From flying corpses to Spanish air traffic controllers, Russian media are doing their best to muddy the waters around what happened to MH17.
- By Alec LuhnAlec Luhn is a Moscow-based journalist who has written for the Guardian, Politico, Slate, The Nation, the Independent, Vice News, and other publications.
MOSCOW — One of the first of the various bizarre theories to emerge from the Russian media’s coverage of the Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 downing was also one of the most outlandish: the Tale of the Spanish Dispatcher.
The night of the disaster, a certain "Carlos," presenting himself as a Spanish air traffic controller working in Kiev, began Tweeting in Spanish that Ukrainian jets, rather than separatists on the ground, had shot down the passenger plane. Russian media took the bait: "Spanish dispatcher: Two Ukrainian warplanes were near the Boeing before its disappearance," read the headline on the Kremlin’s most propagandistic news outlet, Russia Today. Several major news outlets also picked up the story with similar headlines, including state channel Rossiya 24, the Defense Ministry’s Zvezda channel, and popular newspapers like Komsomolskaya Pravda and Rossiiskaya Gazeta, the official mouthpiece of the Russian government. Others even speculated that Ukrainian forces had been trying to shoot down the Russian presidential jet, which supposedly had crossed paths with MH17 earlier that day. Between news broadcasts, Rossiya 24 added fuel to the fire by airing a segment about Siberian Air Flight 1812, which Ukraine admitted was accidentally shot down by its fighter jets over the Black Sea in 2001.
By the next day, Ukrainian and Western journalists had revealed "Carlos’s" account, which has since been deleted, to be a fake. (The Spanish embassy said this Twitter user had been active during the Kiev protests but denied that any Spanish air traffic controller was in Ukraine.) Even Igor Korotchenko, editor of the Russian journal National Defense, argued the plane had not been shot down by fighter jets. No matter. The work was done: the narrative of events had already been muddied.
Since MH17 went down outside a small hamlet in eastern Ukraine — a disaster which many in the West blame on pro-Russian rebels — Russian media coverage of the event has unfolded like a noir detective story, with a nefarious plot twist emerging at every turn. On Russian television and Twitter, wave after wave of theories have emerged, blaming Kiev and other unseen enemies in a frenzy of conspiracy that seems calculated to obscure the truth about MH17 rather than reveal it.
"Because the Kremlin feels like an accessory to this event, the mass media is working in step, stressing different points to distract attention from the Kremlin," said Oleg Kozyrev, a popular opposition-friendly blogger and media analyst in Moscow. "Or, if that doesn’t work, at least to talk around the topic, to make viewers think this is not all so clear-cut, that maybe it wasn’t the separatists."
A Friday newscast on Rossiya 1 quoted a defense analyst arguing MH17 was shot down by a surface-to-air missile. The channel quickly jumped, however, to Defense Ministry spokesman Aleksey Komarov claiming that not only had Ukrainian military surface-to-air missiles been deployed to Donetsk, the region in eastern Ukraine over which the plane went down, but also missile-equipped aircraft — hinting once again that Ukrainian fighter jets had shot it down.
On its broadcast, Rossiya 24 quoted a report by the popular news site Lifenews, notorious for its publish-first-ask-questions-later approach, arguing that the "plane could have come under anti-aircraft fire because it deviated from its planned route." (Pro-Kremlin media impresario Konstantin Rykov and others claimed on Twitter that the flight had gone 300 kilometers off route.) Malaysia Airlines said on Thursday that MH17’s route had been approved by Eurocontrol, the top supervisory body, and was often flown by other planes. Another plane was even flying the route when MH17 was hit, it said.
A bizarre article on the website for Rossiya 24 mused on how many "assumptions and open fakes" had been drummed up to explain the air catastrophe, including the discredited Spanish dispatcher story. Yet it then waded into an incredible tale, put forth on Russia’s VK social network relaying messages from Igor Strelkov, the leader of the separatist armed forces and a former Russian intelligence officer. It alleged that "a significant portion of the corpses weren’t fresh" on the plane, hinting at a wide-ranging conspiracy to discredit his forces. Rossiya called the tale "impossible to believe" but nonetheless said it had come from a "clear-thinking military man."
"Of course, medical experts will be able to determine the exact time of the Boeing passengers’ and crew’s death," the Rossiya article read. "However, the fact that the passports picked up by locals after the crash were clean, as if they were fresh from the printing press, cannot but surprise us."
In the information war between Kiev and Moscow, the Ukrainian media has been similarly bombastic in seeing Putin’s hand in the accident. But in Russia, the government controls all nationwide television news channels: in recent months, several prominent independent news sources have been saddled with pro-Kremlin executives or limited in their distribution. The Russian media’s first task is one of patriotic servitude rather than fact-finding, says political analyst Alexei Makarkin. "The majority of the mass media see themselves as protecting interests of country, of Russia," he says. "This is contradictory to the Western approach, where they try to consider all different opinions."
State television has brought on a recurring cast of characters to peddle the Kremlin MH17 line. Broadcasters have aired repeated statements by President Vladimir Putin, who, in a clear dig at Kiev, argued that the catastrophe never would have happened if "hostilities had not resumed in southeast Ukraine." Also in heavy rotation was Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, who dismissed Kiev’s accusations that Russia was behind the downing of the plane by arguing he hadn’t "heard any truthful statements from Kiev over the past few months," as well as Korotchenko and Komarov suggesting the Ukrainian military had likely fired on the civilian flight.
As long as foolproof evidence of the culprit remains elusive, Moscow will continue be able to "deny and debate the story" of the downed flight, Makarkin says. "It must be proven 100 percent for Russia to admit its guilt in supporting the rebels."
Pro-Kremlin commentators argued the media’s mostly unsubstantiated musings were in the spirit of raising essential questions and debate, bristling at what they saw as premature Western condemnation of Russia’s role in the crash. "Why hold investigations, collect evidence, conduct analyses if the guilty party has already been decreed. It’s some kind of farce, not a session," influential Rossiya 1 host Vladimir Solovyov Tweeted during the U.N. Security Council meeting on Friday.
But until the truth is known conclusively, the war to claim it continues on Moscow’s airwaves. By the 11 p.m. newscast on Friday, Rossiya 24 was arguing ever more forcefully that Ukrainian forces had shot down the plane and insinuated that the United States was manipulating the air disaster to take Russia’s place as Europe’s main energy provider. Russian liberal voices and opposition figures looked on in dismay, including anti-corruption campaigner Alexei Navalny, who Tweeted about Rossiya 24’s corpse-flight story: "Why do they think this up and does anyone really believe it?"
"One air catastrophe that set a 13-year record for the number of people killed was enough," Igor Belkin, a former editor at the major news site Lenta.ru, which was taken over by a pro-Kremlin editor earlier this year, wrote on Facebook. "But the info-fuck around it makes everything worse."