On Friday at the White House, President Biden said that Russia would pay a “severe price” if it uses chemical weapons in Ukraine — a possibility his administration has been warning about for days.
Biden made the statement amid a rising tide of Russian and Chinese misinformation surrounding unsubstantiated claims from the Russian government that the U.S. is running biological-weapons labs in Ukraine. At a White House press briefing on Thursday, Press Secretary Jen Psaki rejected that idea, saying that Russia has a history of “inventing outright lies” to obscure its own intentions. Previously, Psaki had invoked Russia’s history of chemical attacks in Syria and on internal opposition figures and warned that the bioweapon-lab claims were part of a possible pretext for chemical or biological attacks by Russia.
A spokesperson for Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy denied the Russian claim, while the United Nations said that “they are unaware of any activity … which is inconsistent with its international treaty obligations, including on chemical weapons or biological weapons.”
The bioweapon-lab allegation is not new to this war: In 2020, the State Department under President Trump issued a denial similar to Psaki’s. That year, the American Embassy in Ukraine said that the “US Department of Defense’s Biological Threat Reduction Program works with the Ukrainian government to consolidate and secure pathogens and toxins of security concern in Ukrainian government facilities, while allowing for peaceful research and vaccine development.”
But a lack of evidence has not stopped the idea from catching on outside of Russia. Since the Ukraine invasion, Chinese officials and state media have also repeated the bioweapons line, including at a Foreign Ministry press conference this week — marking a new level of coordination between the countries on disinformation. “I can’t think of another active propaganda campaign by Russia that has gotten this level of boost from China,” Bret Schafer, a disinformation tracker for the Alliance for Securing Democracy, told the New York Times. “I haven’t seen this volume around something like this.”
The idea has also been accepted among some American conservatives, including Donald Trump Jr. and former Trump adviser Steve Bannon. In a Fox News segment this week, Tucker Carlson suggested the U.S. could be engaging in “a disinformation campaign by claiming the other guy was mounting a disinformation campaign.”
Western intelligence officials remain worried about what this all means for Russia’s battlefield plans. “We’ve seen Russia use these weapons before in fields of conflict,” British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss told CNN on Thursday. “We should all be on the lookout for Russia to possibly use chemical or biological weapons in Ukraine, or to create a false-flag operation using them,” Jen Psaki said earlier this week. When asked if chemical-weapons use would result in the deployment of U.S. troops in Ukraine, she replied, “We don’t have any intention to do that.”