June 29, 2023 | The Messenger

Russia’s Biowarfare Lies Can’t Go Unanswered

The Russian disinformation machine has spun its latest web of lies. Last week, the Russian Defense Ministry accused the U.S. of preparing to target Russian troops with drones carrying malaria-bearing mosquitoes. Russia is setting informational conditions to hold the U.S. accountable for expected Russian casualties from Ukraine’s counteroffensive. While the West may laugh at an absurd claim about biowarfare mosquitoes, many in the Global South may find them credible. Therefore, it is crucial for the U.S. to counteract and flip the narrative on Russia’s disinformation strategy. 

On June 6, the Kakhovka hydroelectric power station’s dam in Ukraine collapsed. As a result, water from the dam’s reservoir flooded into the surrounding Kherson Oblast. Igor Kirillov, the chief of Russia’s Radiation, Chemical and Biological Protection Force, claimed “the flooding of the territories of the Kherson region, planned by the Kyiv regime, can complicate the situation, including with regard to arbovirus infections. After a drop in the water level, the formation of foci of diseases transmitted by mosquitoes, primarily West Nile fever, is possible.” Kirillov emphasized how the U.S. has worked with Ukraine to infect Russians with these viruses. 

The threat of infectious disease outbreaks from the dam collapse is real. The World Health Organization has warned about the potential for cholera outbreaks in Kherson. The head of Ukraine’s State Environmental Inspectorate explained that inspectors have detected both cholera and E.coli in the water. There are unconfirmed reports from a Ukrainian and Crimean Tatar-led partisan group that Russian soldiers have been seeking help at hospitals, and some of them subsequently have died. 

Russia has been bolstering its biowarfare disinformation bona fides. Russia recently hosted biological security consultations with China. Beijing’s wild theories about the origin of COVID-19, including that it came from a U.S. lab in Maryland, were probably welcomed in Moscow. 

This is not the first time that Russia has accused the U.S. and Ukraine of plotting a bioweapons attack. At a late October meeting of the United Nations Security Council, Russia accused Ukraine and the United States of a plot to use migratory birds, bats and mosquitoes to spread pathogens. Moscow’s representative asserted that, in March 2022, Russian troops discovered containers that could be used to spray bioagents and that the U.S. would use a drone to distribute infected mosquitoes. The U.S. representative soundly rejected Moscow’s claims. 

Russia also previously claimed the Pentagon was collecting blood samples from COVID-19 patients in Ukraine to develop “ethnic weapons” against “the Slavic ethnicity,” as part of a larger accusation that the U.S. manufactured COVID-19 to retain its international power. 

Kirillov’s pattern of absurd claims is a favored Kremlin tactic: accusing the U.S. of bioweapons plots to deflect blame during times of increased scrutiny of Vladimir Putin’s leadership. The Kremlin’s information-warfare ghouls run a sophisticated operation, weaving together unrelated events to craft misleading narratives. 

Take the monkeypox outbreak as an example. In 2021, at the Munich Security Conference, a panel of experts — including government officials from the U.S. and China — participated in a monkeypox crisis simulation to understand how to reduce high-consequence biological threats. The simulated outbreak began in May 2022, which coincides with the actual monkeypox outbreak. Kremlin actors such as Kirillov misconstrued the goals of the simulation to claim the U.S. started the outbreak. 

Furthermore, during the Cold War, the KGB conducted Operation “Denver,” a disinformation campaign geared toward blaming the U.S. government for creating and releasing the HIV virus that causes AIDS. This campaign successfully spread globally, especially in Pakistan and India. While these claims may seem far-fetched and harmless, they all contribute to Moscow’s agenda to paint the U.S. as a nefarious actor driven by a secret agenda to subjugate and even exterminate populations. 

Last year, Russia used a Biological Weapons Convention (BWC) meeting to accuse the U.S. of conducting “military and biological research” in Ukrainian labs. While the U.S. and Ukraine vehemently denied these allegations, the Kremlin still managed to sow disinformation about U.S. bioweapons activities in Ukraine. 

Washington should augment the information shared at the BWC meeting, which revealed that Russia is the real threat for hiding an active biological weapons program and preserving old Soviet bioweapon programs.

To counteract Russian disinformation, the U.S. should utilize social media and entertainment channels. Examples include humorous internet memes that reveal Russia’s bioweapons activities, and thought-provoking media programs, such as HBO’s “Chernobyl,” that draw attention to the actions of Russian authorities. 

The U.S. often has been hesitant to wield information against adversaries such as Russia, allowing the Kremlin to discredit the West freely in the information space. However, silence only begets proliferation of the Kremlin narrative, and the U.S. must actively challenge Russian disinformation and put the Kremlin on the defensive.

Ivana Stradner (@ivanastradner) is a research fellow at the Barish Center for Media Integrity at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD). Anthony Ruggiero (@NatSecAnthony) is senior director of FDD’s nonproliferation and biodefense program, and a former senior director for counterproliferation and biodefense on the National Security Council during the Trump administration. FDD is a Washington, DC-based, nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.


Biodefense Disinformation Russia Ukraine