Since it launched a new invasion of Ukraine, Russia has scrambled to come up with a better narrative to justify its aggression than the “denazification” of a government run by the Jewish descendant of Holocaust survivors.
The story Russia has settled on—Ukraine is cooking up secret biological weapons—is worse than nonsense. It’s a rerun. The propaganda about bogus biolab work put out by the Kremlin over the past few days is copy-pasted almost directly from years of similar nonsense stories that covert Kremlin trolls have used to try and discredit legitimate biological research in other former Soviet republics.
Before Russia’s invasion, the objects of Moscow’s biolab ire were the so-called Lugar Labs in Georgia and Kazakhstan. The labs, named for the Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction legislation passed with the help of former Republican Sen. Richard Lugar, were part of an effort to give steady, rewarding work to former Soviet scientists with experience in weapons of mass destruction-adjacent fields, so they wouldn’t be forced to offer their services to potential weapons programs in rogue states.
Insofar as the labs kept scientists working on things other than weapons programs, they were a success in the Defense Department’s eyes. The Kremlin, however, looked at them differently. Rather than a welcome nonproliferation effort, the Russian government has treated them as a hostile source of American influence in what Moscow considers its own sphere of influence.
Case in point: the effort to spread a conspiracy theory about bat research at a U.S.-funded lab in Tbilisi, Georgia.
In a September 2020 post on a hacker forum, an identified user promised readers secrets about the origins of the coronavirus. Hackers had allegedly broken into the inboxes of officials at the lab and claimed to have found “a lot of facts about bats research in 2017," the poster claimed.
The hack, according to Georgian officials, wasn’t carried out by civic-minded hacktivists concerned about the origins of the coronavirus, as several conspiracy theorists subsequently claimed. Instead, the ministry of interior claimed that the hack had been carried out by a foreign intelligence service as a part of a long-running attempt to discredit U.S. funding for legitimate research in what Moscow considered its former Soviet backyard.
And that may be why the email inboxes suddenly popped up on a hacking forum usually reserved for cyber-crooks looking to dump account and password information on their latest hacks of dating websites, social media platforms, and e-commerce sites in September 2020.
After the alleged inboxes went up on the forum, conspiracy theorists used the materials, which remain unauthenticated, to insinuate that the U.S. was backing risky bat research which could have prompted another coronavirus pandemic.
Georgia’s interior ministry didn’t specify which foreign intelligence service it believed was responsible for the hack but a parliament but Irakli Sesiashvili, a Georgian parliamentarian on the country’s military and security committee, told news outlets that Russian responsibility for the break-in was a “high probability.”
A month before the hacker forum post, the account which spread the material shared what it claimed were the fruits of a breach from another adversary of the Kremlin, Lithuania’s foreign ministry. The account posted what it claimed were emails with “documents marked SECRET, TOP SECRET and COSMIC” with information about “intrigues against Russia, Germany and Nord Stream 2,” the proposed Russian-backed gas pipeline to Germany (now abandoned in light of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine).
The Kremlin’s propaganda has long leveraged data allegedly stolen in hacks to serve its interests. In most cases, disinformation trolls have cited nonexistent hacks from fake hacktivist groups to spread lies.
For the most part, Russian diplomats and state-backed media outlets mirrored the covert propaganda in overt statements and broadcasts. Russian parliamentarians have threatened Georgia over what they falsely claim is a lab “designing bio-weapons and viruses”—a message amplified by Kremlin-friendly TV channels.
Georgia has not been alone in its role as a target for Russian bio fables. Kazakhstan’s Central Reference Laboratory, another U.S.-backed biological research institute, received similar treatment from Secondary Infektion, a Russian government-linked disinformation crew.
As the coronavirus swept across the world in March 2020, trolls using the behavioral tics of Secondary Infektion spread a conspiracy theory on social media and self-publishing forums that hackers from “Anonymous Kazakhstan” had uncovered materials claiming to show the lab in Almaty had accidentally started the coronavirus pandemic, potentially endangering Kazakhstan’s important diplomatic and trade links with China.
And in an ominous hint of the propaganda now aimed at Ukraine, trolls using the Secondary Infektion playbook began to spread similar fake stories about nonexistent biological weapons research in Ukraine. In one series of articles spread in 2019, trolls once again cited a fictional “Anonymous” hacking source claiming that the Pentagon’s sci-fi research shop, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, was secretly installing biological research labs in Ukraine because “America is waging a covert biological war.”
In an ironic twist, the piece used the example of the reactor meltdown at Chernobyl to argue that the risk of “a US biological laboratory on its territory is comparable to a monkey with a grenade.” Late last week, Ukrainian authorities warned that Russia was planning to stage a “false flag” attack on the mothballed radioactive site and blame Ukrainian forces.