Support The Bulwark and subscribe today.
  Join Now

Russia Doesn’t Need Trolls This Time

Bioweapons conspiracy promoted by likely suspects.
March 14, 2022
Russia Doesn’t Need Trolls This Time

During the Cold War, the Soviet Union invested heavily in its global disinformation and propaganda efforts. And back in 2016, the Russians had to go to the trouble of creating a troll farm to push their divisive messages to the American audience. But today, they needn’t go to such lengths: Plenty of prominent right-wing media figures in the United States are pushing out Vladimir Putin’s propaganda for him.

It didn’t happen overnight. Recall how the Russia-sympathizing, Q-adjacent, Trump-loving MAGA media machine first railed against Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russia’s election meddling. Russia wasn’t responsible, they said—a computer server in Ukraine ran the operation. Then, in 2020, they accused Ukrainian officials of withholding dirt on Joe Biden’s family. Now they allege that the United States is funding bioweapons laboratories in Ukraine and our government is covering it up.

Make a Venn Diagram of the people pushing each of those three narratives and you’ll find they overlap almost completely. It’s all the same people: fringe Internet figures, Fox News hosts, Steve Bannon and his acolytes, Marjorie Taylor Greene caucus members, and the millions of people who love them.

Most of these people claim to be free-thinking contrarians. But their accusations, questions, and conclusions about the United States, Russia, and Ukraine always seem to go one way: The United States and Ukraine are somehow wrong, and the Russians have their reasons for waging war. If you don’t believe that, it’s only because all the Democrats are lying to you. (Well, all the Democrats except for 2022 CPAC special guest Tulsi Gabbard, anyway.)

Before we dig into the Russian disinformation about supposed U.S. bioweapons in Ukraine, let’s put some facts on the record: Both the United States and the Soviet Union had biological weapons programs. The American program lasted for about a quarter-century and was shut down by President Nixon before the United States signed on to the Biological Weapons Convention. The Soviet bioweapons program dwarfed the U.S. program—and long after the USSR signed on to the Bioweapons Convention, the Soviet program continued its work in secret.  The Americans did not operate bioweapons labs in Ukraine, but the Soviets did—although the research conducted in Ukraine, which involved plague, was not offensive but defensive. The United States does, however, now provide funding to some labs in Ukraine as part of the Biological Threat Reduction Program; such “biological defense” research is intended to help protect against disease outbreaks whether “deliberate, accidental, or natural.”

Russia has long promoted outlandish claims about supposed U.S.-funded biological weapons killing off pigs and unleashing killer mosquitoes. Old KGB agents used to lie that American research labs created the AIDS virus, too. The idea of U.S.-funded Ukrainian bioweapons labs began to circulate on fringe websites as Putin’s Ukraine invasion got underway. But it was a question by a U.S. senator—and a less than perfectly clear answer by an American official—that gave the conspiracy theories new life.

During a March 8 Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing, Sen. Marco Rubio asked Victoria Nuland, the under secretary of state for political affairs, “Does Ukraine have chemical or biological weapons?” She answered that Ukraine has “biological research facilities” and expressed concern about Russian forces taking them over.

Rubio then reminded Nuland that Russian propagandists are pushing narratives about Ukrainians unleashing biological weapons in coordination with NATO. He asked her: “If there is a biological or chemical weapon incident or attack inside of Ukraine, is there any doubt in your mind that, 100 percent, it would be the Russians that would be behind it?”

Nuland replied, “There is no doubt in my mind, senator. And it is classic Russian technique to blame on the other guy what they are planning to do themselves.”

MAGA media figures seized upon this exchange as confirmation of something nefarious going on in Ukraine. Never mind that Nuland never said anything about Ukraine having bioweapons labs. Biological labs, bioweapons labs—whatever, samesies!

Donald Trump Jr. tweeted, “Well that went from conspiracy theory to senate testimony in about 6 days… It used to take six months to go from conspiracy theory to fact.” Fox News ratings king Tucker Carlson took the non-story to primetime. And, boy, did it play well in Russia. Carlson’s commentary is so Kremlin-friendly that, according to a memo obtained by Mother Jones, Russian officials have ordered their state-run media outlets to feature his clips.

In a lengthy monologue, Carlson said:

Under oath in an open committee hearing, [Victoria] Nuland just confirmed that the Russian disinformation they’ve been telling us for days is a lie and a conspiracy theory and crazy and immoral to believe is, in fact, totally and completely true.

Woah, you don’t hear things like that every day in Washington. Talk about a showstopper and a dozen questions instantly jump to mind. What exactly are they doing in these secret Ukrainian bio labs? Ukraine is the poorest country in Europe. It’s hardly a hotbed of biomedical research. We’re assuming these weren’t pharmaceutical labs, probably not developing new leukemia drugs. From your answer, [Victoria] Nuland, we would assume because you all but said it, that there’s a military application to this research, that they were working on bioweapons. Again, your answer suggests that.

Why would we fund something like that in Ukraine, and why didn’t you secure the contents of these bio labs before the Russians arrived as you knew they would? And then why did you go out of your way to lie to the American public about all of this? If the “research materials” in these labs were to escape somehow and you seem very concerned about that, what would be the effect on Ukraine and then on the rest of the world? How can we prepare for the consequences of that, this thing that you’re worried about? Shouldn’t we be preparing? Because as it turns out, we’ve just spent the last two years living with the pathogen that began in another foreign bio lab funded by the United States government secretly.

Yes, one could have guessed that the same people who blamed Dr. Fauci for the coronavirus might try to find some other government bureaucrats to blame for Putin’s war. This time, according to Carlson, “Dangerous biological agents remain, thanks to the Biden administration, unsecured in a chaotic war zone.”

Republican Rep. Thomas Massie, another Fauci hater-turned-bioweapons truther, retweeted a piece about Nuland’s testimony from Glenn Greenwald, calling it a “serious admission, under oath, from a person who would know.” Referring to Nuland, Greenwald’s piece declared that the “neocon’s confession sheds critical light on the U.S. role in Ukraine, and raises vital questions about these labs that deserve answers.”

This is the big story in their minds. Not the Russian invasion and the unfolding humanitarian disaster but the Russian disinformation about bioweapons, which provides a cudgel for whacking the Biden administration—no matter how bogus the claims.

Liz Cheney aptly dubbed the Republican figures who keep aligning with Russia “the Putin wing of the GOP,” though there is some debate whether it’s the party’s dominant wing. Most Republicans seem to be uniting around the cause of the Ukrainians.

Too bad it’s not the Republicans running the party, though.

Sean Hannity shows the conundrum. He seemed pretty upset about Putin’s war and has suggested someone assassinate Putin. The Fox News talker sat down with Donald Trump last Thursday and, in perfect keeping with his role of being more a public relations adviser than a journalist, Hannity made repeated attempts to goad Trump into denouncing the Russian leader.

Hannity’s efforts were for naught, though. Trump wouldn’t do it, which should have been expected, given Trump’s long-established pattern of sidling alongside Putin. (Remember Helsinki?) As long as Trump is the acknowledged head of the Republican party, his admiration for Putin is something that Republicans, including Hannity, will have to continue to accept.

Which doesn’t seem to be much of a problem at all for the younger, very online MAGA Republicans.

GOP Rep. Madison Cawthorn, for example, is perfectly comfortable trashing Ukraine. He told donors that “Zelensky is a thug,” and “Remember that the Ukrainian government is incredibly corrupt and is incredibly evil and has been pushing woke ideologies.”

Hardly anyone blinks when the Daily Wire’s Candace Owens tweets stuff like: “WE are at fault” for Russia’s invasion and every American who “wants to know what’s *actually* going on in Russia and Ukraine” should read the transcript of Putin’s speech to the Russian Federation Security Council.

The only thing better for Putin would be to make Americans read him in the original Russian.

It’s not a coincidence that two major scandals of the Trump era–the Mueller investigation and Trump’s first impeachment–involved Russian interference and Ukraine. Or that Trump went on to pardon members of his inner circle ensnared in the Russia probe, such as his former campaign manager Paul Manafort and former national security advisor Mike Flynn. All of these characters belong to the same story.

Flynn is now on Telegram, pushing the predictable party line: “I was told that biolabs in Ukraine was a conspiracy theory yet here we are. They are now admitting it openly.”

Fellow Trump pardonee-turned-podcaster Steve Bannon, ever the political entrepreneur, is channeling the conspiracy into direct political action. His demand: “No Republican should vote for any money on Ukraine, zero dollars until we know exactly what is going on with the labs.”

None of this goes to say these men, or the others parroting similar lines, bear any responsibility for Putin’s war crimes in Ukraine. But it’s ghastly how eager they are to latch on to Putin’s version of events to score cheap points against Democrats and advance their own interests.

Amanda Carpenter

Amanda Carpenter is an author, a former communications director to Sen. Ted Cruz, and a former speechwriter to Sen. Jim DeMint. She was formerly a Bulwark political columnist.