The report of the Dutch Safety Board investigation on the causes of the MH17 crash was released on 13 October 2015. It concludes that the Malaysian Boeing that crashed into the fields of Donbas on 17 July 2014 was destroyed by a surface-to-air Russian-made Buk anti-aircraft missile. The Chairman of the Board admitted to journalists that it was fired from territory most probably controlled by Russian-backed militants, doing away with 15 months of propaganda/conspiracy theories spouted out by Russian media:
Why the theories?
The reason for the conspiracy theories is clear:
the most obvious culprit, tractor-drivers and miners that supposedly make up the armies of the so-called “Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics,” don’t have the equipment or knowledge to shoot down planes.
If only it they didn’t get it from the Russian army, the involvement of which in the conflict in Ukraine Russia still denies, despite the overwhelming evidence.
In 6 sentences, the DSB destroys 16 months of conspiracy theories created by Russian state media. pic.twitter.com/zijI7C7P7D
— Aric Toler (@AricToler) October 13, 2015
One of the strategies of maskirovka, or Russian military deception, is to manipulate “the facts” in order to affect the media and public/world opinion to achieve national goals. In the case of Russian propaganda related to the MH17 downing, a myriad of false claims, faked interviews, evidence, and dubious experts were creating (and are still creating) a smokescreen of chaotic versions the goal of which is to confuse and conceal. They target two audiences:
- domestic Russian audiences. The goal is to build doubt around facts indicating that Russian weapons are being delivered to Ukrainian territories held by purported “separatists,” reinforce the narrative of a Western conspiracy and imminent attack against Russia and the need of a strong military leader (Putin) to defend the nation;
- international audiences. The goal is to shift blame away from Russia and cast doubt, as well as reinforce anti-Western and anti-American sentiment among fringe groups. One notable result of this strategy is the journalistic “balance” achieved in Western outlets, when Russian disinformation is presented as “the other side” (read an assessment of “balance” on MH17 coverage in German media here) and as a “conflicting report,” as in the New York Times.
Here is a recap of the propaganda topics and methods that Russian media sources have been spinning for 15 months around the MH17 tragedy to further those goals:
Major, “respectable” Russian conspiracies
Conspiracy 1. The Ukrainian military downed MH17 with a Su-25 fighter jet.
Many claims and insinuations have been presented to support this conspiracy theory: Russia’s Ministry of Defense originally pitched the idea by holding a press-conference on 21 July 2014 where it released a statement purporting that Russian air controllers spotted a Su-25 near the Boeing and that the vehicle is capable of reaching an altitude of 10 km. It also released satellite imagery which was subsequently proven fake by the Bellingcat site of investigative journalism.
Russia’s Investigative Committee, which through the words of an anonymous deserter from the Ukrainian army giving an interview to the Russian tabloid Komsomolskaya Pravda “revealed” that the plane was shot down by a Ukrainian pilot, captain Voloshyn (Ukraine’s SBU subsequently claimed that the interview was a fake and that UA aircraft were not deployed on that day);
Tweets by Carlos, a non-existent Spanish traffic controller at Kyiv’s Boryspil airport, eye-witnesses telling BBC Russia they saw fighter aircraft at the scene.
The Wikipedia page for the Su-25 was edited to raise its service altitude from 7km to 10 km. These and other conspiracies are debunked on this page.
Modification of Su-25 conspiracy: it was downed by an Su-25 using an Israeli Python Missile. In mid-July 2015, RT gave the good old Su version a revamp by publishing a report from another unspecified “group of old-hand aviation security experts.”
Conspiracy 2. The Ukrainian military downed MH17 with a Ukrainian Buk.
This version had been pitched, once again, by Russia’s Defense ministry, which on 18 July 2014, one day after the crash, claimed that the Ukrainian Army had a Buk that was operational in the area. They once again attempted to prove this with faked satellite images which were once again debunked by Bellingcat. Nevertheless, the Russian MoD attempted to submit this version to the Dutch report. Russia’s Buk manufacturer, Almaz-Antey, was the next in line to take up the desperate mission of seriously attempting to prove that it was a Ukrainian Buk fired from Ukrainian-controlled territory.
On their first press conference on 2 June 2015, they first made this claim, and on their second one, which was held “by coincidence” on the day of the Dutch report presentation, they revealed the results of an experiment which “proves” that MH17 was downed by Buk 9M38 missile that Russia has argued is not in use by the Russian army (a claim considered to be “not borne out of the evidence”) and contradicts the Dutch report, which found remains of the missile 9N314M, from a supposed village location that contradicts even the Russian official version presented to the Dutch report.
What is most harrowing, though, is this presentation suggests a connection between Almaz-Antey, Russia’s MoD, and the Russian-backed separatists that were found to tamper with the corpses of the MH17 victims, removing shrapnel of the 9N314M missile from the bodies of the pilots.
The missile that Almaz-Antey tried so hard to prove was not there in the first place.
Oh, Wikipedia was edited in this case too, on 13 October 2015 – to support the “not borne out by the evidence” claim that the 9M38 missiles are not in use by Russia.
Smaller, outlandish Russian conspiracies
Conspiracy 3. The Ukrainian government was responsible for downing MH17
Claims made by different Russian outlets purported that MH17 moved off the standard flight path that it had taken every time before (disproved here), and that Ukrainian dispatchers summoned the plane lower just before the crash (disproved here).
Conspiracy 4. The Ukrainian military downed the plane in a botched bid to assassinate Putin.
Russia’s Interfax reported about this, according to RT, based on confidential evidence of an anonymous expert. The Russian tabloid Komsomolskaya Pravda ran a outlandish story about the pilot that did it and his air-controller partner that now hide in Dubai (available in English here, debunked here).
Conspiracy 5. MH17 is actually the flight of MH370 which vanished over the Indian Ocean and it was full of corpses when it took off from Amsterdam.
Conspiracy 6. MH17 was blown up from inside the cockpit in special operation.
The source of this conspiracy is an interview by LifeNews with an alleged “expert” who claimed to have purchased recordings from Ukraine’s Security Service with conversations of Ukrainian military pilots that observed a supposed explosion inside the plane.
Conspiracy 7. The CIA downed MH17
Once again, it was Komsomolskaya Pravda that contributed to spreading this conspiracy, publishing an “intercepted call” recording of two CIA spies that spoke in English so lousy it was dismissed as Russian propaganda by, for instance, the Daily Mail.
Conspiracy 8, 9, and 10. It was Israel, the Illuminati, and an attempt to conceal the truth about AIDS.
More about them here, sadly, no debunking offered. You’ll have to do it yourself.
Conspiracy 11, 12, 13. It was an attempt to assassinate the Indian Prime Minister Indira Nadi, it were the Chinese, it were occult forces guided by the IMF and its head, Christine Lagarde.
Read about these and other entertaining versions in this bellingcat summary. And if you want even more —
- 10 Outrageous Ways Russian Media Covered The Crash Of MH17
- What happened to flight MH17? Conspiracy theory debunked
Instead of a conclusion
The history of conspiracies relentlessly spouted by Russian state media outlets over 15 months points to a striking insensitivity to the tragedy of the relatives of the MH17 victims and a chilling relationship between Russia’s MoD, Almaz-Antey, and the Russian-backed militants that tampered with the corpses of the plane’s pilots to remove traces of a Russian-produced missile, but not only. It gives us valuable insights into Russian maskirovka strategies of confusing and concealing:
- The serious claims were pitched by Russia’s Ministry of Defense and further developed by Russian institutions and media outlets. They were extensively covered by its English-language state-run sites, foremost among them RT and Sputnik.
- The outlandish Russian conspiracies were either found in the depths of the internet or concocted based on “confidential” claims of anonymous or dubious “experts.”
- Classical conspiracy theories also found their way into the MH17 tragedy.
- Domestic Russian propaganda reaches its goals: only 3% of Russians believe Russian-backed separatists are responsible for MH17 downing, a poll revealed.
- Russian claims about MH17 are being reported as “the other side” for the sake of journalistic balance in Western media outlets, and are contributing to the reluctance to name the ones to blame for the tragedy.