China and QAnon embrace Russian disinformation that justifies war in Ukraine
Russia held a special meeting of the UN Security Council on Friday to discuss what the Kremlin described as “secret” research laboratories the United States claims are in Ukraine to develop biological weapons. The Russian allegations are rooted in an improbable conspiracy theory promoted by both China and the pro-Trump conspiracy movement Qanoun.
As Russia’s attack on Ukraine enters its third week, Russia’s deputy ambassador to the United Nations, Dmitry Polyansky, called on the Security Council on Friday to raise the issue of the US military’s “biological activities” in Ukraine.
Polyansky accused Washington of developing biological weapons in research laboratories scattered across the country. Earlier this week, the Russian Defense Ministry said a network of US-funded biological laboratories in Ukraine was working to create a mechanism for the “clandestine transmission of deadly pathogens” and to conduct experiments on bat virus samples. Russia claimed that this was done under the supervision of the US Department of Defense and was part of a US biological weapons program.
On unregulated social media platforms – including Telegram and 8chan – this conspiracy theory has become incredibly popular, racking up hundreds of thousands of visits every day.
This is not the first time since the start of the war in Ukraine that Moscow has put this far-fetched theory on the table. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said in early March that he had evidence that “the Pentagon developed pathogens in two military laboratories in Ukraine.”
This Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov directly repeats this conspiracy theory, claiming (per translation) that America “built two biological laboratories for war, and they developed pathogens there, in Kyiv and Odessa.” pic.twitter.com/KDk33rP4Gd
– Justin Ling (@Justin_Ling) On March 3, 2022, Russia’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations, Vassily Nebenzia, described the alleged biological weapons scheme in detail on Friday, warning that bats, birds and even insects may soon spread “dangerous pathogens” across Europe.
Washington and Kiev, as well as the United Nations, have denied the existence of biological weapons laboratories in the country.
Britain’s ambassador to the United Nations, Barbara Woodward, said Russia had used the Security Council to say “a series of wild, baseless and irresponsible conspiracy theories”.
As early as January, the US Department of Defense felt it necessary to post a video to YouTube in response to a flood of rumors about alleged US military experiments in “secret” laboratories on the border between Russia and Ukraine.
The United States openly admitted that it helped establish dozens of research laboratories in the former Soviet bloc countries. The facilities, the purpose of which was to help destroy the remnants of the nuclear and chemical arsenal of the USSR, are currently used to monitor the emergence of new epidemics.
But there is nothing “secret” about the facilities, which appear in public lists indicating their locations. It is also 100 per cent managed by the governments of the countries in which it is located. The equipment is only partially funded by the United States.
However, the conspiracy theory is still gaining momentum and finding new followers far beyond Russian borders.
A beneficial plot for China last month called on China to be open, transparent and responsible in reporting its military biological activities abroad. Beijing also stressed the importance of being able to visit scientific facilities in Ukraine “with complete transparency”, “where the United States conducts its research for military purposes.” Since then, major Chinese media such as the Global Times have not missed an opportunity to provide a platform for Russian officials promoting the conspiracy theory.
Yevgeny Golovchenko, who specializes in Russian disinformation campaigns at the University of Copenhagen, is not surprised by China’s encouragement of these rumors about secret American piolabs in Ukraine. “We must not forget that there were already heated exchanges between Beijing and Washington about clandestine laboratories during the Covid-19 pandemic,” he told France 24, referring to the controversy surrounding the origin of the SARS-CoV-2 virus. While some Western conspiracy theorists believe that it was manufactured in a laboratory In Wuhan, China accused the US military of being behind his appearance.
For Beijing, this new conspiracy theory arrived just in time. Golovchenko made it clear that he allows China to show support for its ally Vladimir Putin without explicitly committing to invading Ukraine.
At the same time, Russian rhetoric is in line with Chinese propaganda about the coronavirus. Beijing hopes to prove that if Washington was able to covertly develop biological weapons under the Russians’ watch, why didn’t the United States develop a dangerous virus in its other “secret laboratories”?
But the Russian disinformation theory has also found supporters in the heart of the United States. Followers of QAnon, a conspiracy theory that Trump is saving the United States from a satanic group of pedophiles, were among the first to justify the invasion of Ukraine as a Russian attempt to destroy dangerous military laboratories.
People close to Trump, such as former strategist Steve Bannon and Republican Senator Marco Rubio, have formally asked the White House for clarifications about activity in these Ukrainian laboratories.
From the Colorado potato beetle to AIDS for decades, Moscow has consistently accused Washington of secretly developing biological weapons. This has been a common thread of Russian propaganda since the start of the Cold War in 1949, as Milton Littenberg, an American expert on weapons of mass destruction, explained in a 2021 study on the history of the subject. Moscow suggested in 1950 that the United States was sending potato beetles in Colorado infected with a new virus to poison potato crops in East Germany.
Russia has been particularly effective in promoting the idea that the United States is weaponizing viruses for use against its enemies. Golovchenko noted that a particularly effective disinformation campaign along these lines ran from 1985 to the end of the 2000s, when the Kremlin claimed that Washington “was the source of the AIDS virus and was using it to target African and African American populations.”
The AIDS conspiracy theory has appeared in “2,000 newspapers in 25 countries” since 1985, Laitenberg noted. In his study, he noted that well-known figures from the African-American community publicly expressed varying levels of support for the conspiracy theory, including Will Smith, Bill Cosby and Spike Lee.
Muddying the waters before the attack, a recent biological weapons conspiracy theory allows Moscow to describe the United States as the real enemy in the war. For the Russian government, it is a way to justify the invasion of local people who consider Ukraine to be Russia’s friend.
“This theory presents Ukraine as simply the land on which Russia is fighting to put an end to dangerous American activities,” Golovchenko said.
The Biden administration fears that repeated claims of biological weapons may be an indication that Moscow plans to use such weapons itself and wants to muddy the waters beforehand. The next step may be for Moscow to carry out Operation False Flag in Ukraine.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki called the Russian accusations in a tweet last Wednesday as “preposterous” and said the United States “does not develop or possess such weapons anywhere.”
“Now that Russia has made these false allegations, and China appears to have endorsed this propaganda, we should all be on the lookout for Russia’s possible use of chemical or biological weapons in Ukraine, or to create a false flag operation using them,” she wrote. on Twitter on March 9, adding: “It’s a clear pattern.”
We have taken note of Russia’s false allegations about the alleged presence of US biological weapons laboratories and the development of chemical weapons in Ukraine. We’ve also seen Chinese officials echo these conspiracy theories.
– Jen Psaki (@PressSec) March 9, 2022 While it’s impossible to know what the Kremlin has in mind, such a move would make sense from a propaganda perspective, Golovchenko said.
“Currently, the Russian government continues to claim that this is only a limited military operation in Ukraine and that it is forbidden to talk about“ war ”in Russia. But the longer the fighting, the more difficult it will be. The authorities should maintain this line, ”notes Golovchenko.
“They will have to find a justification for turning into an all-out war.”
This article was translated from the original in French.
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