On MH17 Anniversary, Moscow’s Propagandists Bend Over Backwards to Clear Russia of Responsibility

Despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, Russia denies it had anything to do with the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, which left 298 people dead.


One year ago today, Russian-backed separatist fighters, or perhaps Russian troops, shot down Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, killing all 298 on board. Despite voluminous evidence pointing toward the involvement of Russian proxies in downing the plane, Moscow’s propagandists and the Russian government have spent the last year concocting elaborate theories about who was behind the incident. As the world marked Friday’s anniversary, Moscow and its allies were back at it, contorting themselves to explain away Russian responsibility.

While the official report on who shot down MH17 remains unreleased, an overwhelming body of evidence — including photos, videos, social media posts, and witness testimony — indicates that it was almost certainly a Russian-provided anti-aircraft missile that shot down the Boeing 777. One of the few remaining questions is whether it was Russian troops operating the Buk missile launcher or separatist troops. The fact that the missile system’s operators made the mistake of shooting down a civilian airliner probably indicates that it was separatist fighters at the controls.

But this body of evidence was totally disregarded on Friday, when the Russian propaganda machine kicked into overdrive to claim variously that there was a second plane in the sky on July 17, 2014, that could have shot down MH17, that Ukrainian air traffic control bears responsibility for letting the airliner enter eastern Ukrainian airspace in the first place, or that the plane’s destruction was an elaborate ploy to isolate Russia.

And so on Friday, officials in eastern Ukraine published what they said were eyewitness testimonies of a second plane in the sky. “Spokesmen for the Donetsk People’s Republic say the eyewitness accounts confirm their claims that a Ukrainian fighter jet is responsible for shooting down MH17,” the Russian opposition outlet Meduza reports. It’s a theory that independent observers have thoroughly debunked.

Meanwhile over at RT, editors there used the publication of new footage of the MH17 crash site to once more resuscitate the idea that there was a second plane in the air that day. “Was there a 2nd plane?” the story about the video published by News Corp teasingly asks. That video, available below, shows the moment that Russian-backed rebels arrived at the crash site, and the question about a second aircraft appears to be spoken by a man on the phone with what appears to be his commander. While it doesn’t provide any evidence that there was a second plane, it does speak to the confusion on the ground that day among the men likely responsible for downing the plane.

Elsewhere on RT, the site has published a timeline of events since July 17, 2014, that conveniently omits the voluminous evidence that has accumulated that the plane was shot down by an anti-aircraft missile.

On Sputnik News, the propaganda outlet that replaced RIA-Novosti’s respected English-language news wire, writer Ekaterina Blinova wonders whether the West is “really willing to find out the truth” about the MH17 crash. That article is a conspiratorial mish-mash about unreleased satellite data and the presence of a second plane.

Another Sputnik story argues that a proposal to create a U.N. tribunal to prosecute those responsible for downing the aircraft is “an attempt to strangle Russia.”

A third Sputnik story on Friday places the blame for the downing on Ukrainian traffic control for allowing MH17 to enter the area in the first place. That story isn’t, in fact, an argument for why Ukrainian air traffic control erred but an interview with a member of Italy’s Euroskeptic Lega Nord Party, who provides the necessary quote: “We don’t need the international tribunal to prosecute those behind the downing of [Malaysia Airlines Flight 17] in eastern Ukraine because we already know who is responsible for it, and it is the Ukrainian Air Control.”

At the same time, Russian officials had the audacity to commemorate the victims of the crash, including Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, who laid flowers outside the Dutch embassy in Moscow:

Photo credit: ALEXANDER UTKIN/AFP/Getty Images

Elias Groll is a staff writer at Foreign Policy covering cyberspace. @EliasGroll

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