Telling On Themselves: Indicators from Kremlin Disinformation in Ukraine
Could Russia be planning a false flag chemical attack?
Seeding the Narrative
Since the beginning of Russia’s invasion, Kremlin officials and pro-Russia media outlets have floated several false claims alleging misuse of supposed U.S.-funded or -operated biological laboratories in Ukraine. In just the past week, both Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova have promoted false biolabs narratives, with Zakharova claiming that Ukraine had destroyed “evidence of military biological programs” financed by the Pentagon. These false narratives have since been promoted by Chinese state media and government officials and have filtered into U.S. domestic conspiracy communities online. In one notable early example, Veterans Today, an outlet reportedly run by the Russian security services, published an article on the day of Russia’s invasion titled “US Bioweapon Labs in Ukraine, What will Russia Find?,” which cited Bulgarian “investigative journalist” Dilyana Gaytandzhieva. Gaytandzhieva’s work with the pro-Kremlin outlet Arms Watch has regularly aligned with parallel Russian information operations.
Conspiracy theories claiming the U.S. has covertly operated biolabs around the world have long featured as a Russian (and previously Soviet) information operations trope. In the 1980s, the USSR recruited and trained a cadre of journalists from Africa and Central Asia in order to improve its messaging towards those audiences. These messengers played a key role in the spread of stories alleging U.S. deployment of chemical weapons in those regions. In the context of Russia’s current war in Ukraine, however, returning to “biolabs” narratives may be intended to prime audiences for further, more horrific attacks.
Telling on Themselves
The Kremlin and Kremlin-affiliated malign actors often project onto adversaries what they themselves are planning on doing. In the lead-up to Moscow’s invasion, pro-Russian media outlets and social media channels falsely claimed that Ukrainian forces sought to provoke Russia, when it was Russian aggression that sparked violence in Ukraine. Prior to the invasion, Russian sources also claimed that Ukrainian forces had shelled a kindergarten in Luhansk, a city in the Donbas. In reality, the artillery strikes came from Russian-backed separatist-controlled areas of Luhansk.
Then, on March 9, Russia’s Defense Ministry warned—citing no evidence—of a planned Ukrainian chemical weapons attack and claimed that Ukrainians brought “80 tons of ammonia” to Zolochiv, a town near the northeast city of Kharkiv. Defense Ministry spokesperson Igor Konashenkov said the possible attack would be used to frame the Russian military.
Following the official statements, Russia’s media ecosystem promptly propagated these claims. Zvezda—an outlet run by Russia’s Defense Ministry—posted on Telegram that “about 80 tons of ammonia were delivered to the village of Zolochiv northwest of Kharkov by Ukrainian nationalists.” State agencies TASS and RIA Novosti along with pro-Russian Telegram channels joined in as well.
Dusting off the Syria Playbook
Beneath these claims—both the existence of alleged U.S.-backed biolabs and the planned use of chemical weapons—lies a familiar pattern. Russia has, time and again, warned about false flag chemical attacks in Syria from the opposing side before an actual chemical attack from Russia’s side takes place. For example, on March 13, 2018, Russian Army General Valery Gerasimov stated that the U.S. was planning on using chemical attacks in Syria to blame the Assad regime and Russia. Less than a month later, on April 7, 2018, the Assad regime conducted a chemical attack on Douma, a suburb of Damascus. Similarly, the Russian government first denied that a chemical attack had happened, and days later ran a disinformation campaign claiming the Syrian Civil Defense (White Helmets), a civilian rescue group, had staged an attack.
In the Syrian case, such disinformation primed global audiences and created an environment of confusion, making it much more likely that when Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime used chemical weapons, it would be easier to deflect blame.
Forecasting a False Flag
Could Russia be priming the world for a chemical attack in Ukraine? In the coming days and weeks, it is possible Russia’s most recent false claims against Ukrainian forces and the U.S. will manifest in an on-the-ground attack from Russian forces. Just as they did in Syria, Russian disinformation campaigns would seek to create confusion, message first and at high volume, and flood the information environment with falsehoods to sow doubts in the minds of global audiences about the veracity of rebuttals.
Russia is already under investigation for committing war crimes during the invasion of Ukraine and the International Court of Justice (ICJ) has begun hearings in Ukraine’s case against Russia. The Kremlin’s willingness to conduct a chemical attack and then use it as the impetus for further messaging in the war should not be dismissed.
Despite the threat of repercussions for war crimes and the deadly human toll of chemical attacks, regimes continue to deploy them. In large urban centers, chemical attacks spare infrastructure the way airstrikes and artillery do not. A chemical attack, perhaps because of its appalling fallout, could turn the tide in Russia’s favor and help them capture a major Ukrainian city.
Russia has been on the back foot in the information environment since it invaded Ukraine, but Moscow’s ability to prime an audience and rapidly scale a messaging campaign to advance its political goals allows it to adapt and retake the initiative lost in the war’s first weeks.
The U.S. and Europe have celebrated their successes inoculating audiences against Kremlin disinformation through declassification of intelligence revealing Putin’s plans. Despite setbacks, Russia has not missed a beat issuing daily lies in attempts to distort reality. If the U.S. and its partners do not aggressively and consistently counter-message, history will be written not by those bearing the truth, but by those who obscure their atrocities in a cloud of fake news.