Through the Looking Glass: Russian Media Cover the MH17 Disaster

Alternate Reality Presented to the Russian Public by its Media

Four days after the destruction of Malaysian Airlines Flight MH17, Russia’s state-dominated news media are bending fact and credulity in an effort to blame Ukraine for the disaster. Within hours of the crash, Russia’s second largest news agency, RIA Novosti, announced that the Boeing 777 was shot down by the Ukrainian military. Citing the self-proclaimed Luhansk People’s Republic press service as their source, RIA reported that “eyewitnesses reported that the Malaysian jet was attacked by a Ukrainian fighter plane, after which the plane broke in midair into two sections and crashed on the territory of the Donetsk People’s Republic. After the attack the Ukrainian fighter jet was shot down and crashed. ”

RIA Novosti supplements this account with an expert analysis by Igor Korotchenko, the editor in chief of Russia’s National Defense magazine, who asserts that poorly trained Ukrainian military personnel shot down the Malaysian passenger plane in error.

“Having transferred additional military hardware to eastern Ukraine including anti-aircraft weapons which were placed on battle readiness, it is clear that as a result of poorly qualified personnel this was either a simple or an unpremeditated firing of the Buk rocket system” says Korotchenko and points out that only a Buk rocket, a weapon that is a known part of Ukraine’s military arsenal, could have brought down a commercial jet.

Pro-Kremlin television channel LifeNews, which has been embedded with the Russian separatists in rebel controlled regions in eastern Ukraine for many months (and is particularly virulent in its anti-Ukrainian programming) quickly aired an amateur video of the crash, showing people walking through the crash site, sorting through various European passports found at the scene. Shortly thereafter Russian newspaper Komsomolskaya Pravda, RIA Novosti and the site published what they claimed was a tweet by a Spanish air traffic controller working in Kyiv’s Boryspil airport. The tweet, in Spanish by @Spainbuca, claimed that shortly before MH17 went down, two Ukrainian fighter jets were observed flying beside the Malaysian jet. (It is worth noting that no Spaniards work in Ukraine’s largest international airport. According to Ukrainian Transport Ministry rules, only Ukrainian citizens are employed as dispatchers in the country’s air traffic control system.)

Russian President Vladimir Putin was also fast to blame Ukraine for the tragedy, particularly Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko. Had Poroshenko not renewed the military offensive against the rebels at the end of June, this tragedy could have been avoided, he said, and underscored (in an interesting precedent for international civil aviation jurisprudence), that the country where the crash occurred bears the ultimate responsibility for the tragedy.

A more bizarre version of the crash was set in motion by the rebel Russian military separatist leader Igor Girkin, a.k.a. Strelkov. In a macabre tale featured on the pro-separatist website Russkaya Vesna (translated to “Russian Spring,” whose motto is “only verified information”), Girkin claims that many bodies on Malaysian Flight 17 were already dead when the plane exploded. Girkin bases this claim on information from his fighters who were at the crash site: “According to people who were gathering the corpses, a large numbers of them are not ’fresh.’ These people died several days ago.”  The Ukrainians are capable of anything, says Girkin, and assures that he is not one for conspiracy theories. Julia Ioffe, here, outlines what Russians see as a “nefarious conspiracy to drag Russia into an apocalyptic war with the West.”

And then there was the most viral claim of the week from Russia’s news agency Interfax, citing an anonymous source in Rosaviacia, Russia’s federal air transport agency.

According to this unnamed source, the Ukrainian military shot down Malaysian Flight 17 by mistake, thinking they were in fact shooting down Vladimir Putin’s plane. In this version, Putin’s jet and MH17 were flying over the same general area with a gap of 37 minutes between flight, both airplanes are similar in appearance and dimension and from a great distance, the plane’s colors are indistinguishable. The fact that Russia’s presidential plane has 4 engines and Malaysian Airlines Boeing 777 had 2 seems not to have played much of a role in this explanation.

Russia Today, followed by LifeNews, the pro-Kremlin newspaper Komsomolskaya Pravda andRussian Defense Ministry television channel Zvezda quickly picked up the claim and spread it across the globe.

On Monday, Komsomolskaya Pravda upped the ante by not only accusing Ukraine of involvement in the tragic crash, but the United States as well. According to Russian Defense Ministry officer Andrey Kartopolov, Flight 17 was accompanied by not only a Ukrainian fighter jet but a US drone. Kartopolov presented slides and imagery claiming that a Ukrainian rocket brought down the Malaysian jet. Both Kyiv and Washington are now involved in a massive cover-up, he claimed.

Russia’s independent television station Dozhd TV (TV Rain) tried to inject a reality check into the media melee. In the aftermath of the crash Dozhd journalists rounded up all the bizarre versions making the rounds, and in a series of broadcasts called in a wide array of experts, from military analyst Pavel Felgenhauer to Donetsk-based Ukrainian journalists and Ukrainian government officials, to explain what actually happened, analyze what facts were available, and dismiss theories that were too far-fetched to be taken seriously. Was anyone watching?

Image: Screenshot of the Komsomolskaya Pravda website