Mar 11, 2022 - World

White House: Russian propaganda could presage chemical weapons use

A pedestrian walks amid debris in a street following a shelling in Ukraine's second-biggest city of Kharkiv.

A debris-strewn street in Ukraine's second-biggest city, Kharkiv, after a shelling earlier this week. Photo: Sergey Bobok/AFP via Getty Images

The White House is sounding the alarm over a new Russian propaganda campaign that officials fear is a pretext for an appalling new phase of the war in Ukraine: the use of biological or chemical weapons.

Why it matters: Vladimir Putin has a history of deploying illegal nerve agents against enemies, including Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny and former double agent Sergei Skripal. In Syria, Russia helped Bashar al-Assad cover up the use of chemical weapons against his own people.

What's happening: Kremlin propagandists have been frenetically spreading baseless claims that the Pentagon is funding dangerous bioweapons labs in Ukraine.

  • Chinese diplomats and state-controlled media have joined in on the conspiracy theories, raising fears about a level of coordination between the two powers not seen during the conflict thus far.

Reality check: The U.S. and Ukraine have vigorously denied the presence of any U.S.-backed bioweapons program, saying the only labs the U.S. supports in Ukraine are standard research facilities that focus on "diagnostics, therapeutics, treatment prevention and vaccines."

  • The Biden administration has issued statements calling the Russian claims "preposterous" and "total nonsense," and urging the world to "be on the lookout" for Russia to use chemical weapons itself or attempt a "false flag" operation in Ukraine.
  • "Allegedly, we are preparing a chemical attack," Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said in a new video address. "This makes me really worried because we've been repeatedly convinced: If you want to know Russia's plans, look at what Russia accuses others of."

Zoom out: "I am the President of an adequate country, an adequate nation. And the father of two children. And no chemical or any other weapons of mass destruction were developed on my land," an exhausted-looking Zelensky pleaded.

  • "The whole world knows that."

Between the lines: The U.S. has repeatedly sought to debunk Russia's narratives about Ukraine by declassifying intelligence about Putin's plans ahead of time, a novel approach that undermines his element of surprise.

  • "In all the years I spent as a career diplomat, I saw too many instances in which we lost information wars with the Russians," CIA Director Bill Burns, who perhaps knows Putin better than anyone in the U.S. government, testified.
  • "This is one information war that I think Putin is losing."
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