Infections and deaths from COVID-19 are again reaching critically high levels in the Russian Federation even as such indicators are mostly declining elsewhere in Western countries, and especially in the United States. Faced with this troubling reality, various Russian commentators and even senior officials have begun suggesting that “this cannot be a coincidence” and must be evidence of the West conducting biological warfare against Russia and its population (Stoletie.ru, June 28). On the one hand, such rhetoric reflects the general pattern in Vladimir Putin’s Russia of blaming the West—and particularly the US—for Russian problems, thereby deflecting attention from the Kremlin. But on the other hand, it is also the product of new inquiries into whether the novel coronavirus may have been developed in a Chinese laboratory, which has heightened broader suspicions that the pandemic did not result from a naturally occurring virus. Indeed, some Russians are now even insisting that US investigations into the Chinese role are part of an effort by Washington to distract attention from its own role in this crime against humanity.
As with most charges of this kind (see EDM, October 18, 2018, May 5, 2020, May 11, 2020), the suggestion that the US was behind the pandemic in Russia first emerged at the margins of political discourse, outside of Moscow or even outside of Russia itself (TerrNews, June 8, 2021; Monavista Daily, July 5, 2021). But now, such claims are being advanced by those close to President Putin and, thus, are likely to become axiomatic for many Russians, however little evidence for them there may be. Indeed, at the Third International Scientific-Practical Conference on Biological Security, held this past June in Sochi, senior Russian officials all pushed the idea that the US is conducting biological warfare against Russia (Rospotrebnadzor.ru, June 24).
Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov told the meeting that US-funded bio-medical laboratories operating near Russia’s borders threaten the country and may be behind the current rise in coronavirus cases inside Russia. Security Council Secretary Nikolai Patrushev added that there are now “clear signs that some are trying to use dangerous pathogens for military-political goals” and that “the rebirth of biological weaponry” is occurring. He called on the international community to focus on “the foreign biological laboratories of certain countries,” an unspoken reference to the US-financed facilities (popularly known as “Lugar Laboratories”) in former Soviet republics. Russian Chief Sanitary Doctor Anna Popova added that the problems Russia is facing now are directly connected to those laboratories. “We must be ready to repulse” such challenges because they will not be the last case of biological warfare against the Russian Federation. Popova and others suggested in Sochi that the US is developing its bio-warfare capacity abroad because restrictions in the US make it far more difficult for the government to do so at home (Rospotrebnadzor.ru, June 24).
According to Russian officials, the US has established more than 400 laboratories capable of producing pathogens worldwide over the last ten years. Forty of them, Moscow experts say, are located in the countries of the former Soviet Union, including Moldova, Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Ukraine. In the last alone, there are 15 such facilities, Russians note. In some cases, according to these Russian writers, the US supposedly threatens to or actually releases the pathogens and then seeks to sell the governments the means to counter them; in others, these laboratories purportedly produce biological weapons that can or are being directed against Russia (Glas.ru, June 25; Stoletie.ru, June 28).
At least one Russian commentator has suggested that there is another threat to worry about: those who want to wage biological warfare against their opponents can achieve many of their ends simply by spreading the word that they are doing so. Such disinformation will disorder other societies, including possibly Russia’s, even if, in any particular case, no one is sending in viruses to infect the population. That, of course, means Russian assertions of US involvement in bio-weapons development are inadvertently helping to spread that idea among Russians and, thus, helping to propagate the kind of chaos and disarray that will lead to higher infection rates and give the West an unintended victory in this particular battle (Svobodnaya Pressa, June 26).
Russian academic Sergei Glazyev picked up these arguments last weekend (July 2) in an interview with the nationalist Tsargrad television network. He suggested that “the main targets” of this US biological war are China and Russia—the former because of its economy and the latter because of its nuclear weapons and increasingly independent foreign policy (Tsargrad, July 2). In turn, Vera Zhedyeva, a commentator for the Svobodnaya Pressa portal, writes that what is happening was predicted almost a decade ago by the Center for the Study of Existential Risk (CSER), based in Cambridge. In 2011, the CSER listed pandemics resulting from new strains developed in laboratories as the greatest threat to humanity. “It is surprising how precisely the CSER predictions have come true.” She suggests that the Americans invariably blame the Chinese but that the US is more likely responsible, especially for the spread of the pandemic to Russia (Svobodnaya Pressa, June 26).
Such statements—and they are now multiplying at warp speed throughout Russian media—have three obvious consequences. First, they buy time for the Putin regime by casting the blame for a worsening pandemic on the West. Second, they further alienate Russians from the United States. And third—and this may be the most dangerous result—they are certain to spark a new arms race, in which many countries, including the Russian Federation, seek to develop and use biological weapons if they believe this class of weapons has already or could be used against them. Biological weapons are widely understood to be weapons of mass destruction—but are even more dangerous than other types because they are easier to hide and deny. And if Russia has convinced itself that it is now a target, it almost certainly will secretly build up and quite possibly use such weaponized biological agents against others in the not distant future.