Russia's foreign ministry doubled down Friday on a disinformation campaign falsely claiming the U.S. military was helping Ukraine develop biological weapons, despite Pentagon efforts this week to knock down the deception.
The ongoing attack was the latest in Russia's info war, a subset of its invasion of Ukraine that aims to spin a web of lies to confuse foreign audiences, including Americans, as well as its own public. The new false claims, repeated in a ministry tweet, stoked fears that Russia could be planning its own biological or chemical attack on Ukraine.
President Joe Biden warned Friday that Moscow would pay a "severe price" for such an attack.
The Pentagon and the administration have worked hard to counter Russia's disinformation during the invasion by speaking publicly about its attempts to deceive, and on Friday released detailed information on cooperation with Ukraine on civilian biological safety programs and clean up of defunct Cold War-era military programs.
It’s part of a clear strategy from U.S. officials: Quickly debunk Russian claims loudly and publicly, even using carefully declassified details in an attempt to undermine the effectiveness of the fabrications.
Russian propaganda flowed heavily in the lead-up to the invasion, according to a European Union watchdog, and has continued since. In a possible show of how far the claims have spread, the U.S.' top foreign adversary China repeated the biolab disinformation this week.
"The only reason why we elevated the discussion is because the Russians and the Chinese decided to lie about it -- just flat-out lie. And so we were answering the lie," a senior defense official told Military.com on Friday.
The existence of the joint Ukraine-U.S. biological security programs targeted by Russia has been publicly known and reported since it was created in 2005.
The Pentagon's Cooperative Threat Reduction Program helped secure pathogens used in the Soviet Union's biological weapons programs after the communist superpower split apart and the Cold War ended, according to a fact sheet released by the department Friday designed to counter the Russian claims.
The Defense Department has spent about $200 million since 2005 to support 46 Ukraine laboratories, health facilities and diagnostic sites. The support helped improve Ukraine's response to the COVID pandemic, the Pentagon fact sheet said.
"I think that the U.S. government provides assistance, or at least has in the past provided assistance, really in the context of biosafety, which is something that we've done globally with a variety of different countries," Avril Haines, the director of national intelligence, said in testimony to the Senate Intelligence Committee on Thursday.
The Pentagon "even worked closely with Russia and within Russia in laboratories owned by Russia until 2014," according to the department fact sheet. That was the year Russia annexed the Crimea peninsula from Ukraine and began supporting a separatist civil war in the country's eastern Donbas region.
Jen Psaki, the White House press secretary, called the Russian disinformation claims "preposterous" on Wednesday.
Russia pushed false claims that it discovered Ukraine had tried to cover up work with the U.S. on a biological weapons program, first through its ministry of defense, and then amplifying that message through government-aligned media such as Pravda, according to EUvsDisinfo, a watchdog advisory group to the European Union that monitors Russian disinformation.
"Radical Ukrainian groups under the control of U.S. special services' representatives have prepared several potential scenarios of using toxic chemicals to carry out provocations," Russia's Ministry of Foreign Affairs tweeted Friday. "Objective -- to accuse Russia of chemical weapons use vs. civilians."
Variants of the biolabs disinformation began to appear in several major U.S. outlets late this week. On Thursday, Fox News' flagship evening show Tucker Carlson Tonight, which dominates primetime news programs with about 3.4 million viewers, said the Biden administration admitted funding "secretive" biolabs in Ukraine that are conducting experiments on highly dangerous pathogens.
"Once again, not for the first time, what had seemed like a nutty conspiracy theory turned out to be true," Carlson told his audience.
Russia has floated the biolab propaganda in different forms since at least 2014, EUvsDisinfo says. Many of those lies over the years targeted other nations, but about 25% have been directed at Ukraine, including false claims that Kyiv is hiding evidence of plague pathogens, it's testing viruses on its citizens, and a measles outbreak there was caused by U.S. biological weapons labs.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has used such disinformation campaigns for years in an attempt to destabilize Ukraine and other governments, including the U.S., where he unleashed a tide of social media disinformation in the lead-up to the 2016 presidential election.
Many of the false claims about the Ukraine war are directed inward to Russian citizens, who have been told that the invasion -- universally condemned by the international community -- is a "special military operation" to liberate the Ukrainian people. Putin's government has also threatened those who criticize the war with years of imprisonment.
The Pentagon and Biden administration tried a new tactic against the propaganda in the days before Putin launched an invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24, after he spent nearly a year massing over 150,000 troops around its borders. They released classified information indicating that Russia may use false claims of an attack on its forces -- called a false flag operation -- as justification for the invasion.
That never happened and Putin launched his war to take control of Ukraine anyway, but concerns spiked this week that the biolab propaganda could be part of Russia's familiar tactics.
"This one I do think is a little bit more dangerous than those, and that's because a lot of times what the Russians do is they telegraph what they are thinking about doing in some of the claims that they use against you," said Emily Harding, deputy director and senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies think tank. "So when they talk about chemical weapons, when they talk about bio weapons, you have to be very concerned that what they're doing is laying the groundwork for something that they're about to do."
John Kirby, the Pentagon spokesman, said Friday that the U.S. is watching very closely for a potential false flag operation because Russia is known to have a biological and chemical weapons program and has a "reputation for using those kinds of weapons on people."
"I'm not going to speak about the intelligence, but Russia would pay a severe price if it uses chemical weapons," Biden said Friday at a White House event.
-- Travis Tritten can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @Travis_Tritten.