After the State Department reconfirmed the existence of biological research laboratories in Ukraine and expressed concern Russia may seize them, far-right media accused the United States of both controlling the labs for nefarious purposes and orchestrating a false flag operation against Russia. In reality, the idea that these facilities are controversial, much less a threat to Russia, is a Kremlin-backed conspiracy theory.
During a March 8 hearing of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee about Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) asked Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Victoria Nuland if Ukraine has “chemical or biological weapons.” Nuland responded that Ukraine has “biological research facilities,” adding that the U.S. government was “quite concerned” about the facilities falling into Russian hands. When Rubio noted the existence of a Russian disinformation campaign already in-effect to blame Ukraine for a future release of biological weapons, Nuland replied that “it is classic Russian technique to blame on the other guy what they're planning to do themselves.”
Russia isn’t the only state actor helping spread this conspiracy theory, which was also promoted by a spokesperson from the Chinese government — following a pattern of Chinese disinformation established during the pandemic.
The conspiracy theory that there are U.S.-funded bioweapons labs in Ukraine, and that they have been directed to destroy whatever pathogens are inside, has been floating around fringe and far-right media for several days since the conflict began. This burgeoning conspiracy theory has followed closely behind what the British Ministry of Defense described as “a notable intensification of Russian accusations that Ukraine is developing nuclear or biological weapons,” which the Kremlin hopes could provide “a retrospective justification” for its unprovoked war.
Ukraine does have biological research labs that were modernized as a result of a pact between its Ministry of Health and the U.S. Department of Defense. The U.S. and Ukraine entered into the agreement in 2005 — brokered, in part, by then-Sens. Barack Obama (D-IL) and Richard Lugar (R-IN) – to jointly-prevent the spread of deadly pathogens developed as part of the former Soviet Union’s expansive biological weapons program. As part of the agreement, the U.S. provided funding for security upgrades to the Soviet-era facilities to support the “peaceful research” of infectious diseases.
The DOD’s Biological Threat Reduction Program was designed as part of an arms control program to secure “pathogen strains and sensitive biological knowledge within Ukraine," specifically to prevent those resources from being released or weaponized. In fact, the agreement governing these facilities evolved from the Cooperative Threat Reduction Program after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 and the 1994 Budapest Memorandum, which assisted Ukraine with the removal and decommissioning of Soviet nuclear weapons.
Some variations of the conspiracy theory go even further to claim that the labs are being run by the U.S. In reality, the labs are funded and operated by the Ukrainian government. But claims to the contrary have existed for years and are part of a Russian disinformation campaign to discredit the U.S. in the eyes of former Soviet republics. Indeed, FactCheck.org produced a full article debunking a previous iteration of this conspiracy theory on March 2, nearly a week before Nuland’s testimony.
Despite the abundance of evidence showing that these are not weapons facilities, far-right media personalities pounced on Nuland’s testimony about “research facilities” in Ukraine to hype Russia’s narrative justifying the invasion and to falsely claim she “confirmed every conspiracy theory about the existence of those labs”:
- During the March 9 edition of Real America Voice’s War Room: Pandemic, host Steve Bannon claimed that Nuland was let “off the hook” and told all Florida residents to contact Rubio and ask him if the CIA, Defense Department, or DIA gave him the questions to ask. Bannon went on to play a clip of the hearing and said Rubio should have asked, “Is that a lab? What are they creating? Are we involved in any way? Have we financed it? Are we partners? Do we actually know what’s going on?” Bannon later said that “no Republican should vote for any money on Ukraine, zero dollars,” until we know exactly what is going on with the labs.
- On March 9, the Gateway Pundit’s Jim Hoft shared a video that he said was of the “Director of the Information and Press Department of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation” telling the U.S. that Russia has “found your biological weapons” after Nuland’s testimony.
- In a March 8 Gateway Pundit article, Hoft repeated China’s claim that there are “26 US biological labs in Ukraine alone” before running through the conspiracy theory that there was “biological testing in Ukraine near the Russian border.” Hoft went on to call Nuland’s comments an “explosive development.”
- In a March 8 Telegram post, former Trump national security adviser Mike Flynn shared a post claiming, “I was told that biolabs in Ukraine was a conspiracy theory yet here we are. They are now admitting it openly.”
- Former 8kun administrator, QAnon influencer, and GOP congressional candidate Ron Watkins shared an Epoch Times article in a March 9 Telegram post that questioned whether Vice President Kamala Harris will “negotiate the cover up of the US Biolabs in Ukraine.”
- A March 8 post on the far-right forum TheDonald shared a video of Nuland’s comments and added, “Another win for conspiracy theorists: the biolabs in Ukraine exist! CONFIRMED!”
- A March 8 post on the QAnon forum The Great Awakening shared a video of Nuland from the Russian state media outlet RT and called her comments “Narrative Spin 101.”
- In a March 8 Gab post, QAnon influencer Anonymous Patriot shared a post about Nuland’s comments and wrote, “And there it is. PANIC.”
- Human Events’ Ian Miles Cheong:
- Human Events’ Jack Posobiec:
- Far-right conspiracy theorist Mike Cernovich:
- The Epoch Times’ Hans Mahncke:
- Big League Politics:
- Far-right commentator Chuck Callesto:
Reprinted with permission from Media Matters