Dispatch

Russia’s Reality Trolls and the MH17 War of Misinformation

For over a year, the Kremlin has been throwing a smokescreen around the MH17 shootdown. On Tuesday, it reached the height of absurdity.

Ukrainian deputy Prime Minister Gennadiy Zubko gives a press conference to present the results of the criminal investigation of the MH17 crash in Kiev on October 13, 2015. The The Dutch-led probe concluded that the Malaysia Airlines flight, headed from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur, was shot down by a Russian-made BUK missile fired from war-torn eastern Ukraine. Ukrainian authorities should have closed the air space over the eastern region wracked by fighting with pro-Russian separatists, the official inquiry into the MH17 air disaster found today. AFP PHOTO/GENYA SAVILOV        (Photo credit should read GENYA SAVILOV/AFP/Getty Images)
Ukrainian deputy Prime Minister Gennadiy Zubko gives a press conference to present the results of the criminal investigation of the MH17 crash in Kiev on October 13, 2015. The The Dutch-led probe concluded that the Malaysia Airlines flight, headed from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur, was shot down by a Russian-made BUK missile fired from war-torn eastern Ukraine. Ukrainian authorities should have closed the air space over the eastern region wracked by fighting with pro-Russian separatists, the official inquiry into the MH17 air disaster found today. AFP PHOTO/GENYA SAVILOV (Photo credit should read GENYA SAVILOV/AFP/Getty Images)

MOSCOW — Every time more evidence has emerged that Russia-backed rebels shot down Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 over eastern Ukraine, someone in Moscow has called a press conference to throw smoke over the claims. It’s a tradition going back to the days after MH17 crashed on July 17, 2014, killing all 298 people on board, when the Russian Defense Ministry held a briefing suggesting, improbably, that a Ukrainian missile or fighter jet had shot down the plane.

So it was little surprise when Almaz-Antey, the Russian state-owned maker of Buk missiles, held a press conference on Tuesday to shift the blame off Moscow and its separatist partners in eastern Ukraine. A report by the Dutch Safety Board released the same day found that MH17 was brought down by a Buk missile fired from an area near the town of Snizhne, which at the time was under rebel control. “It’s always special when people already know that they don’t agree with a report that’s not even published yet,” Dutch Safety Board chairman Tibbe Joustra told reporters when asked about the Almaz-Antey presentation, which took place hours before the Dutch findings were announced.

Packed with a nearly incomprehensible amount of graphics and data, the presentation argued that the Buk missile that hit MH17 was a type no longer used by the Russian military and had been fired from a location to the west of Snizhne. Russia’s state media immediately jumped on these findings to paint the Dutch report as incomplete and suggest that neither Moscow nor the rebels were involved in downing the plane — a response that corresponds with a larger Kremlin media strategy that has arisen during President Vladimir Putin’s third term. One aspect has been a Kremlin-linked “troll factory,” pushing disinformation and pro-Putin views online. But according to Nerijus Maliukevicius, a political science lecturer at Vilnius University who studies Russian media, the MH17 coverage is meant to “troll reality.”

The end goal is likely to prevent the missile launch being conclusively tied to Russia — and to prevent anyone linked to Russia from being punished for firing it. Despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary — including interviews with soldiers, secret military funerals, and satellite imagery — Moscow has denied it has been involved in the eastern Ukraine conflict, and Putin has previously argued against proposals to create an MH17 criminal tribunal until a “thorough and objective” investigation (in Putin’s eyes) has been completed.

“I think the [MH17] case is very illustrative. We would think of what an Internet troll would do by spoiling all rational discussion or distracting or getting off-topic,” Maliukevicius said. “From this narrow perspective you can bring it up to Kremlin strategic thinking on how you suddenly distract, bring up other issues. You start using this whataboutism strategy.”

Unlike Soviet propaganda, which sought to convince viewers of an alternate truth, the new Kremlin strategy seeks to convince viewers that nothing is true at all, experts say. This strategy tries to sow confusion, putting out alternative explanations to muddy the waters and undermine confidence in what Western media and governments say both at home and abroad. The Ukraine crisis has prompted so much exaggeration and falsehoods in Russian media that a group of students started the site StopFake.org last year to debunk them. Peter Pomerantsev, a Briton who previously worked as a TV producer in Moscow, has gone as far as to argue that it is part of a new kind of “information warfare” being fought to further Russian geopolitical goals.

In the first days after MH17 went down, the Russian media began discussing seemingly every possible explanation for the tragedy besides one of the most likely: That it had been accidentally shot down by pro-Russian forces, which had downed several Ukrainian military planes in the weeks prior. No theory was too outlandish for state media to report, it seemed, not even one that the whole thing was a ruse to impugn Moscow, perpetrated using a plane full of corpses.

Most conspiracy theories were soon discredited; even satellite images the Russian Defense Ministry said proved Ukrainian missile launchers had been in the area were later shown to have been doctored. Nonetheless, the misinformation continued, often with conflicting stories. In July, state-run channel RT — whose motto “Question more” perfectly encapsulates Moscow’s muddy-the-waters approach — reported that MH17 could have been downed by an Israeli Python air-to-air missile, even though Almaz-Antey had reported the month before that the missile used “could only have been” a Buk 9M38M1 (a model it said Russia didn’t have).

In Tuesday’s presentation, Almaz-Antey subjected more than 200 journalists to a barrage of mathematics formulas, blast impact illustrations, and even a video of a Buk missile being blown up next to a decommissioned Ilyushin Il-86 cargo plane to argue that the Buk missile had been fired at MH17 from an area near Zaroshchenske, which was not reportedly under the control of either the rebels or Ukrainian forces in July 2014. The company changed its previous statement to say the missile had been an older 9M38 model, which was also no longer in Russia’s arsenal. Almaz-Antey accused the Dutch-led international investigation of not taking its data into account, even though the Dutch report said Almaz-Antey had in fact originally calculated the Snizhe launch area.

The Almaz-Antey directors were careful to avoid blaming the Ukrainians directly, declining to comment on whose forces they thought had controlled Zaroshchenske at the time. Russian state television conveniently connected the dots for them: Channel One reported from the Moscow presentation that “if Dutch investigators are relying on theory, then Russian investigators are relying on practice.”

The narrative of the supposedly incomplete Dutch report was being woven even before Tuesday. An article last week in the popular newspaper Moskovsky Komsomolets accused investigators of hiding information from the public and not allowing Russian specialists to access case materials. “According to our information,” it reported, the Dutch government had rushed the investigators, citing the Defense Ministry’s discredited satellite images to question what it saw as an unfair suspicion of the rebels. The day before the Dutch investigators’ report, Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov made headlines arguing that they had not taken into account information presented by the Russian side.

Meanwhile, Russian analysts and officials have focused on perceived discrepancies in the Western narrative, arguing that it is in fact Russia that is the victim of an information war. When asked at the presentation on Tuesday about the Russian media’s many conflicting theories, Igor Korotchenko, a pro-Kremlin defense analyst, responded with a question of his own: “When our planes flew to Syria, the Americans immediately uploaded satellite photos,” he said. “Why didn’t they upload photos in this case?” He was soon rushed off for an appearance on the popular pro-Kremlin outlet LifeNews, during which he suggested that the United States was hiding what it knew to be Ukraine’s guilt in MH17.

While this disinformation is clearly convenient for the Kremlin, the order to create confusion doesn’t necessarily come from Putin, experts say. Russian media, which often have a more patriotic and defensive approach to news coverage than Western channels, promote some of these conspiracy theories and suspicions on their own. RT, which focuses on foreign audiences, often sets the tone, Maliukevicius said. “There is an obvious general line that the Russians are not to blame, the Ukrainians are to blame. After this, each thinks for himself,” said independent analyst Alexander Golts. He added that the “white noise” around MH17 would likely make the correct version of events seem like just one of many theories.

This approach has been effective, especially at home in Russia, where the population remains convinced that the Ukrainian side is to blame for the tragedy. Asked in an independent survey in July who bore responsibility for the death of the people on board MH17, 44 percent of Russians said Ukrainian soldiers, 41 percent said the Ukrainian leadership and 17 percent said the United States. Only 3 percent named the rebels, and 2 percent said Russia was to blame for arming and training them.

In the end, the “white noise” method may be effective abroad as well, helping to end possibilities of bringing those guilty to justice. A Dutch prosecutor’s probe will identify “persons of interest” only next year, rather than this year, as had been expected.

Although Russia’s veto has prevented the United Nations Security Council from establishing an international criminal tribunal to investigate the downing of the plane, Ukraine recently extended the International Criminal Court’s (ICC) preliminary examination to include all atrocities committed in Ukraine since February 2014 — including MH17. Russia is not a party to the ICC, but Russian and Ukrainian citizens acting from Ukrainian territory could be tried by the court, according to David Scheffer, a Northwestern Law professor and former U.S. ambassador at large for war crimes issues. Countries could also establish a special tribunal by treaty, or Ukraine could bring a complaint against Russia in the European Court of Human Rights, he said.

But Fyodor Lukyanov, chairman of the Council on Foreign and Defense Policy, a group of Russian analysts, argued that the political will to push such measures through is dying down. Moscow will likely continue to insist that the investigation “didn’t take all factors into account” while the West will fruitlessly insist that suspicions of the pro-Russian forces have been proven, he said. “If attempts to regulate the conflict [in eastern Ukraine] continue, this will go into history, along with the conflict,” Lukyanov said. “No one will want to bring it up.”

Few expect that Putin, who has long sought to burnish a reputation as a decisive leader unafraid to stand up to the West, will ever admit any Russian guilt in MH17, no matter what evidence arises to the country. “Russia will reject this until there is a change in regime, like with Katyn,” said Pavel Felgenhauer, a defense analyst who is often critical of the Kremlin, referring to the 1940 Soviet massacre of Polish officers that the USSR denied for 50 years. “If there’s a change of regime in Moscow, then we may recognize what happened.”

Image credit: GENYA SAVILOV/AFP/Getty Images

Alec Luhn is a Moscow-based journalist who has written for the Guardian, Politico, Slate, The Nation, the Independent, Vice News, and other publications. @asluhn

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