former U.S. president Donald Trump was waging a secret war against elite Satan-worshipping pedophiles in government, business and the media, the BBC explains.
With the advent of the COVID-19 pandemic, the conspiracy’s umbrella broadened to include accusations that this shadowy global elite planned and managed the pandemic in the name of ushering in a “Great Reset.”
“We have the QAnon conspiracy where they believe that COVID was made by humans in a bioweapons factory,” Celestini explained.
“Some believe it was China trying to do it to take over the world, others to destroy the American financial structure, and others believe that it is part of this ‘New World Order idea, that if they lock us down with this pandemic, they can lock us in our houses, take control of us, which obviously then leads into the Great Reset.”
In attacking Ukraine, then, and destroying these labs, Putin becomes the good guy. The pro-Russian disinformation also finds a home with adherents to a different set of conspiratorial beliefs: the “blue beam project.”
This conspiracy theory was made up by a Quebec journalist, Serge Monast, who wrote a book called The Toronto Protocols, Celestini explained. The book alleges that there would be a “human-made pandemic,” she said, and that “we would be locked into our houses, we would lose their jobs.”
The conspiracy baselessly alleges that then, when people are locked in their homes and can no longer go to church, the New World Order will project “different deities” from “all the different religions” into the sky and “the Antichrist will take over the leadership of the world,” Celestini explained.
These conspiracists believe Putin is fighting this New World Order, she added, by bombing the labs.
At the end of the day, all these baseless conspiracies about the labs seem to end the same way: a justification of Putin’s invasion of Ukraine.
If there’s a “realm of social media” where people “distrust the government” and “distrust the media,” the people they do trust on that forum can “sow more dissention, and more distrust” with information shared on the platform, Celestini said.
“It can be a form of war propaganda.”
How can you avoid misinformation?
They key to catching misinformation is to stay vigilant.
“This information can…come on to the mainstream media, on Twitter and stuff,” Celestini explained.
That’s why it’s important to engage critically with what you see online, she added. Look for “strange images” and consider the history of an issue, as well as the source of the information.
MediaSmarts has developed a custom fact-checker search engine, which you can use to Google something you saw. All the results will be from verified fact-checkers. There’s also a tool that will tell you the likelihood that an account is a bot.
And whether they’re driven by baseless conspiracy theories, Russian bots or simply misinformed citizens, these false narratives have a real impact on people living in Ukraine, according to Mary Blankenship, a University of Nevada researcher who looks at how misinformation spreads through Twitter.
“You have enough people believing it, you’ll have people not support any of the government attempts to provide Ukraine with aid, whether that’s financial, military, or medical aid,” she said.
That, she said, is a “really huge and important impact that disinformation can have.”