An American in Russia has inserted himself in a Kremlin-backed propaganda project to convince the world that Vladimir Putin’s true intent in his Ukrainian invasion is to destroy U.S-funded bioweapons facilities.
Now, he says, he’s in Ukraine to inspect some of those biolabs—to prove they have been used by the American military to threaten Russia.
John Mark Dougan is an increasingly prominent figure in a burgeoning movement of conspiracy theorists who are trying to put meat on the bone of the baseless idea that the Russian invasion of Ukraine was done, at least in part, to destroy U.S-funded biolabs developing deadly pathogens to unleash on the Russian people.
Unlike his fellow travelers, Dougan is well-placed to actually do something about it—he’s based in Russia.
Dougan, a former cop, has been living in Moscow since 2016, when he fled Florida after being fingered in an elaborate fake news operation—one in which he claimed that slain Democratic National Committee staffer Seth Rich handed him a trove of leaked DNC emails. The Daily Beast revealed in 2018 how his tale, which included efforts to discredit Russian opposition politicians, was full of holes.
Earlier this week, Dougan claims to have hopped a ride in a Russian military transport vehicle and headed into Ukraine with a promise to uncover the truth about what really went on in those biolabs. He has posted frequent updates on his journey to his Instagram, YouTube, Telegram, and Rumble accounts.
“I have visited three locations where there were biolabs, and the buildings have been destroyed,” Dougan told The Daily Beast via WhatsApp.
The biolabs theory first broke onto the scene on Feb. 24, the same day Russia began hostilities in Ukraine. A Twitter user, and longtime QAnon follower, posted a map of these biolabs dotted throughout Ukraine—civilian biological laboratories, the kind that are commonly found in virtually every country in the world—and speculated that destroying those facilities was the real aim of the Russian mission.
These biological laboratories are funded by the Pentagon specifically to reduce the threat of infectious disease outbreaks. This work began as a program to identify and secure former Soviet bioweapons facilities and destroy dangerous samples that pose a threat to humanity. Multiple independent experts, international bodies, and the local governments—including those sympathetic to Russia—have confirmed that the American program has reduced the risk in the area, not increased it.
In the days and weeks that followed, the conspiracy gained steam. It was boosted by a Russian embassy in Sarajevo, Russian state propaganda outlet Sputnik, former prime minister Dmitry Medvedev, Chinese state media Xinhua, and ultimately foreign minister Sergey Lavrov. The theory hit the big-time in America when it was featured on Tucker Carlson Tonight—the Fox host promoted the baseless conspiracy theory multiple times in recent days.
But what the theory desperately lacks is any concrete evidence. In multiple conversations with QAnon podcast host RedPill78, the originator of the conspiracy theory—who has gone by iterations of the user-name “Clandestine,” and says his first name is Jacob—made it clear that his theory hangs on two things: that Russian bombing hit the same cities where these biolabs are located, and that Russia has accused America of operating a clandestine bioweapons program in Ukraine for years.
That’s where Dougan comes in: On March 11, he uploaded a 188-page Russian-language document claiming to offer proof of the Americans’ malign intent. He uploaded a rough English translation shortly thereafter. “The activities of military biological laboratories are aimed at modeling natural strains of various infections, creating special designs that will have external signs of natural epidemics, but will bring the heaviest losses.”
Dougan, who has been accused of peddling forged documents in the past, is cagey about where exactly it came from, except to say it was handed to him by a Ukrainian woman who crossed the border into Belarus.
Dougan never substantiates the idea that these American-funded labs are doing anything other than their intended purposes but it was nevertheless shared widely. RedPill78’s Telegram channel shared the Russian-language report, calling it a “whistleblower document.” That post was seen more than 100,000 times and shared by popular American and Canadian conspiracy channels.
The American in Russia has been close with RedPill78—alter ego of host Zak Paine—and has appeared on the podcast repeatedly in recent days to promote the biolabs conspiracy theory.
In Dougan’s telling, American involvement in the former Soviet bloc countries was not about securing and destroying the USSR’s biological weapons program, but instead about building “new bio laboratory facilities, all with the express purpose of designing biological weapons that could then be used against the Russian people.”
That theory has been shared by Russian disinformation channels repeatedly in recent years. After the emergence of COVID-19, in particular, Russian officials have suggested that an American bioweapons program was to blame—although such an accusation, at the time, likely had more to do with deflecting criticism from Moscow’s own inept handling of the pandemic.
One particular unsupported claim that Dougan makes, that is found within the documents he uploaded, is that this bioweapons program is tailor-made to kill or maim Slavic people: “They are specifically looking to target Russians,” he told Paine. That exact claim was made, by Russia, in submissions to the U.N. Security Council in the days before Dougan came forward with his fantastical theory. Lavrov described this research program as developing “ethnically targeted biological weapons.”
Dougan would parrot Russian talking points again on March 11, asking his YouTube followers, “Has Ukraine utilized birds to test viral dispersal patterns?” The Russian military had issued an identical accusation just hours before.
On another episode of RedPill78, Dougan was joined by Jacob, the Virginia man behind the Clandestine account that kicked off the whole conspiracy theory.
Even if Dougan’s investigative breakthrough constitutes little more than a regurgitation of Russian propaganda, it puts him in the thick of the emerging theory—which also has been promoted by Donald Trump Jr. and Glenn Greenwald.
Unlike any of the other figures, however, Dougan appears to have found an easy way into Ukraine. In late February, not long after the conspiracy theory first began spreading online, Dougan put a call-out on his YouTube channel: “I'm gonna get a group of journalists together we're gonna go check this stuff out for ourselves once everything is secure in Ukraine,” he said of the biolabs theory.
On Wednesday, Dougan posted pictures to his Instagram account, sporting a “PRESS” vest and standing in front of a van emblazoned with a “Z,” a signifier of Russian forces invading Ukraine from the east. He told his followers that he is meeting up with an armored personnel carrier, which will bring him to Mariupol—one of the cities singled out by the conspiracy theory as hosting bioweapons facilities.
Before leaving Moscow, Dougan titled one of his videos: “Let's check out some bio weapons labs.”
On March 17, after days of silence, Dougan uploaded a dispatch from Ukraine, where he said he was touring Russian-occupied towns. “Everything was great, no problems,” he reported. (The Atlantic Council reports that those Russian-controlled areas are a “human rights black hole,” partly due to a network of detention centers set up there since Russia first invaded in 2014.)
Dougan’s dispatches to date have largely consisted of him interviewing Ukrainians, in these occupied towns, asking “Have you heard about America funding bioweapons labs here in Ukraine? You heard about this?”
One Ukrainian man agreed with Dougan, lamenting that his YouTube page had been suspended for sharing such theories.
Asked whether the Russian government or military is supporting his trip, Dougan wrote, “I'm in no way associated with the Russian military."
He added that he is receiving “no funding from anyone except for donations from people that watch my channel. These aren't much, so I'm funding most of this myself.”
He confirmed that he is embedded with the Russian military for certain parts of his trip, but that he is on his own at other times. When he’s not embedded with the military, he wrote, he is armed. “Because nobody else is going to protect me except for me. Do I have any intention of joining in fighting? No, I'm a fact finder. Fighting is not for me anymore. But if it comes down to it, and I have to fight for myself, I will.”
Dougan wouldn’t be the first to broadcast from behind enemy lines. In World War II, Lord Haw-Haw—the nickname for British fascist William Joyce—churned out English-language propaganda for Nazi Germany. His counterparts in the Pacific theater used the moniker Tokyo Rose: Japanese-American Iva Toguri D'Aquino was later tried in America for treason for her role in denigrating the U.S. war effort. Seoul City Sue would later play a similar role in the Korean War, spreading propaganda aimed at American troops.