How Putin’s disinformation mirrors classic Soviet propaganda from the Cold War

·8 min read

For much of his life, Milton Leitenberg has been studying, with a rare devotion, the propaganda tactics of the Soviet Union.

From Operation INFEKTION launched in the 1980s to allege the US had invented HIV and Aids, to allegations made in the early 1950s to assert Washington was using biological weapons in the Korean War, Leitenberg has documented the falsehoods in more than 30 books and articles.

Now, at the age of 88, Leitenberg is turning his attention to the claims being made by Vladimir Putin over Ukraine and finding there is a clear pattern.

Disinformation for the Putin administration is not new,” he tells The Independent.

“It started at least as far as back as 2004, with the “colour” revolutions in Ukraine and Georgia and Tajikistan. Then you got the invasion of Georgia, and before that you had the poisoning of Alexander Litvinenko with polonium. After that you have the invasion of Ukraine, and the shooting down of the airliner, the Skripal poisoning in England, and then the Navalny poisoning.”

He adds: “Each is a case study. The pattern is the same. The Russian government does not supply or distribute one disinformation information story, but 12, 15 or 17. They’re all mutually contradictory.”

He says the disinformation response by Moscow to the July 2014 shooting down of Malaysian Airlines Flight 17, blamed by independent investigators on pro-Russian rebels in eastern Ukraine and which killed almost 300 people, was “extraordinary”.

“They went to such lengths to concoct false satellite aircraft tracks, that is a little bit of work. That is not just verbal bulls***,” he adds.

In 1968, Leitenberg became the first American to work at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. He says that when he began his academic career, a number of his colleagues were keen to dismiss or ignore the significance of the Soviet Union’s use of disinformation, viewing it as “trivial garbage”.

But Leitenberg, currently a senior research associate at the Centre or International and Security Studies at the University of Maryland, says the disinformation has been central to both the Soviet and Russian states.

“It’s a structural, core element of their domestic and foreign policy, you cannot simply wave it off and say ‘Well, that’s nonsense so we don’t have to pay attention to it’,” he says. “If it was the Turkish Government, or the Peruvian government, trotting out a piece of disinformation, maybe you could,” he says.

In the 1980s, one of the disinformation campaigns launched by the KGB was to spread false claims that a US-funded research project in Pakistan was sending “killer mosquitoes” into Afghanistan.

Leitenberg, who in 2012 co-authored the highly-regarded The Soviet Biological Weapons Programme: A History, wrote last year that from “from 1949 until 1988, the Soviet Union conducted a nearly continuous campaign of false allegations of biological-weapon (BW) use by the United States. In 1995, senior Russian military officials revived this pattern of false allegations, which continues to the present day”.

He says the widely debunked claims made by Putin and other officials over the US’s backing of biological weapons manufacture in Ukraine – claims that been been given additional oxygen in the US by conspiracy theorists such as Alex Jones of InfoWars, and Fox News’s Tucker Carlson – fit into the same pattern.

Moscow’s claims about the US’s alleged production of bioweapons in Ukraine started at the beginning of March when Russia’s defence and foreign ministries claimed that after the invasion, Russian troops had uncovered clear-up efforts by the Ukrainians to try “eradicating traces of the military-biological programme”.

Ukraine, the US and the UN have denied there are biological weapons facilities in the country, but all have said there are biological research units that contain a number of dangerous pathogens being researched. The World Heath Organisation has called for officials to destroy such substances.

Leitenberg says he can trace 10 distinct phases of the Soviet Union’s disinformation programme about US biological weapons alone.

“Starting only a few years after the end of World War II, in 1949, and lasting until 1988 under General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev, the USSR maintained a near continuous campaign of false allegations of biological weapon use by the United States. Never in history had any other country carried on such a campaign of false BW allegations,” he wrote in a 2019 research paper.

He added: “After a pause of a few years between 1988 and 1995, senior Russian military officials began repeating the old false allegations. Russian officials amplified the campaign after the US government funded the transformation of former Soviet BW facilities.”

Milton Leitenberg was first American to work at Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (C-Span)
Milton Leitenberg was first American to work at Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (C-Span)

Who is the intended audience for such disinformation?

“Both domestic and international,” says Leitenberg. “The Korean War [disinformation campaign], that may be the most important, was both for domestic and international audiences,” he says.

“Many millions of people paraded in West European capitals – in Paris, Berlin, in London – as well as in East European countries about the ‘dirty American biological weapons’ used in the Korean War,” he says.

(In 1999, documents released by Russia showed that North Korea, China and the Soviet Union knew the claims they were making were false.)

“The Aids campaign was not for domestic, that was for external. Obviously, they were trying to claim to Africa that the United States was trying to depopulate Africa. And statistics [show] in some African countries and in the African American community in the United States, that’s enormously influential.”

Leitenberg says the Aids campaign may have been the Soviet Union’s most successful disinformation project, and says nine surveys carried out between between 1988 and 2008 among African Americans in the US, found an average of 43 per cent believed the Aids virus was manmade.

He cites another survey published in 2006 that found that 30 per cent of an African-American sample responded “true” to the statement “Aids is an agent of genocide created by the US government to kill off minority populations”.

Leitenberg tells The Independent: “So that’s not trivial garbage.”

Joseph Stalin, (r) with Winston Churchill and Franklin Delano Roosevelt at Feb 1945 Yalta Conference, would later falsely claim US used biological weapons in Korean War (Getty Images)
Joseph Stalin, (r) with Winston Churchill and Franklin Delano Roosevelt at Feb 1945 Yalta Conference, would later falsely claim US used biological weapons in Korean War (Getty Images)

And what does he think are the chances of Vladimir Putin’s latest disinformation campaign gathering traction?

He says he has no way of measuring whether people believe what Russia says, though he points to a massive operation, in various languages and often targeting specific communities.

He says in early 2020, some Russian media starting claiming that the US had manufactured the Covid virus, something that was highlighted at the time by the BBC’s news monitoring service. It reported in February 2020 that a major TV network, Channel One, launched a regular slot devoted to coronavirus conspiracy theories on its main evening news programme, Vremya, or Time.

“The style of the reporting is ambiguous, appearing to debunk the theories while leaving viewers with the impression that they contain a kernel of truth,” the BBC said.

As the pandemic bit deeper, Russian and Chinese officials were more plain spoken.

In April 2020, Nikolai Patrushev, Russia’s Security Council secretary, told the Kommersant newspaper: “I suggest that you pay attention to the fact that biological laboratories under US control are growing by leaps and bounds all over the world. And – by a strange coincidence – mainly near the Russian and Chinese borders.”

Patrushev formerly served as director of the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB), the main successor to the KGB. In the interview he was asked if the US was developing biological weapons in Europe. “We have good reason to believe that this is the case,” he said.

The false claims were also echoed by China.

China’s Foreign Ministry’s spokesman, Lijian Zhao wrote on Twitter. “The US bio-military activities are not transparent, safe or justified. In Ukraine alone, the US has set up 16 bio-labs. Why does the US need so many labs all over the world? What activities are carried out in those labs, including the one in Fort Detrick?”

Leitenberg says that period saw a flood of disinformation from Russia.

“They put so many different stories there. That Soros did it, that Ukrainians did it that we intended to depopulate the whole world, that Gates put bio chips in the vaccines. You can’t imagine how many different stories,” he says.

“They just tried every possible way to say that the US made Covid, distributed Covid. And then they started this business with the 200 biological laboratories around the world.”

Leitenberg says he is a regular reader of the East StratCom Task Force webpage EUvsDisinfo operated by the European Union and which works to counter disinformation and false claims.

The website says it was “established in 2015 to better forecast, address, and respond to the Russian Federation’s ongoing disinformation campaigns affecting the European Union, its Member States, and countries in the shared neighbourhood”.

Leitenberg says he receives a weekly digest from the website.

“Oh boy, they have about 30,000 logged disinformation postings on all the kinds of subjects from over the last six or seven years I would say,” he adds.

“It can drive you crazy reading those things.”