Beijing’s Propaganda Support for Russian Biological Warfare Disinformation, Part 1: Accusations Concerning the War in Ukraine
Publication: China Brief Volume: 22 Issue: 11
Since Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine in late February, People’s Republic of China (PRC) officials and state media have promoted and amplified key elements of Moscow’s narrative that the war has been provoked by the United States and its NATO allies in Europe. At several PRC foreign ministry press conferences this spring, spokespeople lent credence to Russian disinformation that U.S.-sponsored biological laboratories had been “discovered” in Ukraine, and implied that the U.S. is in contravention of its obligations under the Biological Weapons Convention (PRC Foreign Ministry [FMPRC]), March 16; April 14; April 19). These same themes have also been actively promoted in state-controlled media. This article examines the origins of this Russian disinformation effort concerning alleged U.S. biological facilities in Ukraine, and analyzes some of the means by which Beijing has helped to amplify this narrative.
Russian Allegations Regarding Biological Warfare Labs in Ukraine
Amidst the extensive propaganda and disinformation spread by the government of the Russian Federation in relation to its war of aggression in Ukraine, one of the most prominent narratives invoked to justify the invasion—aside from the bizarre assertion that the invasion is intended to liberate Ukraine from “drug addicts and neo-Nazis”—is the conspiracy theory that the U.S. has been funding and sponsoring biological warfare laboratories in Ukraine (TASS, February 25; March 9). One of the most prominent spokesmen for this disinformation campaign has been the commander of the “Nuclear, Biological and Chemical Protection Forces of Russia” Lieutenant General Igor Kirillov, who has actively pushed the allegation in a series of public statements since mid-March.
On March 17, Kirillov gave a media briefing in Moscow in which he asserted that “components of biological weapons were being made on the territory of Ukraine,” involving the “direct participation of the Pentagon in the financing of military biological projects.” Kirillov insinuated that these biological weapons programs were connected to the appearance of an unnamed “mosquito-borne parasitic disease” in the vicinity of Kherson in 2018; to “drug-resistant tuberculosis… among the citizens of the Donetsk and Lugansk People’s Republics,” also in 2018; and to outbreaks of avian flu in Russia and the European Union in 2021. He asserted that such outbreaks “may indicate a deliberate infection, or an accidental leakage of the pathogen from one of the biological laboratories located on the territory of Ukraine,” and vowed that “we will continue to examine the evidence and inform the global community about the illegal activities of the Pentagon and other U.S. government agencies in Ukraine” (Russia Today, March 17).
Kirillov spoke again in mid-May, promoting a spin-off conspiracy theory that Ukrainian officials, with American backing, had intentionally spread a “highly pathogenic strain of tuberculosis” (TB) in 2020 in Luhansk (an eastern Ukrainian region under the partial control of a Russian-sponsored separatist client state). According to Kirillov, “leaflets made in the form of counterfeit banknotes were infected with the causative agent of tuberculosis and distributed among minors in the village of Stepovoe,” with the intention of fostering an outbreak of drug-resistant TB in the region (Russia Today, May 11).
Such Russian accusations are evocative of the “active measures” undertaken by the KGB and allied Soviet Bloc intelligence services during Cold War era—such as “Operation Denver,” a highly successful disinformation campaign in the 1980s to spread the false narrative that the AIDS virus was produced by a U.S. military biological weapons program based out of Ft. Detrick, Maryland.  These time-tested, made-to-order conspiracy theories have been dusted off in the service of Russian information operations connected to the war in Ukraine—and this time around, the diplomatic and propaganda systems of the PRC have consistently acted as a megaphone for repeating and amplifying this Russian state disinformation.
PRC Support for Russian Biological Warfare Disinformation
The diplomatic messaging and propaganda systems of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) have refrained from explicitly endorsing the Russian invasion of Ukraine, but have consistently offered informational support on two levels: first, by repeating and amplifying Russian state messages; and second, by promoting a steady stream of anti-Western propaganda that identifies America and NATO as the real causes of the war (U.S. State Department, May 2). One of the clearest themes within this process has been the PRC effort to hype Moscow’s active disinformation related to alleged U.S.-Ukrainian collaborative biological warfare programs. In this, the PRC has generally followed a two-track approach: one directed to international audiences, in which the PRC publicizes Russian narratives in a sympathetic fashion, while avoiding an explicit endorsement of the claims; and another directed to Chinese-speaking audiences both domestically and abroad, in which the Russian claims are presented uncritically as fact.
Amplifying Russian Claims for International Audiences
An example of the former, internationally-focused approach could be observed in official channels as early as March 16, when PRC Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian (赵立坚) engaged in a scripted exchange with state broadcaster CCTV, which referenced accusations from Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov that the U.S. was maintaining “hundreds of such [military biological] laboratories, including almost 30 just in Ukraine alone.” In response, Zhao replied that “We have noted [Lavrov’s] remarks. Biological security bears on the common interest of all humanity… the international community has long-held severe concerns about the biological military activities conducted by the U.S. at home and overseas” (FMPRC, March 16).
Similar exchanges have followed on subsequent dates, with an additional theme being the accusation that the U.S. is in violation of its responsibilities as a signatory to the U.N. Biological Weapons Convention (BWC).  In one such example from April 14, Zhao conducted another scripted exchange with a reporter from the state-run China Daily, who asked about Russian accusations that the U.S. was attempting to “divert the international community’s attention from the biological laboratories discovered in Ukraine.” In response, Zhao stated that “the U.S. has not yet given any convincing explanation for its bio-military activities. Undertaking consultation and cooperation to address concerns is a requirement of the [BWC]… How many biological samples did the U.S. ship out of Ukraine [and] for what purpose?… Did the U.S. conduct dangerous research overseas that is prohibited in the U.S.?” (FMPRC, April 14).
Such statements have not been limited to diplomatic channels, but have also been promoted in state media—once again, normally amplifying Russian claims in a sympathetic fashion, rather than making novel accusations. For example, the state broadcaster CGTN—with coverage copied in the CCP’s official mouthpiece, People’s Daily—echoed Russian President Vladimir Putin’s May 16 speech in Moscow before representatives of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), writing that “President Putin pointed out that the Pentagon has established a number of biological laboratories in Ukraine… Documentary evidence obtained suggests that these laboratories were engaged in producing components that could be used to create biological weapons” (People’s Daily, May 18).
Assertions of Russian Claims as Fact for Chinese-Speaking Audiences
A more full-throated endorsement of Russian claims has appeared in Chinese-language media intended for a domestic audience—in which accusations against the U.S. are presented as fact, without the legerdemain of re-publicizing Russian state sources. In one such example from March 17—the same day that Kirillov presented his press briefing, in an apparent display of coordinated propaganda between the two governments—a state-produced news video announced that “Russia has discovered 30 biological labs subordinate to America inside Ukraine.” The video further insinuated that American-sponsored bio labs were responsible for producing the SARS CoV-2 virus that caused the COVID-19 pandemic, opining that:
America’s biological laboratories in Ukraine have attracted high-level international attention, many countries in succession have expressed apprehensions; previously there have been many people who have linked America’s biological laboratories with the novel coronavirus, but America has refused to give a direct response, and has even sought to ‘shake the pot at’ [i.e., blame] other countries (Jisu Guancha Shipin, March 17).
This same pattern is maintained in Chinese-language media directed towards the global ethnic Chinese diaspora. The CCP has invested a large-scale effort in recent years to establish control over the content of diaspora media, in order to ensure that it will “transmit well China’s voice” (传播好中国声音, chuanbo hao Zhonggu shengyin)—that is, to mirror the content of the PRC’s state-controlled domestic media.  In such outlets, the conspiracy theory about biological weapons labs in Ukraine is similarly reported as established, objective fact (see accompanying map image).
The effort to legitimate the invasion of Ukraine by invoking a national security threat from alleged U.S.-sponsored biological warfare laboratories is consistent with a long pattern of Russian state disinformation, one that extends from the present day through the past decade, and all the way back to the Soviet era. In fact, as will be discussed in the second article in this series, there are echoes of such biological warfare conspiracy theories going as far back as the Korean War. However, in contrast with Cold War “active measures” such as “Operation Denver,” in the present Ukrainian conflict these Russian disinformation efforts are being reinforced and trumpeted by the diplomatic and media messaging apparatus of the PRC—a state with far greater informational clout than the Russian Federation, especially in terms of influence in the developing world. The historical legacy of past Soviet-PRC disinformation campaigns concerning biological weapons, and Beijing’s latter-day motivations for involving itself with the disinformation efforts pertaining to Ukraine, will be discussed in the follow-up article in this series.
John Dotson is the deputy director of the Global Taiwan Institute, a Washington DC-based think tank focused on Taiwan-related economic and security issues, and US-Taiwan relations. He is a former editor of Jamestown’s China Brief.
Editor’s Note: This is the first article in a two-part series that addresses a prominent Russian Federation disinformation campaign related to the war in Ukraine—namely, the assertion that the Russian invasion was justified due to the alleged presence of U.S.-sponsored biological warfare research facilities in Ukraine—as well as the ways in which this conspiracy theory has been supported and amplified by the state-controlled media system of the People’s Republic of China. This first article provides details of this Russian disinformation effort, as well as examples of the ways in which Beijing has backed up Russian narratives. Part 2 of this article series will seek to place this coordinated disinformation campaign in broader context—both by providing historical parallels for these contemporary biological warfare allegations, as well as analyzing Beijing’s motivations for providing informational support for Moscow’s war effort in Ukraine.
 See: Henry Kamens, “Lugar Bio Laboratory in Tbilisi Latest: It’s Getting Worse by the Day,” New Eastern Outlook, January 31, 2016, https://journal-neo.org/2016/01/31/lugar-bio-laboratory-in-tbilisi-latest-it-s-getting-worse-by-the-day/. This publication, which has published a steady stream of material supporting this conspiracy theory, was sanctioned by the U.S. Treasury Department in March 2022 as a disinformation outlet controlled by Russia’s leading civilian foreign intelligence agency, the SVR. See: U.S. Department of the Treasury, “Treasury Sanctions Russians Bankrolling Putin and Russia-Backed Influence Actors,” March 3, 2022, https://home.treasury.gov/news/press-releases/jy0628.
 For more on “Operation Denver” and other Cold War era KGB “active measures,” see: Mark Kramer, “Lessons From Operation ‘Denver,’ the KGB’s Massive AIDS Disinformation Campaign,” MIT Press Reader, May 2020, https://thereader.mitpress.mit.edu/operation-denver-kgb-aids-disinformation-campaign/; and Soviet Influence Activities: A Report on Active Measures and Propaganda, 1986-87 (U.S. Department of State, August 1987), https://www.globalsecurity.org/intell/library/reports/1987/soviet-influence-activities-1987.pdf.
 The formal name of the agreement is the Convention on the Prohibition of the Development, Production and Stockpiling of Bacteriological (Biological) and Toxin Weapons and on Their Destruction. The U.S. signed the agreement in April 1972, and it was fully ratified and entered into force in March 1975. Full text available at: https://2009-2017.state.gov/t/isn/bw/c48738.htm.
 For a discussion of the efforts made by the CCP to pursue control over the Chinese diaspora, see: Anne-Marie Brady, submission to the New Zealand Parliament’s Justice Select Committee Inquiry into Foreign Interference (May 2019), https://www.newsroom.co.nz/2019/05/08/575479/anne-marie-bradys-full-submission. For an example of CCP discussion on the need to “speed up assimilation and transformation” (加快融合与变革, jiakuai ronghe yu biange) of overseas Chinese media in order to make it “tell China’s story well and transmit well China’s voice” (讲述好中国故事，传播好中国声音 / jiangshu hao Zhongguo gushi, chuanbo hao Zhonggu shengyin), see: “Make Overseas Chinese New Media Great and Strong” (把海外华文新媒体做大做强, Ba Haiwai Huawen Xin Meiti Zuo Da Zuo Qiang), People’s Daily, July 10, 2019, https://baijiahao.baidu.com/s?id=1638616254700785697&wfr=spider&for=pc.