Russian diplomats and state media last week tweeted the word “biological” nearly 600 times as they advanced their disinformation campaign about U.S.-funded bioweapon facilities in Ukraine. U.S. officials and independent reporters have stated that the biological research facilities in Ukraine do not conduct research on or produce bioweapons. Regardless, Kremlin-linked messengers continued to spread claims about those labs handling “especially dangerous pathogens,” including the coronavirus. They also said those facilities were attempting to create bioagents capable of targeting specific ethnic groups and were training birds to deliver bioweapons. Russian state-directed outlets and diplomats amplified disinformation about the U.S. Embassy in Kyiv deleting evidence about the bioresearch facilities, despite the information remaining publicly available. Russian officials also claimed that Ukraine was testing deadly pathogens on its citizens, which resulted in dangerous infections increasing in Ukraine, including a 100 fold jump in the number of measles cases. Kremlin-backed messengers mischaracterized testimony from a U.S. official to support their conspiracy, and they amplified Fox News host Tucker Carlson’s comments about the non-existent bioweapons being a threat.
Russian officials also claimed they were “extremely concerned” that “radical Ukrainian groups” controlled by the United State were preparing to use chemical weapons and then blame Moscow for the attack. Russia’s Ministry of Defense said that Ukrainian forces had moved 80 tons of ammonia to a settlement near Kharkov, where they taught residents how to respond to a chemical attack. Meanwhile, Kremlin-affiliated accounts insisted that Russia destroyed its stockpile of chemical weapons in 2017. There were also claims that Ukraine was preparing a nuclear false flag and had attacked the substation that powers Chernobyl’s nuclear reactors. Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said that attacks against their own nuclear sites had become Kyiv’s “calling card.”
This disinformation was part of a larger Russian assault on accurate reporting. Last week, Russian diplomatic accounts tweeted the word “fake” 200 times, and #FakeNews was the seventh most used hashtag by Russian officials monitored on Hamilton 2.0. Kremlin-linked accounts often turned to a site called War on Fakes, which poses as a fact-checking service while spreading pro-Russian talking points, to justify their fake news claims. The readout for Zakharova’s press briefing on March 9 links to the War on Fakes. Multiple diplomatic accounts endorsed the site’s new Spanish and Arabic-language pages. RIA Novosti cited War on Fakes to spread lies about Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s location. War on Fakes was also used to lend legitimacy to conspiracies about Russia’s bombing of a maternity ward in Mariupol. As part of that disinformation narrative, multiple Russian diplomatic accounts smeared a pregnant woman who was injured in the bombing, calling her out by name and saying she was a crisis actor. Twitter removed those posts.
Kremlin-linked accounts also continued to insist that the West itself would be hurt by the retaliatory economic measures placed on Russia. Sputnik warned that the U.S. ban on Russian oil would “unleash hell on consumers” and upend Democrats’ chances in the midterm elections. RIA Novosti ran an article that called U.S. President Joe Biden “an enemy of the people” for causing high gas prices, which was based off the comments section of Breitbart’s website. State-backed outlets also warned about “rolling blackouts” across U.S. cities and “huge financial loses.” Meanwhile, there were claims that the sanctions would cause double digit inflation in Germany, cost U.K. citizens £2,500 per household this year, and result in “enormous damage to the citizens of the EU.” To support Russia’s narrative on sanctions hurting the West, Kremlin messengers amplified comments from Fox News host Tucker Carlson, Prime Minister of Hungry Victor Orban, and French presidential candidate Marine Le Pen. Meanwhile, Russian officials insisted that their economy would be resilient, and state media alternatively claimed that greed would bring Western brands back to Russia and that Russians were lucky to have things like Western junk food cut from their diets.
Social media platforms’ restrictions on Russia state media were met with predictable pushback. Russian diplomats said YouTube’s decision to ban Kremlin-funded outlets was “a gross violation of the right to access information.” RIA Novosti said “Meta declared war on Russia,” after the platform decided to allow some users to call for violence against Russia soldiers in the context of Russia’s war on Ukraine. Zakharova called all of the recent restrictions “media genocide.” RT amplified comments from Venezuelan journalists calling the restrictions “fascism” and comments from Cuban journalists calling the measures a “crime against culture.”
Also last week, Kremlin-linked accounts used the refugee crisis to depict Ukraine as ruthless and the West as racist. State-funded outlets repeatedly claimed that Ukrainian forces had shot at and bombed evacuees. RIA Novosti reported that Ukrainian intelligence officials were “hunting” individuals hoping to flee to Russia. This was paired with claims that the West was treating Ukrainian refugees humanely because they are largely white. One RT tweet asked, “A little racist? EU welcomes ‘white, blue-eyed’ Ukrainian refugees unlike Syrians.” Russia was shown helping refugees and providing free medial care.
These arguments were shared alongside regular talking points that Ukraine is full of Nazis and responsible for war crimes. Zakharova said that Ukrainian forces were “using civilians as human shields” and compared them to “ISIS terrorists.” She added that Ukraine was not just overwhelmed by neo-Nazis but also by “looters, robbers, and rapists.” State media showed Ukrainian forces attacking villages, schools, and hospitals. They also repeated claims that Kyiv had constructed mass graves, and they shared a video which purported to expose a “torture chamber” used by Ukrainian neo-Nazis. State-backed outlets and diplomats also circulated claims that U.S. and U.K. soldiers trained Ukrainian extremists.
Last week, Chinese diplomats and state media actively promoted narratives about supposed U.S. bioweapons in Ukraine. On March 8, Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) spokesperson Zhao Lijian was the first Chinese official to seize on rumors started by the Russian Ministry of Defense two days prior. In Tuesday’s daily press conference, Zhao explained that the United States “has 26 bio-labs and other related facilities in Ukraine” and “336 biological labs in 30 countries under its control.” These statistics were widely amplified by state media and, especially, government officials, who tweeted more than 50 times about the alleged global reach of U.S. bioresearch facilities. Central to this narrative was the resurrection of coronavirus conspiracies connected to the U.S. army lab in Fort Detrick—a conspiracy Zhao has been instrumental in mainstreaming the last two years. Adding fuel to this fire, the Global Times linked the biolabs to “bat coronavirus” research, citing Russian state media outlet Sputnik.
As has become customary, Chinese diplomats and state media frequently used Russian sources when commenting on Ukraine. The Chinese Consul General in Lebanon, for example, shared a Redfish video about U.S. hypocrisy on foreign interventions, Zhao promoted an RT clip to defend his assertions on U.S. biolabs, CGTN quoted the Russian representative to the UN on biolabs, and Xinhua and the Chinese Consul General in Belfast used Sputnik as evidence that Russia was opening “humanitarian corridors.”
Putin’s opinions were also presented as authoritative facts on topics ranging from the ineffectiveness of Western sanctions to Kyiv’s supposed disrespect of humanitarian law.
While messaging around U.S. biolabs was the big Ukraine-related theme pushed by Chinese accounts last week, other narratives that were prevalent in previous weeks remained. For example, Chinese state media relayed Russia’s denials concerning possible war crimes, and showed the Russian military as mindful of civilians. On the other hand, NATO was denounced for its expansionism, while a popular CGTN presenter derided allies’ supposed lack of cohesion. Western racism against non-white war victims was also promoted by Zhao, his MFA colleague Hua Chunying, and the head of China Daily’s Europe office.
Criticism of Western media’s double standards was also present, for instance with a CGTN presenter calling out the lack of reaction to the White House’s briefings to TikTok influencers, or with the Chinese Consul in Lebanon complaining once again about “anti-China propaganda.”
In a continuation of a months-long campaign targeting Lithuania for its support of Taiwan, Chinese diplomats and state media called out Vilnius’ “economic coercion” against Bangladesh after the Baltic state withheld a shipment of vaccines over the Asian country’s abstention from a UN resolution condemning Russia’s aggression. Finally, for all the attention given to Ukraine, it bears reminding that a significant amount of Chinese messaging, from state media in particular, was focused on domestic issues last week. Two Sessions was still the top hashtag and key word for Chinese accounts last week, and #Beijing2022 was in the top three hashtags.
The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.