How MH17 Gave Birth to the Modern Russian Spin Machine

How MH17 Gave Birth to the Modern Russian Spin Machine

It seems odd to look back to just over two years ago — a time when Russia had already effectively annexed Crimea and quietly fomented civil war in Ukraine — and to think of those days as simpler times.

To be sure, they weren’t that simple, even then: Before Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 was shot down over eastern Ukraine, Russian officials had already lied publicly about their special forces’ role in the seizure of Crimea. Kremlin-backed media had already begun spreading wild rumors and fake news stories, such as the alleged crucifixion of a 3-year-old boy by Ukrainian forces.

But, looking back now, it seems that the downing of MH17 — a disaster that horrified the world, and that has since been the subject of two international investigations seeking to establish some semblance of truth — marked a Rubicon moment for the Russian disinformation machine: the first time that the full power of the state was trained on the task of convincing the world to accept a false narrative of events, despite a preponderance of evidence to the contrary.

If, previously, Russia had dabbled in the disinformation game, the aftermath of the MH17 disaster was a veritable case study in how to use a multitude of different communications channels to achieve a common goal: the discrediting of all those who claimed that Russia had played some part in the attack. Internet trolls, hackers, Kremlin-run media, state employees, retired soldiers, public officials, and anonymous programmers — all of them combined forces in a joint mission to attack investigators and even fake evidence. It was a disinformation operation of unprecedented scope and scale, one that initiated a new, and extremely troubling, phase in what Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov has since called Russia’s “state of information warfare with the trend-setters in the information space.”

Moreover, it hasn’t stopped since: The techniques used to attack the MH17 investigation have since been used to deny Russian complicity in various other fatal incidents, not only in Ukraine, but also in Syria — not least the recent destruction of a United Nations aid convoy, which Russia, in the days following, has tried to claim was the result of nearby rebel artillery fire, or perhaps some form of sabotage.

The downing of the Malaysia Airlines flight was something of a tipping point for Russia’s public image. Before the disaster, some Russian leaders had been sanctioned for the illegal annexation of Crimea, but the West, and especially the European Union, had been reluctant to go further. There had been a sense that Ukraine’s problems were, at least in part, of its own making, and that a local conflict should not be allowed to sour broader relations. But the downing of a civilian airliner with the death of all 298 people on board turned that local problem into a global one.

Right from the start, the Kremlin was implicated as the main supporter and advocate of the separatists in eastern Ukraine. The Ukrainian government accused the separatists of shooting down MH17 in the mistaken belief that it was a military transport, and accused Russia of supplying the Buk surface-to-air missile system. That version resonated in an international arena that had seen Russia annex Crimea illegally just four months prior.

For the first few days, the Russian government’s response seemed almost hesitant. Its first public statements were, by Kremlin standards, practically restrained: It said that Ukraine ought to do more to stop the fighting, and called for an international inquiry. We can only guess at the conversations held in the Kremlin at that critical juncture. But four days after the crash, it became clear that Russia had settled on a new strategy. It would present its own theory of the case and stick to it no matter how increasingly improbable it seemed. And if that required using the organs of the state to generate “evidence” supporting that theory, it would do that, too.

On July 21, in an hour-long briefing, the Russian Ministry of Defence made a series of announcements: First, that Russian radar had spotted a Ukrainian Su-25 combat aircraft near MH17; second, that Russian satellites had spotted Ukrainian Buk missiles in the area; and third, that a video circulated by the Ukrainian Interior Ministry, purporting to show a Buk launcher in separatist-held territory, was in fact filmed in government territory. The fact that these claims pointed towards contradictory theories of the crash — one toward an aircraft, the other toward a missile — seemed unimportant. Regardless, the government itself, state-owned media, internet trolls, and even arms of the Kremlin typically uninvolved in information warfare, such as state-owned weapons manufacturers, kicked into overdrive to back them up.

The ministry came to its July briefing armed with “proof” of its contradictory theories. First, to back up the idea that a Ukrainian plane may have shot down MH17, it claimed that Russian air control had detected a Ukrainian Air Force Su-25 jet moving toward MH17 before the crash, and presented images which purported to show its presence. The images, however, were of self-evidently low quality, and were quickly challenged by observers. Ultimately, the claim that another aircraft had downed MH17 would be debunked by international investigators, who said that there had been no sign of other planes in the vicinity of the crash. (The ministry even appeared to confess to its earlier lie this month — sort of — when it announced that it had come up with new “radar data” showing that nothing, not even a missile, had approached MH17 from separatist-held territory at all.)

Second, to support the notion that it may have been a Ukrainian — not a Russian — missile that brought down the plane, the defense ministry presented a series of “satellite photos” which purported to reveal the presence of a Ukrainian Buk system in the area of the crash. These, again, were of low resolution, making it hard to assess their validity; but analyses by investigative journalism group Bellingcat and the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies, the latter of which using forensic software, ultimately demonstrated that the images had been digitally altered.

Third, to aid in dismissing a video released by the Ukrainian government, which showed a Buk launcher being transported through separatist territory, the ministry brought purported “stills” of the video. These stills focused in on a billboard, which supposedly had on it a visible address in the city of Krasnoarmeisk, located in government-controlled Ukraine. Bellingcat’s research proved that this, too, was a fake.

But such investigations took time: It was not until mid-2015 that the rebuttals began to gather momentum. In the interim, the Kremlin’s disinformation machine went to unprecedented efforts to promote both the “Su-25” and “Ukrainian Buk” theories.

RT, the state-funded TV network, scrambled to provide the Kremlin with backup, concentrating on the former. It aired a 23-minute documentary showing off the main armament on the Ukrainian Air Force plane, including a live-fire test in which a Su-25 strafed two grounded aircraft to compare the exit holes with those seen on MH17. It ran a report featuring an unnamed mechanic at a Ukrainian air base who had claimed, while taking a lie detector test, to have seen a Ukrainian fighter take off armed and return with its air-to-air missiles spent on the fatal day. And, separately, it contacted a bewildering array of former Russian military officials to confirm that a Su-25 — a low-altitude ground-attack aircraft — could have, in fact, downed MH17. These “experts” included Lt. Gen. Aleksandr Maslov, former deputy chief of the Russian Air Defense and Land Forces; the former commander of an aviation division, Maj. Gen. Sergey Borysyuk; and the former chief commander of Russia’s Air Force, Vladimir Mikhailov.

Meanwhile, a range of state employees lined up to validate the “Ukrainian Buk” theory. In June 2015 — while RT was still touting the Su-25 story — Almaz-Antey, the state-owned company which manufactures Buk missiles, held a press conference in which it claimed that MH17 had indeed been brought down by a Buk, but it had been fired from Ukrainian government-held territory, and using a type of weapon no longer employed by Russia, but still in use in Ukraine. It elaborated on those claims in October 2015, citing as evidence ballistic tests and a full-scale, very dramatic, live-fire simulation which saw it detonating a Buk against an aircraft fuselage. According to this “evidence,” the international investigators were wrong about the sort of Buk used, the angle at which it approached the plane, and the place from which it was launched. Almaz-Antey stuck to its story throughout 2016, and even as late as this month has continued to insist on its version of events.

In parallel, an unacknowledged army of commentators flooded internet chat forums with comments supporting the two Russian versions. These “trolls” ranged from the simply abusive (the author has learned an impressive number of Russian obscenities as a result of their attention to his Twitter feed) to the wildly conspiratorial (such as suggesting that the MH17 crash had been a CIA plot to shoot down Russian President Vladimir Putin). They were backed by a shadowy group of hackers who tried to penetrate Bellingcat’s emails. They were even backed by ludicrous fakes, such as a leaked “recording” of some of the most stilted “CIA agents” ever to disgrace a propaganda attempt.

Not since Soviet times has a government in Moscow gone to such lengths to pervert the course of justice; it is therefore worth asking why they went so far, and why, once they had begun, they chose to repeat the practice in Syria.

We cannot know what was said in the Kremlin in the days between the crash and the defense ministry press conference. What we do know is that the downing of MH17 turned the war in Ukraine — which had previously been mainly a diplomatic liability — into a potentially political, and perhaps even a criminal, liability. How would Russian voters react if their government — always keen to portray itself as infallible and the embodiment of national pride — were found guilty of having abetted the murder of 298 innocent people? And how would the international community react if a chain of command were found that led back to the Kremlin?

In that light, it is instructive to examine the moments at which the Russian disinformation machine has gone into action in Syria. In particular, it has been cranked up to full speed whenever an incident has occurred which could be presented or construed as a war crime: the bombing of hospitals or mosques, or, most recently, the aid convoy.

The first example of “MH17-style” fabrications being used in Syria came at the end of October 2015, a month into the Russian bombing campaign there. Russia was accused of striking a mosque in Jisr al-Shughur, in Syria’s Idlib province, on Oct. 1, 2015, the second day of the campaign.

The defense ministry’s response was to label the claim a “hoax,” and to publish “satellite imagery” showing an intact mosque with a blue dome on the western edge of the town, together with a large text box, which named it as the “Al Farooq Omar Bin Al Khattab mosque”, covering the northern outskirts. Again, this claim was amplified by RT and the Sputnik internet portal, which gave lavish coverage to the ministry’s claim that “the Western media keep publishing fake stories about the allegedly indiscriminate nature of the airstrikes conducted by our forces.”

And again, this “evidence” was later exposed in a report published by Bellingcat, which demonstrated that the name cited by the MoD conflated two separate mosques: One, with a blue dome, was the Al Farook mosque, sitting at the western edge of town, still intact. But the mosque reported destroyed in the Russian airstrike was called the Omar Bin Al Khattab mosque, which had a minaret instead of a dome, and was situated in the northern outskirts — or had been, anyway. And the place where it had been located was neatly hidden under the ministry’s text box in the photographs it released.

Following the publication of a damning report this week by the Joint Investigation Team (JIT), an international task force charged with investigating the MH17 wreck, which concluded definitively that the missile that brought down the plane had been transported into Ukraine from Russia, all arms of the Kremlin’s disinformation machine have switched back to MH17 mode. Official Kremlin media have sought to claim that the JIT “did not link” the MH17 crash to Russia. The Russian Foreign Ministry accused the JIT of being “politically motivated.” Almaz-Antey, back in the spotlight, gave its own briefing, broadcast by RT, which trashed the JIT’s findings. And in parallel, internet trolls began attacking those, including this author, who covered the report, on social media.

It seems only a matter of time before Russia’s propaganda machine refocuses on the country’s ongoing military campaign in Syria. But the two and a half year MH17 disinformation campaign is a case study of the Kremlin’s present mindset. It has revealed the Russian government’s willingness to lie, fake, and defraud its way out of trouble, even when the stakes are potential criminal charges. That raises obvious questions about the Kremlin’s willingness to show any modicum of responsibility and restraint during conflicts like the ongoing one in Syria.

The most disturbing lesson from the MH17 affair is that, so far, at least, while the propaganda efforts have lost Kremlin much of its credibility in the Western world, it has allowed it to remain solidly in charge back home. No one has yet to face justice for the deaths of hundreds of civilians. That is, with MH17, the disinformation machine crossed the Rubicon — and so far, it has worked.

Photo credit: ROBIN VAN LONKHUIJSEN/AFP/Getty Images