University of Cape Town: The well-worn Russian conspiracy playbook strikes again

Russia’s attempts to justify its invasion of Ukraine include the crass resuscitation of propagandistic conspiracy theories previously wheeled out when AIDS and COVID-19 swept across the world.

On Friday, 11 March 2022 Russia’s ambassador to the UN, Vasily Nebenzya, claimed at a special Security Council meeting that the US Department of Defence, led by scientists at Fort Detrick, was funding and supervising a network of biological weapons research programmes across Ukraine.

This was straight out of the old Russian playbook. In the 1980s, the Russian secret police (the KGB), in collaboration with the East German secret police (the Stasi), concocted and spread the story that Aids had been created by US army scientists at Fort Detrick out of sheep and human leukaemia viruses.

Scientists dismiss this as a biological impossibility. Successful conspiracy theories, however, typically contain a grain of truth wrapped in a narrative of lies. The small grain of truth in the KGB and Stasi narrative was that Fort Detrick had been the centre of a US biological weapons programme from 1943 to 1969.

During the Covid-19 pandemic, Russia, this time assisted by China, once again promoted conspiracy theories about the virus having been deliberately created by the US Army. There is no evidence that Covid-19 was engineered. Genetic analysis suggests that it probably crossed into humans through zoonotic transmission from bats. But like the old Aids conspiracy theory, this new one also gained traction, especially among right-wingers.

Conspiracy theories work psychologically through enhancing a sense of agency as people “connect the dots” and imagine that they have uncovered some hidden truth. Conspiracy theories work politically through constructing common enemies (the “system” or elites) and in providing a narrative shorthand for expressing and promoting political values.

Antisemitic conspiracy theories and tropes about the “New World Order” and the Illuminati emerged during the Aids pandemic and again during Covid-19. Antisemitism is a mainstay of re-emergent right-wing global fascism centred on Russian President Vladimir Putin, a recurrent theme being that “a global cabal of Jews were (and are) the real agents of violence against Russian Christians and the real victims of the Nazis were not the Jews, but rather this group”.

Putin’s absurd claim that Ukraine is governed by Nazis is part Orwellian double-speak, and part reflection of this conspiracy theory.

When Russia invaded Ukraine, far-right conspiracy theories linked with QAnon quickly adapted to claims that Trump and Putin were working together on the war aimed at taking down a cabal of global elites involved in sex trafficking. Some rebooted the biolab conspiracy theory by suggesting that this joint effort was designed to target secret United States biological weapons labs in Ukraine.

We should not be surprised that the Russians have dusted the old US bioweapon narrative off again, this time at the United Nations. Putin had a long career in the KGB, including during the years when the Aids conspiracy theory was concocted, and the spreading of misinformation has become a hallmark of his presidency.

But this time the stakes are far higher. The Russian ambassador to the United Nations was not simply seeking to tarnish the US and create socially divisive narratives and suspicions, he was preparing the ideological grounding for a possible all-out, even genocidal assault on Ukraine. His conspiracy theory constructed Ukraine as an irresponsible regime that was a danger to the whole of Europe, and Russian soldiers as liberators.

Russian soldiers, according to the Russian ambassador, had obtained secret documents showing that Ukraine had collaborated with the US in conducting experiments using migratory birds, bats, fleas, and lice to spread pathogens including plague and bird/swine flu. He implied that Ukraine had been collecting the blood of Slavs, under the guise of Covid-19 testing, to generate ethnically specific bioweapons. The irresponsible Ukrainian government had thus supposedly turned its citizens into guinea pigs and was threatening the biological safety not only of Russia, but the whole of Asia and Europe.

The US ambassador to the United Nations, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, correctly slammed Russia for attempting to legitimise its invasion of Ukraine and for using the Security Council as a platform for spreading misinformation. She confronted the small grain of truth in the conspiracy theory — ie that the US-supported Ukrainian medical labs researching pathogens such as Covid-19 for public health purposes — and dismissed the allegations about bio-weapon research as an outright lie.

Conspiracy theories can be rejected and slammed, but they are very difficult to dislodge, especially where they speak to contemporary fears and suspicions. It is also impossible to debate claims based on “secret” information, or to convince those who regard all countervailing evidence as untrustworthy. Despite being roundly condemned, the Russian ambassador scored an ideological victory simply in having been provided such a global platform.

Russian conspiracy theories about Ukrainian biolabs are raising serious concerns that they may be an attempt to lay the groundwork for brutal attacks (as pre-emptive strikes on dangerous facilities), or for using biological warfare on the battlefield and blaming it on Ukraine. If so, this will have taken the Russian conspiracy theory playbook to a new, terrifying, Orwellian level.

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