Back to the (Soviet) basics: Ukrainian biolabs and dirty bombs in the Kremlin’s propaganda

The conspiracy theory about Ukrainian army developing bioweapons and aspiring to acquire a 'dirty bomb' became a culprit of the Kremlin propaganda. A tactic applied by Soviet disinformation since at least 1949 has soared again and was picked up by fringe movements, causing damage to vitally important threat-reduction initiatives.

Tracing the roots of the tales

In early March 2022, days after launching a full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Russian authorities and media begun spreading stories about 30 secret laboratories in 14 different sites in Ukraine, supposedly run by or in collaboration with the US, dedicated to creating biological weapons.

This followed similar allegations on March 6, ten days after the beginning of the invasion, claiming that Ukraine was attempting to build a plutonium-based “dirty bomb” by using leftover from the abandoned Chernobyl nuclear power plant.

This builds on a previous statement on the eve of the invasion by Russia’s president Vladimir Putin, who claimed that the authorities in Kyiv “went as far as aspire to acquire nuclear weapons,” presenting this as one of the reasons to justify the invasion.

Over four months later, no evidence has been provided for any of the allegations, even though the Russian Federation now enjoys direct access to the very regions of Ukraine where it had claimed US authorities were storing hazardous biological material.

Features of the stories

This case study discusses key rhetorical features of these stories to determine possible reason behind their invention and anticipate their future implications.

It is worth starting by noting that these stories all share three key characteristics: vagueness, internal contradiction, and (chrono)logical inconsistency.

Vagueness: Dropping the ‘nuclear’ word for more impact

The vagueness stands out in particular from the earliest story: Putin’s claim that authorities in Kyiv “went as far as to aspire” to get nukes, an extremely vague allegation that does not mean anything concrete.

So, what purpose did the allegation serve?

The statement was part of a much longer speech seeking to justify the invasion through historical revisionism, demonization of Ukrainians, and sweeping allegations against “Nazis” in power in Kyiv.

Read in the context of the speech, the allegation to “aspire” to get nuclear weapons appears almost as an afterthought, suggesting that the claim was probably added to increase the sense of moral righteousness to stir up support for the war.

This would explain why the statement was not elaborated upon until a few days after the invasion, when the claim morphed into the unsubstantiated accusation of Ukraine seeking to build a “dirty bomb”.

Internal contradiction: Manufactured secrecy

The other statements stand out more for their internal contradiction: claims about “secret” biological laboratories conducting dangerous research are, in fact, based on openly-available information from US and Ukrainian authorities themselves.

The laboratories in question, as well as the collaborations with the US, the EU and the WHO to reduce the impact of deadly pathogens and research new vaccines were known to exist before: many countries have internationally-connected facilities and projects for biological security research, especially since the COVID-19 pandemic.

As Russian state-owned news agency TASS itself reports, the legal basis for US-Ukraine research cooperation is the ‘Agreement Concerning Cooperation in the Area of Prevention of Proliferation of Technology, Pathogens and Expertise That Could Be Used in the Development of Biological Weapons’ (our emphasis), signed by the US Department of Defense and Ukraine’s Health Ministry in 2005.

This publicly-available document was part of a series of agreements signed by the US and several former Soviet countries to keep hazardous bio-chemical material inherited from decrepit Soviet facilities under control, prevent their leak or sale to third countries or terrorist organizations, and develop effective counter-measures.

Statements by Russian authorities regarding the Ukrainian facilities, use already-debunked claims of connections between US politicians’ relatives and Ukrainian research labs to suggest of secret activities “disclosed”, “revealed” thanks to exclusive documents that the Ministry of Defence got hold of.

They fail to note, however, that the terms of said agreements are already publicly available on the websites of the relevant Ukrainian agencies.

Screenshot taken from Science and Technology Centre in Ukraine

As they try to manufacture a sense of secrecy from publicly-available information, Russian authorities’ statements need to remain incoherent to avoid being found lacking in evidence.