Russian Intelligence Is Pushing False Claims of U.S. Biological Testing in Africa, U.S. Says


source:, contributed by FAN Chuck Miller  |  image:


Media disinformation operation with Wagner Group link takes aim at American influence on continent


WSJ: Michael R. Gordon, Gabriele Steinhauser, Dustin Volz, and Ann Simmons

Russian intelligence agencies are trying to undermine U.S. influence in Africa by spreading disinformation that Africans have been the unwitting test subjects in Pentagon biological research programs and casting aspersions on Western public-health programs, U.S. officials said. 

The effort is part of a Russian campaign to counter the U.S. in Africa and Latin America as Washington and Moscow battle for public opinion around the world. 

At the heart of the Russian campaign is “African Initiative,” an online news service set up late last year that has used social media to promote criticism of Western public-health efforts in Africa and convened a conference in which participants disparaged Western pharmaceutical companies.

“Russian intelligence services are providing material support and guidance to the African Initiative,” said James Rubin, who oversees the State Department’s Global Engagement Center, which seeks to expose covert disinformation efforts abroad. “They are casting doubt on medical work that’s being done by legitimate medical organizations and deterring Africans from trusting medical efforts that could save lives.”

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov dismissed the allegations as anti-Russian propaganda. “These accusations have become customary for the West,” he wrote in an email. “None of them is backed by evidence.” The Russian Foreign Intelligence Service, or SVR, didn’t respond to a request for comment.

Some of the staff of African Initiative listed on the website have been associated with the Wagner Group, the Russian paramilitary and business organization. Wagner has had extensive operations in Africa, including the deployment of mercenaries and the export of raw materials

Yevgeny Prigozhin, who led Wagner until his death last year, supported Russian disinformation efforts, according to the U.S. Prigozhin was the subject of U.S. sanctions for his role in funding the Internet Research Agency, a troll farm that was part of what the U.S. says was a Russian disinformation campaign to interfere with the 2016 U.S. presidential election. 

American intelligence officials, who say they expect the Kremlin to likely target the 2024 presidential election, have said that Russia’s disinformation tactics used in other parts of the world can offer insight into its future operations.

The State Department has moved on a number of fronts to try to counter what it says is Russia’s hidden role in shaping media abroad. Secretary of State Antony Blinken has been trying to build a coalition in Europe that would set common policies to combat the Kremlin’s information campaign. In Latin America, the Global Engagement Center moved last fall to expose what it said were efforts by Russian intelligence services to spread anti-Western propaganda through local media. The disinformation, it said, included false reports that valuable Ukrainian relics from a Kyiv monastery were being given to the West.

Russia has a long history of spreading disinformation on medical issues. During the Cold War, the KGB, the Soviet intelligence organization, falsely claimed that the U.S. Army’s labs at Fort Detrick, Md., unleashed the AIDS epidemic. More recently, Russia mounted a campaign to undermine confidence in Covid vaccines produced by Pfizer and other Western pharmaceutical companies.

“This kind of misinformation on medical issues, particularly on infectious disease and the dangers of Western-sponsored health programs, goes back to Soviet times,” said Judy Twigg, a professor at Virginia Commonwealth University who is an expert on global health issues. Soviet and Russian officials have denied responsibility for this disinformation. 

Moscow’s efforts to manipulate information have increased as it tries to frustrate Washington’s attempts to isolate Russia following its invasion of Ukraine almost two years ago.

Africa has become an increasingly important arena as Moscow and Washington vie for influence on the continent. President Vladimir Putin held a summit meeting with African leaders in St. Petersburg in July, and Blinken visited four African nations last month.

Much of Russia’s information war against Washington has been conducted openly. Russian Lt. Gen. Igor Kirillov, who commands units tasked with protecting Russians troops against biological, chemical and nuclear attacks, alleged in a July briefing that the U.S. has been secretly testing biological agents on Africans.

“The stated goals of projects aimed at developing public health do not correspond to reality,” said Kirillov, referring to American projects in Nigeria to combat HIV infection.

U.S. officials say that African Initiative has been used to amplify this message through social media, the placement of articles in local and international publications, the recruitment of local journalists and bloggers, and the establishment of offices in Burkina Faso and Mali, two West African countries that in recent years have forged close ties with Russia. 

The organization has plans to spread disinformation in coming months in the hope that it will be seen as the product of independent reporting and not the result of a Moscow-directed informational campaign, U.S. officials said. Washington is seeking to disrupt those plans by shining a spotlight on the Russian activities.

“Moscow also likely believes its disinformation narratives are more resonant among Global South audiences than among Western audiences,” said Shawn Eib, head of investigations at Alethea, a technology company focused on detecting social-media manipulation. “This also specifically serves to support their claims involving U.S. biolabs in Ukraine, one of the many justifications Moscow has given for their invasion of Ukraine.”

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