The conspiracy theory that Russia invaded Ukraine to stop Anthony Fauci from engineering the next Covid-19 has turned the US far-right against Ukraine and for Russia.
The evolution of this bizarre fantasy can teach us a lot about how the US rightwing incubates and adapts Russian propaganda for domestic consumption.
Russia’s approach to propaganda has been likened to a firehose.
Its strategy is to spew countless narratives across a huge number of platforms without regard for internal coherence or even plausibility.
Then wait to see which catch on. Then build on those successes.
When Russia claimed to have captured secret US bioweapons labs in Ukraine, many observers assumed Russia had lifted the idea directly from American conspiracists. After all, Putin hadn’t said a word about biolabs ahead of his invasion of Ukraine.
However, the myth that the US is funding secret biolabs in Ukraine is part of a years-long Russian disinformation campaign.
These allegations are Russia’s latest attempt to smear a US program to help former Soviet republics.
The program began as an effort to eliminate stockpiles of biological, chemical and nuclear weapons left over from the Soviet Union. It later transitioned into ongoing help with peaceful biological, veterinary and public health research.
In 2018, Russia baselessly accused the US of running a secret bioweapons lab in the former Soviet republic of Georgia based on the lab’s participation in the same entirely non-secret program.
Unlike the US and most other countries, Russia does have an active chemical and biological weapons program. It has been falsely accusing the US of having bioweapons for decades, a propaganda strategy that experts say is geared towards undermining the taboo against biological weapons.
If Russia can convince the rest of the world that the US is secretly making bioweapons under the guise of non-proliferation, it makes Russia seem less deviant by comparison.
Ukraine, the US, the United Nations, the European Union and non-proliferation groups are unanimous: Ukraine does not have a biological weapons program.
Biological weapons are of negligible military value, especially if your goal is to defend your own homeland against an invading army.
Ukraine’s entire military has a smaller budget than the NYPD. The idea that Ukraine would waste its limited defense dollars on bioweapons rather than missiles and jets doesn’t pass the laugh test.
Investigative tech journos Ben Collins and Kevin Collier excavated the digital prehistory of the biolab smear for NBC News.
The first known mention cropped up on the right-wing social media platform Gab in mid-February, 10 days before Putin’s invasion of Ukraine.
It received little traction at the time. However, on the day of the invasion, the number of references to Ukrainian biolabs jumped to hundreds, and kept climbing.
The big breakthrough came the following week when a QAnon-linked Twitter account called @WarClandestine shared the same graphic that had appeared on the original Gab post.
There’s clearly a feedback loop between Russian propaganda and its enablers on the US far-right.
On March 9, the Russian Foreign Ministry claimed to have captured evidence of US-funded bioweapons labs in Ukraine. Tucker Carlson jumped on the story that very day. Two days later, Russia went to the United Nations to accuse the US of weaponizing migratory birds in Ukraine, hoarding deadly bat parasites that could fall into the hands of terrorists and trafficking in the blood of Slavs to make “ethnically-specific” biological weapons. Carlson used Russia’s presentation as a news hook, eliminating the crazy-sounding references to birds, bats and Slavs. Later Carlson falsely claimed that a US undersecretary had confirmed the existence of US-funded bioweapons labs in Ukraine. In fact, she’d acknowledged that there are labs in Ukraine that may contain pathogens that shouldn’t fall into Russian hands. In fact, these labs are not secret and almost any scientific or medical laboratory that studies or tests for diseases could have pathogens we wouldn’t want the Russians getting ahold of, especially now that they’re reaching for any justification to frame Ukraine as a bioweapons producer.
Since Carlson is the agenda-setter for the US far-right, his pronouncements help to amplify and codify the key elements of the conspiracy theory.
Russia is keenly aware of what Carlson is doing. A leaked memo shows that the higher-ups in Russian state TV consider it essential to feature Carlson as much as possible.