- By Reid StandishReid Standish is associate editor, digital, at Foreign Policy. Reid writes on Russia, Ukraine, and Central Asia and is the newsroom’s digital point person. He has lived in and reported from Finland, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Ukraine, where he covered everything from Santa Claus to drug trafficking. A native of British Columbia, he holds a B.A. in international studies from Simon Fraser University and an M.A. from the University of Glasgow.
Not all propaganda is created equal. For every piece of elegantly crafted misinformation meant to sway hearts and minds, there is spin so poorly produced that it borders on the absurd. Case in point, a comically bad audio recording released by the Russian tabloid Komsomolskaya Pravda on Wednesday of two alleged CIA agents conspiring to bring down Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17, which crashed in eastern Ukraine on July 17, 2014.
Complete with stilted greetings and cumbersome dialogue that sounds like both men are reading from a script, the recording opens with a series of conversations between the two alleged spies, identified as David Hamilton and David L. Stern. Throughout the recording, they discuss “preparations” for an operation that involves shooting down a plane with a surface-to-air missile and an eventual Plan B, which involves placing a bomb inside the plane — all for the purpose of staging a crash to discredit Russian-backed separatists in Ukraine and the Kremlin itself.
But you don’t have to listen long to question the recording’s authenticity. The men’s accents are curious to say the least. One sounds British for half the recording until he switches to a more American accent. The other man does his best to hide his Russian accent, but it pops up at the beginning as he clumsily asks his co-conspirator, “How are the preparations?” But the most glaring hole is in the conversation itself. The men do not talk with each other like native English speakers and use turns of phrase that sound as if their dialogue was translated to English from Russian via Google Translate. Before signing off, the two say “Luck!” to each other, a common farewell in Russian.
The entire released recording can be heard below.
Conspiracy theories and propaganda of this magnitude are hardly new when it comes to the downing of MH17, which killed all 298 people on board. Immediately following the crash in July 2014, Ukraine and the West accused pro-Russia separatists of shooting down the plane with a Buk surface-to-air missile, which they say was likely supplied by Moscow.
Initially, Russian officials said the passenger plane was shot down by a Ukrainian Su-25 fighter jet. On July 21, 2014, Russia’s Defense Ministry hosted a press conference and presented radar data that allegedly showed another aircraft near MH17 before it was shot down. The Russian Union of Engineers said wreckage indicated the plane was destroyed by heat-seeking air-to-air missiles. Russian media then gave heavy attention to a man claiming to be a Spanish air traffic controller in Kiev who said that two Ukrainian fighter jets had followed the airliner. After the Spanish controller was discredited, the Kremlin switched to a new theory — that the plane was hit by a missile launched from Ukrainian territory and fired by troops loyal to Kiev.
The latest theory coming out of the Russian media, and supposedly reinforced by the new recording, is that a bomb was detonated within the airliner and planted by Western agents. “It really doesn’t make any sense,” Eliot Higgins, the founder of Bellingcat, an open source investigative journalism network, told Foreign Policy. Higgins and his team at Bellingcat have been debunking Russian theories around MH17 for over a year using open source information — geolocating social media posts and videos and using satellite imagery to trace the movements of the Buk missile launcher seen in the area before and after the plane was shot down. Based on Bellingcat’s research, Higgins believes that MH17 was most likely shot down by a Buk missile fired by Russia-backed separatists. “No other scenario has the same degree of evidence.”
Still, the case is far from closed on MH17. The Joint Investigation Team, which comprises representatives from several countries, and the Dutch Safety Board are working on separate investigations into what downed the passenger plane. Dutch investigators said Tuesday that fragments of a suspected Russian missile system were found at the crash site in Ukraine. In a joint statement following the new evidence, the JIT and Dutch Safety Board cautiously said that “the parts are of particular interest to the criminal investigation as they can possibly provide more information about who was involved in the crash of MH17.”
A report by the Dutch Safety Board into the cause of the crash is expected by the end of October, while the separate international criminal investigation is likely to take several more months to complete.
On July 29, Russia vetoed a United Nations Security Council draft resolution — introduced by Malaysia — that would have set up an international tribunal to prosecute those suspected of downing the passenger plane. Moscow said the measure was a biased and politically motivated propaganda move to implicate the Kremlin or the Russia-backed Ukrainian separatists.
Photo credit: BULENT KILIC/AFP/Getty Images