A disinformation operation now being waged by Russia shows in stark detail how this malevolence works. Taking a program by the United States that was intended to make people healthier and safer in the former Soviet Union, a program it had welcomed and participated in for 22 years, Russia twisted facts into a cloud of falsehoods. The campaign, rooted in decades-old traditions of disinformation by the Kremlin, has intensified during Russia’s ruinous war on Ukraine in the last year.
In a previous editorial in this series, we examined how young people who posted freely on social media have been wrongly arrested and sentenced to years in prison by authoritarian regimes. This editorial looks at disinformation as a tool of dictatorship. Disinformation is not just “fake news” or propaganda but an insidious contamination of the world’s conversations.
On Aug. 29, 2005, Barack Obama, then a Democratic senator from Illinois, and Sen. Richard G. Lugar, Republican of Indiana, visited a laboratory at Kyiv’s Central Sanitary and Epidemiological Station in Ukraine. This facility was not well secured and, by the nature of its public health work, held dangerous pathogens. Andy Weber, a U.S. Defense Department official, showed Mr. Obama a tray of small vials: samples of Bacillus anthracis, the bacterium that causes anthrax. “I saw test tubes filled with anthrax and the plague lying virtually unlocked and unguarded — dangers we were told could only be secured with America’s help,” Mr. Obama recalled.
There was deep concern after 9/11 that terrorists could obtain such materials. Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma asked the United States to check the security of his nation’s chemical and biological facilities, and Mr. Weber, who had helped uncover the illegal Soviet biological weapons system, spent two weeks with a small team scrutinizing Ukraine’s facilities in late 2001. The lab in Kyiv that Mr. Obama visited held pathogens that cause not only anthrax but also tularemia, brucellosis, listeriosis, diphtheria, cholera, typhoid and others.
On the day of Mr. Obama’s visit, Ukraine signed an agreement with the United States to upgrade and modernize the labs. For example, cattle in Ukraine occasionally became naturally infected with anthrax and the Ukrainian scientists had been culturing the anthrax bacillus for diagnostic purposes, which meant they kept cultures of it, a potential target for terrorists. The U.S. assistance would help them move toward using safer molecular diagnostic methods, such as polymerase chain reaction and antigen testing. The United States also pledged to improve the locks on the doors and beef up capabilities so they could detect disease outbreaks sooner, as well as spot the cause.
The agreement with Ukraine grew out of the 1992 Nunn-Lugar legislation, sponsored by Mr. Lugar and Sen. Sam Nunn (D-Ga.) to clean up the Cold War legacy of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons in the former Soviet Union, an effort that became known as Cooperative Threat Reduction. In the 1990s, thousands of nuclear warheads and missiles were liquidated, followed by vast stocks of chemical weapons. Later, the Nunn-Lugar program expanded into reducing biological threats in Russian laboratories, as well as other former Soviet republics. Among other efforts, a public health reference laboratory — named the Lugar Center — was opened in Tbilisi, Georgia, in 2011. Pathogens stored in a Soviet-era research institute in the center of Tbilisi were moved to a purpose-built, secure facility.
The Nunn-Lugar program was partially in the U.S. interest. But it was also an act of benevolence. The sole remaining superpower extended a hand to nations that were weak and struggling, providing about $1 billion a year to the former Soviet republics. Since 2005, the U.S. agreement with Ukraine has led to $200 million in aid for 46 biomedical and health facilities. The assistance was not forced on anyone — it was designed to make people safer and healthier. The recipients were eager for it. The aid to Russia was terminated by President Vladimir Putin in 2014 but continued elsewhere.
Turning the truth upside down
The Cold War never became a hot war between the superpowers, but the competition was fought intensely in the shadows. Disinformation was a Soviet tactic from 1949 to 1988. One major effort, carried out by the Soviet Union, China and North Korea during the Korean War, between 1951 and 1953, claimed the United States had released bacteria and infected insects into North Korea and China. The charges were fabricated but received wide circulation and were only proved false in 1998 by Soviet Central Committee documents published by University of Maryland scholar Milton Leitenberg. He obtained a copy of a cable to Mao Zedong, sent after Joseph Stalin’s death, that read, “The Soviet Government and the Central Committee of the [Communist Party of the Soviet Union] were misled. The spread in the press of information about the use by the Americans of bacteriological weapons in Korea was based on false information. The accusations against the Americans were fictitious.”
In another disinformation campaign, the Soviet Union pushed a false story in the 1980s that the United States had genetically engineered the virus that causes AIDS at Fort Detrick, a U.S. Army biomedical facility. Another lie was added that the virus was released in Africa to kill Africans. The KGB planted the story in news media around the globe. Polls later showed that the campaign had been successful: A compilation of 20 public opinion surveys of African Americans between 1990 and 2009 showed that an average of 28 percent of respondents believed that genocide was involved in the origin of HIV.
In more recent years, the Nunn-Lugar program became a frequent target of Russia’s disinformation campaigns. Because the funding came partially through the Pentagon’s Defense Threat Reduction Agency, Russia frequently claimed that military research was underway in the recipient facilities. The Lugar Center was a major focus. In December 2009, an item in the Russian newspaper Pravda claimed “biological weapons are being secretly developed on Georgia territory.” The article contained no fewer than nine discrete false allegations.
In 2018, Russia aimed a fresh burst of disinformation at the Lugar Center. On Jan. 16, South Front, a website connected to Russian intelligence agencies, posted a 49-page document titled “The Pentagon Bio-Weapons.” It was a subtle mix of authentic historical documents describing the pre-1969 U.S. biological weapons program — before a 1972 treaty outlawed germ warfare — with falsehoods implying that the United States was continuing work on bioweapons at the Lugar Center. In September, a former KGB officer and onetime Georgian security official, Igor Giorgadze, appeared on Russian television channels RT and Sputnik with documents that he claimed showed the Lugar Center “could be a cover for a bioweapons lab” doing experiments on humans. He also alleged the U.S. government had granted patents for biological weapons devices. Soon after, a Russian Foreign Ministry official said the United States was using the Georgian people “as guinea pigs.” Then, Russian Gen. Igor Kirillov, head of the radiation, chemical and biological defense forces, announced that the Lugar Center had been “testing a highly toxic chemical or highly lethal biological agent under the guise of treatments.”
These claims were fictitious, but they made headlines. On May 26, 2020, the Russian Foreign Ministry released a three-page statement about the Lugar Center containing no less than 16 false statements, some absurd, such as about the germ warfare “patents.”
The Lugar Center’s mission was to protect people from disease. Nine Russian scientists had visited it since 2016, and some of them had actually worked there. The Russian government knew its allegations were lies but used them to create a disinformation bomb about biological weapons. The Russian effort, Mr. Leitenberg concluded, “repeatedly displays a brazen, disdainful, spit-in-your-eye character.”
‘Firehose of falsehoods’
As Putin’s troops stormed into Ukraine on Feb. 24, 2022, Russia’s disinformation warriors used the same approach as they had in Georgia.
The Russian defense ministry announced on March 6 that it had obtained documents from workers at Ukrainian laboratories showing that dangerous pathogens were destroyed on the day of the invasion. Spokesman Igor Konashenkov said the documents “confirm that components of biological weapons were developed in Ukraine bio laboratories in close proximity from the territory of Russia.” He said the pathogens, such as plague, anthrax, tularemia and cholera, were destroyed to conceal the U.S. involvement.
This was a total fiction. But thanks to social media, the claims raced around the globe at the speed of light. On March 8, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian repeated the Russian lies, saying the United States “has 26 bio-labs and other related facilities in Ukraine, over which the U.S. Department of Defense has absolute control,” and, “the biological military activities of the U.S. in Ukraine are merely the tip of the iceberg,” with 336 biological labs in 30 countries. He called on the United States to “fully clarify its biological militarization activities both inside and outside its borders.” Within hours, at least 17 Chinese state media outlets posted his accusations, and on China’s Weibo social media, the topic gained more than 210 million views.
On March 9, Fox News host Tucker Carlson picked it up, too. Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Victoria Nuland had told a Senate hearing that it was important the invading Russian troops not take over the Ukraine research facilities. A Russian spokeswoman said Ms. Nuland’s comment confirmed the United States’ “illegal and criminal activity on Ukrainian soil.” Mr. Carlson then pounced, saying the Russian account of the biological weapons laboratories “is, in fact, totally and completely true. Whoa.” He also said, “We would assume … they were working on bioweapons.”
On March 10, Gen. Kirillov announced that the documents obtained by Russia showed that the United States was trying to “develop bioagents capable of targeting various ethnic groups,” such as ethnic Slavs. No such effort, of course, existed.
The next day, Russia called a meeting of the Security Council to air the lies it had concocted. The U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, said, “There are no Ukrainian biological weapons laboratories supported by the United States — not near Russia’s border, or anywhere.”
“Let me be clear,” said Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines at a Senate hearing, “we do not assess that Ukraine is pursuing either biological weapons or nuclear weapons.”
On March 16, Mr. Putin made the disinformation charge directly. “A network of dozens of laboratories operated in Ukraine, where military biological programs, including experiments with samples of coronavirus, anthrax, cholera, African swine fever and other deadly diseases, were carried out under the supervision and financial support of the Pentagon,” he said, claiming that “they are now strenuously trying to cover up the evidence of these secret programs.”
On March 18, Russia again called a U.N. Security Council meeting to discuss its claims. But the U.N. High Representative for Disarmament Affairs, Izumi Nakamitsu, said the United Nations “is not aware of any such biological weapons programs.”
Surprisingly, a Russian biologist, Yevgeny Levitin, posted an open letter online, with some other scientists, titled, “Stop the lies on Ukrainian bioweapons!” The letter said the Russian documents were “obviously false” and do not describe biological weapons. Asked why he spoke out, Levitin said, “Because they wrote pure lies. This is a deliberate lie, which is not justified in any way. This will become obvious to any person who takes the trouble to simply carefully read the documents.”
Russia relentlessly stoked the lies. On March 31, it submitted formal statements repeating the bioweapons charge to the U.N. Conference on Disarmament in Geneva. On April 4, the two houses of the Russian parliament voted to launch a special parliamentary inquiry into the Ukrainian laboratories. On May 13, Russia called for a U.N. Security Council meeting for a third time; a top U.N. official said there was still no evidence of biological weapons programs in Ukraine. On May 27, Gen. Kirillov delivered another briefing with wide-ranging allegations of U.S. and Ukrainian involvement in biological weapons. Russia charged that the Ukraine laboratories were preparing to send migratory birds and bats with disease into Russia, an echo of the false “infected insects” supposedly sent into China 70 years earlier. By summer, the claims reached bizarre sci-fi levels: Russian officials said in July that Ukrainian soldiers were subjected to “secret experiments” that “neutralized the last traces of human consciousness and turned them into the cruelest and deadliest monsters” and “the most cruel killing machines.”
In September, Russia kept up the drumbeat by triggering a formal review under the 1972 Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention, for only the second time in the treaty’s history. The overwhelming number of states involved in the review rejected the allegations. In October, Russia filed a long complaint, accompanied by a draft resolution calling for an investigative commission, with the U.N. Security Council. The resolution failed to gain enough support to pass.
At the Security Council on Oct. 26, Ms. Thomas-Greenfield admonished the Russians for calling yet another meeting that “is a colossal waste of time.”
“We all know these claims are pure fabrications, brought forth without a shred of evidence,” she added.
The Russian disinformation strategy is not to be ashamed or shy, but to pump out more. At Mr. Putin’s Moscow summit with Chinese leader Xi Jinping on March 21, the two leaders did it again, expressing “serious concern” about the biological military activities of the United States, both inside and outside the country.” In April, the Russian parliament commission is expected to deliver its report, another chance to spread the contamination. Russia’s authoritarian system is able to exploit many instruments — security services, cutouts, websites, diplomats and state-controlled media — to create an ecosystem for disinformation. Rand Corp., the think tank, a few years ago called Russia’s strategy a “firehose of falsehoods.”
The threat of biological weapons inspires public anxiety and fear, even more so after a catastrophic pandemic. Both Cold War superpowers researched biological weapons, which were outlawed in the 1972 treaty. The Soviet Union signed the treaty but then secretly built the largest biological weapons program the world had ever seen, including standby factories to create germ warfare agents in the event of war. The Soviet program was exposed after the Cold War ended. It was especially pernicious for Russia to throw this charge at the United States.
Why Russia does it — and how to strike back
The Kremlin’s disinformation casts the United States — and Ukraine — as villains for creating germ warfare laboratories, giving Mr. Putin another pretext for a war that lacks all justification. The disinformation undermines the biological weapons treaty, showing that Mr. Putin has little regard for maintaining the integrity of this international agreement. The disinformation attempts to divert attention from Russia’s barbaric onslaught against civilians in Ukraine. In 2018, the Kremlin may have been seeking to shift attention from the attempted assassination of former double agent Sergei Skripal in Britain, or from the Robert S. Mueller III investigation that year of Russian meddling in the U.S. presidential campaign.
The biological laboratories are just one example of Russia’s wider disinformation campaigns. Data shared by Facebook shows Russians “built manipulative Black Lives Matter and Blue Lives Matter pages, created pro-Muslim and pro-Christian groups, and let them expand via growth from real users,” says author Samuel Woolley in “The Reality Game.” He adds, “The goal was to divide and conquer as much as it was to dupe and convince.” During the pandemic, Russia similarly attempted to aggravate existing tensions over public health measures in the United States and Europe. It has also spread lies about the use of chemical weapons, undermining the treaty that prohibits them and the organization that enforces it. In the Ukraine war, Russia has fired off broadsides of disinformation, such as claiming the victims of the Mariupol massacre were “crisis actors.” Russia used disinformation to mask its responsibility for the shoot-down of the Malaysia Airlines flight MH-17 over Ukraine in 2014.
The disinformation over Ukraine, repeated widely in the Russian media, plays well with social groups that support Putin: the poor, those living in rural areas and small towns, and those being asked to send young men to the front. Mr. Putin so tightly controls the news media that it is difficult for alternative news and messages to break through.
Does the disinformation persuade anyone outside of Russia? It is impossible to know how much is accepted or changes minds. But a survey in Germany suggests that the drumbeat of lies takes a toll. In a nationwide public opinion poll by CeMAS, respondents were asked whether they agree, disagree or partially concur with the statement: “Ukraine, together with the U.S., has operated secret biolabs for the production of biological weapons.” The poll in April found 7 percent agreed, 79 percent disagreed and 14 percent said some of each. By October, 12 percent said they agreed, 67 percent disagreed and 21 percent said some of each.
The pollsters called the results “quite worrying” and pointed out that “anti-democratic actors use disinformation campaigns not only to convince, but also to sow doubt among the population.”
This is the key point: Disinformation is a venom. It does not need to flip everyone’s, or even most people’s, views. Its methods are to creep into the lifeblood, create uncertainty, enhance established fears and sow confusion.
The best way to strike back is with the facts, and fast. Thomas Kent, the former president of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, has pointed out that the first hours are critical in such an asymmetrical conflict: Spreaders of disinformation push out lies without worrying about their integrity, while governments and the news media try to verify everything, and take more time to do so. Mr. Kent suggests speeding the release of information that is highly likely to be true, rather than waiting. For example, it took 13 days for the British government to reach a formal conclusion that Russia was behind the poisoning of Mr. Skripal, but within 48 hours of the attack, then-Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson told Parliament that it appeared to be Russia, which helped tip the balance in the press and public opinion.
In Ukraine, when Russia was on the threshold of invasion, government and civil society organizations rapidly coordinated an informal “early warning system” to detect and identify Russia’s false claims and narratives. It was successful when the war began, especially with use of the Telegram app. In a short time, Telegram use leapt from 12 percent adoption to 65 percent, according to those involved in the effort
Also in Ukraine, more than 20 organizations, along with the National Democratic Institute in Washington, had created a disinformation debunking hub in 2019 that has played a key role in the battle against the onslaught of lies. A recent report from the International Forum for Democratic Studies at the National Endowment for Democracy identified three major efforts that paid off for Ukraine in the fight against Russian disinformation as war began. One was “deep preparation” (since Russia was recycling old claims from 2014, they were ready); active and rapid cooperation of civil society groups; and use of technology, such as artificial intelligence and machine learning, to help sift through the torrents of Russian disinformation and rapidly spot malign narratives.
Governments can’t do this on their own. Free societies have an advantage that autocrats don’t: authentic civil society that can be agile and innovative. In the run-up to the Ukraine war, all across Central and Eastern Europe, civil society groups were sharpening techniques for spotting and countering Russian disinformation.
Plain old media literacy among readers and viewers — knowing how to discriminate among sources, for example — is also essential.
Open societies are vulnerable because they are open. The asymmetries in favor of malign use of information are sizable. Democracies must find a way to adapt. The dark actors morph constantly, so the response needs to be systematic and resilient.
In a world that connects billions of people at a flash, the truth may have only a fighting chance against organized lying. As an old saying has it: “A lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes.”
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