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Investigating Russian Disinformation About Bioweapons in Ukraine

With the ongoing war in Ukraine, multiple disinformation narratives are intensifying online as part of disinformation efforts from the Russian state. The disinformation narrative gaining the most momentum in the digital space is that Ukraine is developing bioweapons with the assistance of the United States government.

At least 22 major media outlets published stories about the narrative with varying angles, which has spread across social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Parler, Gab, Rumble, Telegram, VK, etc. The Chinese state is also promoting Russia’s bioweapons conspiracy on the world stage.

Overwatch used OSINT techniques and EAG’s D2M Methodology to investigate the bioweapons disinformation narrative and identify its possible online origin point. In addition, we researched the U.S. company, Black and Veatch, and U.S. government entity, the Defense Threat Reduction Agency, that worked with Ukraine to build biolabs in the country.

A Timeline

On February 25, 2022, the day after Russia invaded Ukraine, a post surfaced on 4chan, claiming that the U.S. Department of Defense funded Ukrainian bioweapons. The 4chan post received significant attention from QAnon supporters and quickly spread across social media.

On March 8, 2022, Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) asked the Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs, Victoria Nuland, if there are biolabs in Ukraine. Nuland told Rubio, “Ukraine has biological research facilities, which in fact we are now quite concerned [that] Russian troops, Russian forces may be seeking to gain control of. So, we are working with the Ukrainians on how they can prevent any of those research materials from falling into the hands of Russian forces, should they approach.”

Two days later, Russian Defense Ministry spokesman Igor Konashenkov claimed that the U.S. funded biological weapons research in Ukraine for the “stealthy spread of deadly pathogens.”

On March 11, 2022, Russian Ambassador to the UN, Vasily Nebenzya, promoted the conspiracy at the United Nations. Nebenzya said that the U.S. had plotted to spread biological weapons using “migrating birds, bats, and insects.”

On Russian social media site, VK, news pages that support Russia’s military invasion of Ukraine claim that the U.S. secretly began to work with Ukraine on biological experiments in Kharkiv, Ukraine, in 2021.

Overwatch Findings

Overwatch research shows that Black and Veatch, founded in 1915, helped build biolabs in Ukraine through a contract with the Defense Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA). The mission of DTRA is to “enable the Department of Defense (DoD), The United States Government and International partners to counter and deter weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and emerging threats.”

Black and Veatch helped construct a biolab in Odessa, Ukraine. On the Black and Veatch website, the company says that “the new facility enhances the government’s existing disease surveillance systems to detect, report and respond to bioterrorism attacks, epidemics and potential pandemics.”

Through use of the Wayback Machine, analysts located additional data from Black and Veatch about the biolab in Odessa, designed to hold “especially dangerous pathogens.”

Black and Veatch said of the Odessa biolab, “The BSL-3 laboratory was specifically designed and constructed to support work with especially dangerous pathogens that can be naturally occurring or introduced through a bioterrorism attack. It serves as a central location for research, consolidation, and training on the proper handling of dangerous pathogens. The lab also provides the Ukrainian Ministry of Health a safe environment to confirm diagnosis of suspected dangerous pathogens, enhancing public health while deterring bioterrorism.”

Analysts note that a BSL-3 facility is the second highest biosafety level. According to Consolidated Sterilizer Systems, “a BSL-3 laboratory typically includes work on microbes that are either indigenous or exotic and can cause serious or potentially lethal disease through inhalation. Examples of microbes worked with in a BSL-3 includes yellow fever, West Nile virus, and the bacteria that causes tuberculosis.”

BSL-4 is the top level of biosafety. There are 60 BSL-4 labs globally, some of which are in the United States and Russia. Ukraine currently has no BSL-4 labs. Additional investigation into Black and Veatch shows a company with a global footprint, including having done business in Russia. In the 2007 report from the Office of Cooperative Threat Reduction to Congress, page 30 mentions that in 2005 the Russian Ministry of Defense implemented BV technology to further secure nuclear weapons awaiting dismantling.

According to Black and Veatch, “Black & Veatch led AICMS SRF to support Ministry of Defense of the Russian Federation (RF MOD) with enhanced capability to provide security, inventory, and control over Russia’s strategic and tactical nuclear weapons awaiting dismantlement. Black & Veatch constructed and equipped new AICMS secure facilities at 11 nuclear weapons storage sites across Russia using our proven EPC subcontractor management approach. ”

Possible Online Origin Point for the Bioweapons Conspiracy

Overwatch identified two articles that mention bioweapons development in Ukraine that predate the post on 4Chan by several years. The first article came from Topwar.ru, a popular pro-Russian military website, and the second from the Russian Institute for Strategic Studies (RISS), whose head is Mikhail Fradkov, the former Director of the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR).

In August 2013, Topwar.ru published an article in Russian translated as: American biolaboratories in Ukraine: Life-threatening. The article reads, in part, “And everything is quite simple: it is no secret that the Americans have long been trying to involve Ukraine in the implementation of their biological defense project. Therefore, we can say that Ukrainian and American interests in this case cannot coincide in any way, and Ukraine is just a convenient testing ground for testing especially dangerous infections, bred, moreover, in Ukrainian laboratories.”

In May 2014, the Russian Institute for Strategic Studies (RISS), published an article about biological military facilities in Ukraine. The author of the article, Dmitry Popov, wrote, “The United States is forming an expensive system of military biological facilities around Russia, which, according to Russian industry experts, directly threatens the national security of not only the Russian Federation, but also the states on whose territory American centers are located. Iran and China are also at risk.”

The articles from Topwar and RISS are the two earliest online points analysts identified regarding the conspiracy of bioweapons development in Ukraine.

OUR ASSESSMENT

We assess Black and Veatch’s construction of biolabs in Ukraine was for biosecurity and biosafety. A thorough review of Black and Veatch projects, publicly available information about DTRA’s operations and researching previous and current DTRA employees involved in projects in Eastern Europe did not return any findings suggesting that DTRA or Black and Veatch worked on an offensive bioweapons program in Ukraine. While the biolabs did deal with “deadly pathogens,” analysts did not locate any information indicating that they were used to develop bioweapons.

Overwatch analysts assess that the Russian state and China will continue to promote the bioweapons disinformation narrative in the digital space and could use it as a pretext for additional escalation in the region. Additionally, we foresee the Islamic Republic of Iran joining the disinformation campaign. These countries have a pattern of working together to undermine the United States, its allies, and partners. During the height of COVID-19, Russia, China, and Iran all accused the U.S. of building COVID-19 as a possible bioweapon.

We may see major social media platforms implement content moderation over the bioweapon’s disinformation narrative, flagging it as false information. Should platforms like Facebook and Twitter block the specified content, the Russian state will likely use the decision to push more disinformation about bioweapons, further accusing the U.S. of censoring the truth.

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