“New evidence proves the Kremlin’s innocence in the downing of MH17!” This sensational message has been communicated in different forms by pro-Kremlin outlets and Russian authorities ever since the day of the killing of 298 civilians, including 80 children, on board Malaysian Airlines Flight MH17 over rebel-controlled Eastern Ukraine on 17 July, 2014. In the course of the past month, two additional incorrect claims were added to the already long list of pro-Kremlin attempts to distort the truth about the tragedy.

Untrustworthy witnesses and doctored images

The two new falsehoods were broadcast by the official outlet of Russia’s Armed Forces, TV Zvezda, on 7 December, and by Russian State TV Rossiya-1 on 29 December. Both claims were quickly debunked by the journalists at The Insider, an independent Russian outlet, and by the open source investigative search network Bellingcat.

In the case of TV Zvezda, The Insider makes it clear that no evidence is produced to prove that an interviewee, who claims to be a defected Ukrainian officer, is in fact who he says he is. In addition, the claims made by the interviewee about the actions of Ukranian government forces were proven wrong by material evidence in open source investigations carried by Bellingcat already in July 2015. Zvezda’s unsubstantiated claims were also relayed by state-controlled TV Pervy Kanal.

Investigating the story that appeared later in the month on Russian state TV Rossiya-1, The Insider demonstrates how satellite imagery used as proof in Rossiya-1’s broadcast (see above screenshot from Rossiya-1’s report) in fact contradicts the testimony of an interviewee in the very same broadcast; the person in question claims to be a hitherto unknown eyewitness of Ukrainian troop movements in Donbas during the days around the tragedy. On top of that, the claims made by the alleged eyewitness entirely contradict the results in Bellingcat’s open source investigation referred to above.

Similar conclusions about inconsistencies, including the use of doctored images, are found in Bellingcat’s recent update of its ongoing open source investigation, The Kremlin’s Shifting, Self-Contradicting Narratives on MH17, which it published on 5 January, 2018.

It is worth noting that in both cases, arguments communicated by the news stories depend on the trustworthiness of a single individual whose identity cannot even be confirmed. Russian state TV has previously used actors to make claims incriminating the Ukrainian side in Donbas of war crimes.

Why now? And why not tell the truth?

Which high-ranking Russian officer was in fact the responsible commander behind the BUK that caused the MH17 tragedy became increasingly evident thanks to another part of Bellingcat’s and The Insider’s investigations, the results of which were published last month. The timing of Zvezda’s and Rossiya-1’s broadcasts suggest concerns on the pro-Kremlin side with Bellingcat’s and The Insider’s publication.

Bellingcat’s open source investigation alleges that this Russian Colonel General is the key figure in the downing of Malaysian Airways Flight MH17.

The pro-Kremlin disinformation campaign remains eager to fabricate smokescreens in order to distract attention from the painful truth, which has already been investigated and confirmed by the Joint Investigation Team, namely that a BUK missile, which had been transported into Ukraine from Russian territory, killed the innocent passengers on board the Malaysian Airlines flight. Clearly, the hope is that a continuous flow of disinformation will sow confusion and buy time; all of the pro-Kremlin claims have turned out to be inconsistent, even contradicting each other over time, as Bellingcat also demonstrates in its detailed account. But why can the Kremlin not just tell the truth?

“Counter-narratives designed to create confusion”

In a concise study called “Russian hybrid warfare: A study of disinformation”, Flemming Splidsboel Hansen of the Danish Institute of International Studies compares the communication strategy applied by the Kremlin in the MH17 case to the way the Soviet government handled its downing of another civilian airliner, Korean Airlines Flight 007, in 1983. In his analysis, the core of the problem is that Russia’s current authorities lack a fundamental ability to acknowledge mistakes. Hansen writes: “While initially the Soviet Union denied any involvement in the [1983] incident, the regime soon changed track and allowed news reports in the state-controlled media to explain to the Soviet public that their military commanders had actually given the order to shoot down a civilian airliner. The current Russian regime clearly is unable to perform a similar step with respect to the BUK missile which hit MH-17 and the Russian media not only let it get away with this but even transmitted the counter-narratives designed to cause confusion in the post-modern and perspectivist news space”. In other words, disinformation has claimed total dominance in the Kremlin’s current communications strategy, whereas even Soviet authorities were capable of seeing a long-term reason for not systematically lying. Apparently, all the Kremlin does now with its disinformation is buy time before the criminal trials open in the Netherlands.

Further reading on Flight MH17:

The Kremlin’s Shifting, Self-Contradicting Narratives on MH17 (by Bellingcat)

Time for the ninth MH17 disinformation round

Flight MH17 three years on: getting the truth out of Eastern Ukraine

MH17 disinformation: back in the headlines