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Kremlin Claims Monkeypox Could Be a Secret U.S. Bioweapon

Washington needs to stop being a pushover in the global info war.

By , an advisor to the Barish Center for Media Integrity at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.
monkeypox vaccination
monkeypox vaccination
A nurse administers a dose of monkeypox vaccine at a vaccination site in East Los Angeles, California, on Aug. 10. Mario Tama/Getty Images

There’s a lot we don’t know about how monkeypox, which had been prevalent in parts of Africa but only started infecting people in the United States and Europe this spring, is spreading. Yet the Russian defense ministry and Kremlin-controlled media outlets have been busy suggesting to audiences around the globe that the outbreak was engineered by U.S. military biological laboratories. Russian Duma Deputy Chair Irina Yarovaya echoed the Kremlin’s latest conspiracy theory earlier this month when she called on the World Health Organization (WHO) to lead an investigation into “the secrets of the U.S. military biolaboratories.”

Russia’s monkeypox narrative is a textbook Kremlin information operation, a reprise of the Russian campaign to link COVID-19 to U.S. biolab activities. It’s long past time for the United States to respond to the Kremlin’s information warfare and debunk these theories. Washington should apply the lessons it learned in the lead-up to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, when the Biden administration successfully leveraged its intelligence advantage to neutralize Russian disinformation and expose the Kremlin’s war plans for all the world to see.

The Kremlin’s seasoned information warriors run a sophisticated operation, weaving together unrelated events to establish misleading narratives. Take monkeypox: At last year’s Munich Security Conference, a panel of experts—including government officials from the United States and China—discussed a hypothetical monkeypox outbreak to understand how to reduce high-consequence biological threats. The panel’s hypothetical outbreak, which projected 271 million fatalities, was set for May 2022. The actual outbreak, it turns out, began in May as well.

There’s a lot we don’t know about how monkeypox, which had been prevalent in parts of Africa but only started infecting people in the United States and Europe this spring, is spreading. Yet the Russian defense ministry and Kremlin-controlled media outlets have been busy suggesting to audiences around the globe that the outbreak was engineered by U.S. military biological laboratories. Russian Duma Deputy Chair Irina Yarovaya echoed the Kremlin’s latest conspiracy theory earlier this month when she called on the World Health Organization (WHO) to lead an investigation into “the secrets of the U.S. military biolaboratories.”

Russia’s monkeypox narrative is a textbook Kremlin information operation, a reprise of the Russian campaign to link COVID-19 to U.S. biolab activities. It’s long past time for the United States to respond to the Kremlin’s information warfare and debunk these theories. Washington should apply the lessons it learned in the lead-up to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, when the Biden administration successfully leveraged its intelligence advantage to neutralize Russian disinformation and expose the Kremlin’s war plans for all the world to see.

The Kremlin’s seasoned information warriors run a sophisticated operation, weaving together unrelated events to establish misleading narratives. Take monkeypox: At last year’s Munich Security Conference, a panel of experts—including government officials from the United States and China—discussed a hypothetical monkeypox outbreak to understand how to reduce high-consequence biological threats. The panel’s hypothetical outbreak, which projected 271 million fatalities, was set for May 2022. The actual outbreak, it turns out, began in May as well.

The Kremlin has been spinning this coincidence to build an elaborate monkeypox disinformation campaign. The head of the Russian defense ministry’s radiation, chemical, and biological defense troops, Igor Kirillov, implied that monkeypox could have originated in a U.S.-funded Nigerian biolab. Russian media also reported that, according to Kirillov, “Ukraine’s biological laboratories were connected to the Pentagon’s infection system”—whatever that means. Russian media have claimed that a “hasty withdrawal” of U.S. personnel from Ukrainian labs could have led to workers contracting the disease. There is no causal evidence for any of this, but the combination of these bits and pieces on a timeline, then widely disseminated by various media, has the effect of burying the truth under a heap of disinformation.

Washington’s disinclination to take the information fight to its adversaries has allowed Moscow and Beijing to spread their outrageous claims about the provenance of lethal diseases.

Russia’s monkeypox narrative, just like its COVID-19 conspiracy theory, builds on a long history of Russian disinformation about U.S. bioweapons. During the Cold War, the KGB launched Operation Denver, a global disinformation campaign that blamed the U.S. government for synthesizing HIV, which causes AIDS. In particular, the KGB successfully spread the narrative that the CIA was using AIDS to target and kill Black Americans and Africans. This campaign successfully spread via the global media, especially in places like Pakistan, India, Africa, and even some left-wing Western publications. While efforts to spread AIDS disinformation were initially KGB- and Soviet media-led, pro-Soviet foreign journalists helped proliferate disinformation into wider circles. Another KGB disinformation campaign successfully spread the narrative that the United States, in cahoots with South Africa and Israel, had developed “ethnic weapons” engineered to kill only Arabs and Africans.

Today, Russia’s monkeypox information operations are part of a larger bioweapons messaging campaign. Before the monkeypox outbreak, Russian Ambassador to the United Nations Vassily Nebenzia accused Ukraine and the United States of a plot to use migratory birds and bats to spread pathogens. Nebenzia also recycled the KGB’s “ethnic weapons” canard, accusing the U.S. Defense Department of collecting Russian genetic information to develop “bioagents capable of selectively targeting different ethnic populations.”

The reason the Russians are doing this is obvious. Moscow seeks to paint Washington as a nefarious actor that would do just about anything to subjugate and exterminate.  The Kremlin also hopes, as an added bonus, to undermine Americans’ trust in their government’s efforts to fight monkeypox—and use this kind of disinformation to exacerbate tensions in the run-up to the U.S. midterm elections in November.

Another tack for Russian information warriors will likely be to deploy monkeypox messaging to fan the flames of anti-LGBT discrimination. The WHO reports that 98 percent of all monkeypox cases have been men who have sex with men. Russia will likely use this data to promote its own homophobic agenda. As Russia has already passed legislation criminalizing “propaganda of nontraditional sexual relations” and added a “traditional Russian spiritual and moral values” section to its National Security Strategy, anti-LGBT monkeypox disinformation could further bolster its reasoning for the persecution of LGBT people and their supporters.

What should Washington do to counter the Russian disinformation onslaught? The Biden administration should repeat the tactics it used during the run-up to the Ukraine war. Making U.S. intelligence on Russian war preparations and attempts to frame Ukraine with false-flag attacks public, the Biden administration successfully got in front of the Kremlin’s information war. It was a sea change from the first Russian invasion in 2014, when Russia’s information operations caught the Obama administration flat-footed and, crucially, helped delay an effective Western response.

Washington’s offensive stance against Russia during the run-up to the war also worked because it revived effective U.S. information tactics honed during the Cold War. Throughout that era, Washington integrated information operations into its National Security Strategy, bolstering its ability to expose Soviet disinformation and get its own information across. U.S. President Joe Biden’s information response employed many of the Cold War era’s tactics to build a U.S.-controlled information sphere. For instance, the U.S. State Department published a well-sourced fact sheet on Russian disinformation about Ukraine in January.

The U.S. government should build on its recent success by being more proactive and less reactive in the information space. On monkeypox, the United States should declassify intelligence about Russia’s disinformation campaign and share it with the media. Using precise language is key: Rather than trying to counter Russian disinformation with bland condemnations of “harmful rhetoric,” Washington must call a spade a spade and label Russian disinformation as a targeted weapon. A smart social media campaign laying out myth versus fact could also help expose how the Kremlin is manipulating global audiences for its own purposes.

And there’s more Washington can do. The WHO invited social media and tech companies to work with the organization on countering disinformation last month. The United States could support these efforts by providing key data to help debunk Russian (and Chinese) lies about COVID-19 and monkeypox. More generally, the U.S. government can use its own social media presence to call out specific lies and demonstrate how Moscow weaponizes these debates to its advantage. And why stop there? A U.S. information campaign could lay out the Kremlin’s real—not imaginary—use of biological and chemical agents to kill its enemies.

Since the end of the Cold War, the U.S. government has been disinclined to take the information fight to the country’s major adversaries. This has allowed Moscow and Beijing to spread their outrageous claims about the provenance of lethal diseases, for example. It’s time to fight back, strip the mask off Russian information warfare, and treat the information space as the crucial battlefield it is.

Ivana Stradner is an advisor to the Barish Center for Media Integrity at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

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