MOSCOW and WASHINGTON — On Oct. 30, a meeting in the Kremlin of the Russian Presidential Commission on Human Rights took a strange turn.
During the event, a member of the commission raised the alarm on foreigners observing Russian polling station live streams. In response, Russian President Vladimir Putin seemed to radically up the ante — sparking a wave of speculation that the West is preparing an anti-Russian bioweapon.
“Do you know that biological material is collected all over the country, from different ethnic groups and people living in different geographical locations of Russia?” Putin said. “But what for? They do do it purposefully and professionally. ... We need to treat it without fear. Let them do it, and we must do what we must.”
Putin’s remarks left many observers scratching their heads, with Russian social media users quickly spinning the alleged clandestine collection of Russian biological material into a hit meme. Presented without context, it was unclear what exactly Putin was talking about — not that it stopped Russian parliamentarians from running with the idea, calling for legislation to enact “biological security” measures.
And that could have been it, except the Kremlin itself doubled down on the comments the next day, with Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov telling the Interfax news agency that, “in fact, some emissaries, representatives of NGOs [nongovernmental organizations] and other bodies are carrying out this sort of activity. Such cases have been recorded by the security service and, of course, the president has this information.”
So why are top Russian officials declaring that the U.S. intends to develop a bioweapon to drop on Moscow? The answer appears to be a weird mix of a mysterious U.S. Air Force solicitation and the machinations of Moscow’s own state-backed propaganda machine.
The story behind Putin’s comments seem to trace their roots to reports by Russia Today’s Russian-language service, and other local outlets, in July. And it all began with a thinly worded tender posted by the U.S. Air Force’s largest medical research outfit, the 59th Medical Wing, on the government’s Federal Business Opportunities clearinghouse.
The tender called for the collection of “synovial tissue and RNA samples” from caucasians — a designation that has thrown the Russians for a loop — in Russia. The tender didn’t specify what the samples were intended for, but Russian journalists noticed the researchers “will not consider tissue samples from Ukraine.”
That specificity set off the Russian media outlets, with some speculating that the West was developing a biological weapon specifically targeting the bodies of genetic Russians while leaving Ukrainians unharmed.
But as far as Russian propaganda pushes go, it was short-lived. The U.S. Air Force tender quickly faded from Russian radars. In fact, most Russian outlets seem to have forgotten the July episode entirely when talking about Putin’s recent comments.
But in a country where many of the talking heads and political figures look toward Putin to signal talking points, Russian parliamentarians ran with the idea of clandestine foreign efforts to collect Russian biological samples.
On Facebook, Sen. Franz Klintsevich, the deputy head of the Federation Council’s defense committee, wrote: “I am not saying this is directly related to the preparation of biological warfare against Russia ... but this scenario is undoubtedly being developed. ... The relevant services in the West should know we are aware of their interest.”
Klintsevich was outshined by Gennady Onishchenko, a deputy in the lower house of parliament (the State Duma), who called for the body to draft by December “biological security” legislation restricting access of foreign NGOs and companies to Russian DNA. He noted that labs in Russia send biological information abroad.
“The fact that our citizens’ fluids, organs and tissues are being collected is evidence that the US has not stopped its aggressive military programme,” Onishchenko was quoted by the BBC as saying.
Russian social media users were perhaps less impressed, responding to Putin’s speech with a variety of memes riffing off the scatological potential of “biomatter.”
In one, a guilty looking cat appears next to the caption “Putin said biological material is being collected all over the country but he doesn’t know why.” In a second, a picture of a homeless man is accompanied by “Some force is collecting the biomaterial of Russians.”
In a third, a Russian social media user dryly noted that “Someone is misleading Putin again. We have had a pile of someone’s biomaterial sitting outside our apartment entrance for a few weeks now and no ones collecting it.”
Into the wild blue genetic yonder
So, what’s the reality about the Air Force RNA test?
Back in July, when the issue first was raised, Defense News reached out to the U.S. Air Force for clarification on the purpose of its research project. At the time, Capt. Beau Downey told Defense News that the 59th Medical Wing’s Center for Advanced Molecular Detection “is conducting research to identify various biomarkers associated with injury.”
As will all experiments, he said, this required two sets of sample groups — one for disease testing and the other as a control group. The first group of samples, obtained from a U.S.-based firm, were sourced from individuals of Russian descent, Downey explained.
“However, to continue the research, similar samples were required,” Downey said. “As the original vendor provided disease samples of individuals of Russian descent for the initial disease samples, the requirement for the control group samples must also be of Russian descent — the purpose being the integrity of the study, not the origin of the sample.”
In other words: The company the Air Force contracted happened to use a genetically Russian sample. In order to have a successful study, the control group needed to come from that same group. If the first contractor had picked a sample from someone of Japanese descent, for example, it’s possible the study would have gone unnoticed.
But the contractor did not. And with Putin assumed to declare his candidacy for next year’s Russian presidential elections in the near future, the Kremlin will be looking to dial up anti-American rhetoric over the coming months.
Expect to hear more about the West’s nefarious plans to create Russia-specific bioweapons.
Updated 11/20/2017 at 2:42 PM EST, for memes.
Matthew Bodner covered Russian affairs for Defense News.
Aaron Mehta was deputy editor and senior Pentagon correspondent for Defense News, covering policy, strategy and acquisition at the highest levels of the Defense Department and its international partners.