Populist right is wrong about Ukrainian 'biolabs'
The latest bizarre turn in the Russia/Ukraine war is the claim that clandestine, sinister "biolabs" run by the United States in Ukraine were among the real causes of the Russian invasion. It’s the kind of anti-American canard the Soviet disinformation machine used to circulate in the darkest days of the Cold War. The twist is that in this case, the fiction was apparently of American making — and was boosted not by the left, which has been traditionally critical of American military ventures, but by the right.
Chatter about U.S.-run "biolabs in Ukraine" first appeared on far-right and conspiracy-theory websites in late February. Some posts claimed that destroying those labs was Russia’s real goal. Others said the secret labs were connected to the coronavirus pandemic.
Eventually, both Russia and China alleged in news releases and on social media that the U.S. was conducting dangerous research in Ukraine-based labs. Then, testifying before Congress last week, Undersecretary of State Victoria Nuland confirmed that Ukraine had "biological research facilities" which the U.S. was helping safeguard from the Russians, and conspiracy theorists pounced.
Fox News pundit Tucker Carlson seized on Nuland’s testimony to suggest the facilities were doing "bioweapons research." Meanwhile, Russian ambassador Vassily Nebenzia told the United Nations Security Council that the Russian "special military operation" had uncovered shocking evidence of a "military biological program that Kyiv implemented with support of the U.S. Department of Defense."
In fact, the existence of U.S.-funded biological research facilities in Ukraine (and some other former Soviet republics) has never been a secret. Mostly, these facilities work on neutralizing biological weapons that were produced by the Soviet Union and preventing potential outbreaks of infectious diseases, as part of the U.S. Department of Defense Biological Threat Reduction Program.
But call them "biolabs" and it sounds vaguely scary and conspiratorial: Who’s to say they aren’t really developing dangerous biological weapons? Mostly right-wing publications such as The Federalist sounded the alarm. Also jumping on the bandwagon: journalist and attorney Glenn Greenwald and former Democratic congresswoman from Hawaii Tulsi Gabbard, both of whom are nominally on the left but are often aligned with right-wing culture warriors. Gabbard, a veteran who ran for president in 2020, later backtracked and claimed that she was simply concerned about hazardous lab material in a war zone.
Back in the 1980s, the Soviets planted false reports of dangerous U.S. experiments in chemical and biological weaponry, often as a distraction from their own use or development of such weapons. Among those rumors was the highly damaging and persistent claim that HIV/AIDS was the result of a biowarfare experiment gone wrong.
What’s new today is that such rumors are produced on the fringes of American political discourse — and embraced primarily by right-wing media and conservative pundits.
How do populist right-wingers like Carlson square such accusations with American patriotism? Simple: To them, the U.S. political establishment is not real America but "the Deep State," a part of the globalist elite which is trying to use Ukraine as a pawn against Russia.
The pundits of the populist right have been consistently on the wrong side of the Ukraine story: first denying Putin’s aggressive intentions and then trying to justify them, peddling a highly tendentious skepticism about Russia’s atrocities, and urging Ukrainian surrender. They’re entitled, of course, to their opinion. But when you end up amplifying an anti-American falsehood on a subject as inflammatory as biological weapons, it’s a good sign that you’re on a very wrong track.
Opinions expressed by Cathy Young, a senior fellow at the Cato Institute, are her own.