The United States secretly manufactured biological weapons in Ukraine. It trained birds to carry viruses into Russia. It created Covid-19. It operated laboratories in Nigeria that engineered this year’s outbreak of monkeypox.
Of the many falsehoods that the Kremlin has spread since the war in Ukraine began more than six months ago, some of the most outlandish and yet enduring have been those accusing the US of operating clandestine biological research programmes to wreak havoc around the globe.
The US and others have dismissed the accusations as preposterous, and Russia has offered no proof.
Yet the claims continue to circulate. Backed at times by China’s diplomats and state media, they have ebbed and flowed in international news reports, fueling conspiracy theories that linger online.
The Biological Weapons Convention, the international treaty that since 1975 has barred the development and use of weapons made of biological toxins or viruses, gives member nations the authority to request a formal hearing of violations, and Russia has invoked the first one in a quarter-century.
“This is the military biological Pandora’s box, which the United States has opened and filled more than once,” Irina Yarovaya, the deputy chair of the Russia’s Lower House of Parliament, the State Duma, said last month.
She is leading a parliamentary committee that was formed to “investigate” American support for biological research laboratories in Ukraine and elsewhere.
Virtually no Western officials or experts expect Russia to produce, during the weeklong gathering, facts that corroborate the accusations.
Russia’s propaganda campaign has sought to justify the invasion ordered by President Vladimir Putin, who in April cited a “network of Western bioweapons labs” as one of the threats that forced Russia to act.
More broadly, though, the flurry of accusations has sought to discredit the US and its allies – Ukraine’s most powerful supporters and, increasingly, the source of arms being used to fight Russian forces.
Even when unsupported by fact, the accusations have played into preexisting attitudes toward American dominance in foreign affairs. The consequence has been to sow division and doubt – not necessarily to build support for Russia’s invasion but to deflect some of the blame to the US and the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (Nato).
Russia’s accusations have appeared in news reports in many countries, especially in Africa and the Middle East, regions that have become diplomatic battlegrounds between the United States, Russia and China.
Russia’s efforts to push the claims about biological weapons come from an old Russia propaganda playbook, adapted to the age of social media.
On Monday, Russia will make a presentation before representatives of the 184 nations that have signed the Biological Weapons Convention. The United States, Ukraine and other countries will be able to respond later in the week.
Because the treaty has no verification or enforcement provisions, there will be no official ruling on Russia’s claims, but on Friday, nations can state their positions.