Nuclear and biological weapons in Ukraine: Propaganda and facts
At the beginning of March 2022, the Russian state agency Sputnik published a text in its Serbian edition claiming that Ukraine was secretly carrying out activities aimed at developing nuclear weapons. The article quoted an unnamed source from “one of Russia’s competent departments” who stated that Ukraine had received plutonium that could be used to build nuclear weapons and that Kiev could “secretly obtain from the West the technology for centrifugal enrichment of uranium and laser isotope separation”. Such accusations, based on anonymous claims for which no evidence has been provided, are not unusual for the Russian state media.
One of the narratives used by the President of the Russian Federation, Vladimir Putin, in his speech on 24 February was Ukraine as a supposed nuclear threat. Putin then backed up his own threat that ‘any potential aggressor [on Russia as one of the strongest nuclear powers] will suffer defeat and grave consequences’ by saying that Ukrainian ‘far-right and neo-Nazis’ were planning to develop nuclear weapons and that Russia would not allow it.
Shortly afterwards, in a recorded message broadcast to the Conference on Disarmament during the UN Human Rights Council, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said that Ukraine had delivery systems and nuclear technology inherited from the Soviet Union and that it had “started dangerous games with regard to plans to acquire its own nuclear weapons”, describing this as a threat to which Russia must respond.
After Ukraine declared independence from the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) in 1991, the Russian Federation, the USA, Great Britain and Ukraine signed in Budapest the Memorandum on Security Guarantees in connection with Ukraine’s accession to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons in December 1994 .
Under this agreement, Ukraine renounced the nuclear weapons it inherited from the USSR and the other signatories – including Russia – committed to respect Ukraine’s borders, independence and sovereignty.
Nuclear weapons on Ukrainian territory belonged to Russia, and Ukraine has never attempted to develop its own nuclear programme. This country has therefore never posed a nuclear threat to Russia or to any other country, and even today, one year after the Russian invasion and occupation of parts of its territory, no evidence has been found to support the claims of ‘weapons of mass destruction’. .
The fact that Ukraine does not and has not carried out any activities related to the development of nuclear and biological weapons (1) has not prevented the active dissemination of such claims during the Russian aggression against Ukraine.
Similarly, official Russian sources and pro-Russian media are intensively building the narrative that Ukraine is a threat because of the alleged development of biological weapons in “US laboratories”. This narrative was particularly intensive in the first days of the invasion and occasionally crossed over into the domain of QAnon science fiction on the pages and profiles of conspiracy theorists in the region.
A nuclear threat that never existed
Raskrinkavanje has assessed 259 posts from the start of the Russian invasion of Ukraine until December 2022, mostly on social media but also in many media outlets, claiming that Ukraine is developing nuclear and biological weapons. A total of 141 media outlets from the region published some version of these claims at least once.
This was dominated by Sputnik Serbia, the Serbian edition of the Russian state agency Sputnik, as well as the Srbin info portal and many other media from Serbia (Večernje Novosti, Alo, Vesti-online, Informer, Pravda, etc.). Media outlets in BiH that have published at least once references to the Russian narrative of Ukraine as a state developing nuclear and biological weapons are Radio Television of Republika Srpska (RTRS), Press Agency of Republika Srpska (Srna), Alternativna televizija and Nezavisne novine. This narrative has also appeared on the Montenegrin website IN4S, which frequently publishes pro-Russian disinformation.
Sputnik Serbia claimed, among other things, that Russia attacked Ukraine because NATO countries were planning to attack Russia from its territory – and with nuclear weapons. Thus, Russia’s invasion of a neighbouring country is paradoxically presented as an attempt to “prevent World War III”, even though the very fact that it is a nuclear power that has entered into a direct war has caused global insecurity and open war conflict.
Similar claims accompanied the Russian invasion of Ukraine from the beginning. They were published either without any evidence, or were “proven” with disinformation, such as a video shared on Russian channels on Telegram, which was claimed to show a “Ukrainian right-winger with a radioactive device.” The video, on the other hand, showed the usual industrial equipment.
One of the propagators of such stories in the region is Dževad Galijašević, who is often misrepresented in the media as an expert on security and/or terrorism and extremism. In a column published on the Montenegrin portal IN4S, Galijašević repeated the standard propaganda motifs of Russia’s “self-defence” against NATO, saying that it needs to “purge Ukraine of weapons of mass destruction” that threaten its survival within its current borders. .
The column was published in April 2022 and was quickly picked up by RTRS and Srna – despite the fact that weapons of mass destruction did not exist in Ukraine and that the claims in it are completely false.
Another prominent narrative portraying Ukraine as a military threat was constructed through media reports and statements by Russian officials claiming that Ukraine was developing biological weapons with US support.
As early as 24.2.2022. In 2008, on the day that Russia launched its attacks on Ukraine, science fiction began to circulate on social networks in the region, claiming that there were laboratories in Ukraine where biological weapons were being developed.
On 27 February 2022, on the official Facebook page of the Embassy of the Russian Federation in Bosnia and Herzegovina, an allegation was made in 2008 that the US was funding laboratories in Ukraine that were studying ‘methods for the destruction of the Russian people on a genetic level’. Some twenty media outlets in the region published this statement without any verification or even a common-sense retraction of these science-fiction claims.
These claims were immediately picked up by QAnon supporters, who put these stories in the context of the various conspiracy theories the cult believes in. At the very outset of the attack on Ukraine, some claimed that the country was undergoing a “dismantling of the laboratories”, or even that this was the main reason for the invasion, painting Vladimir Putin as a figure who, by destroying the laboratories, was “saving the world from the satanic cabal”.
Among domestic conspiracy theorists, various claims have been made about what the ‘bio-labs’ produce – some linking them to stories of ‘aerial dusting’ supposedly stopped by Putin’s attacks on Ukraine; some, on the other hand, to conspiracy theories about the laboratory origin of covid-19 or monkeypox.
Richard Guthrie, a British expert on chemical and biological weapons, told Deutsche Welle that allegations of the existence of biological weapons are becoming widespread because of the psychological effect they cause. The claims on which these specific stories are based, however, have no scientific basis whatsoever.
For example, there is the notorious story of weapons being developed in bio-labs that would target “Russian DNA” – a claim that people may find frightening, despite the fact that there is no “Russian DNA”, nor is it possible to develop a biological weapon that would work on just one nation.
The allegations of “US bio-labs” are not new, nor do they refer specifically to Ukraine. From 1949 to 1988, the Soviet Union conducted a propaganda campaign that the US was developing biological and chemical weapons against Russia.
In 1995, senior Russian military officials revived this pattern of false accusations, which continues to this day. A similar propaganda narrative was also used during Russia’s five-day war with Georgia in 2008, when Russia claimed that the US was testing drugs on the Georgian population and developing biological weapons there, also focusing on ‘American laboratories’. Claims about bio-labs in Ukraine have been shared in the local language since 2015 and were also sourced by Sputnik Serbia.
The modern version of the Cold War-era biological warfare narrative, the story of the “biolabs”, is based on the fact that in 2005, the Ukrainian Ministry of Health and the US Department of Defence concluded a cooperation agreement to prevent the spread of technologies, pathogens and expertise that could be used in the development of biological weapons. Information on the conclusion of this agreement was made publicly available from the outset, as was the agreement itself, which has the status of a non-classified document and was published on the US State Department website in English and Ukrainian. .
The agreement never envisaged the establishment of “military laboratories” or the development of biological weapons. However, this cooperation has been presented in propaganda narratives as a secret programme of biological weapons development in US laboratories in Ukraine, for which no evidence has ever been offered or found, nor have any examples of its use been documented. The UN Office for Disarmament Affairs, after repeated requests from Russia to conduct an investigation into the existence of biological laboratories in Ukraine, has stated that it has not observed any signs of the existence of biological weapons in Ukraine.
As an analysis of the disclosure data in the media spheres of BiH, Serbia, Montenegro and Croatia shows, the narrative about the development of nuclear weapons or the existence of biological laboratories where weapons are being developed against Russia is the main one that fits on Sputnik. Sputnik’s content was rated by Raskrinkavanje in 14 posts as a narrative that Ukraine is developing nuclear and biological weapons.
These claims continue to return to the public discourse from time to time, sometimes through Russian officials and pro-Russian media, sometimes through channels and profiles that publish various conspiracy theories. There is no credible evidence to confirm the accuracy of such allegations, but that does not prevent the media from continuing to publish such disinformation according to the same matrix./Raskrinkavanje.ba/