10 Outrageous Ways Russian Media Covered The Crash Of MH17
On July 17, 2014, Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 crashed close to the city of Torez in Eastern Ukraine, killing all 298 people on board. Within hours, the world had a rough explanation of what had happened to the fateful flight: Separatist forces shot the Boeing down with a Russian-supplied BUK anti-aircraft system, likely mistaking it for a Ukrainian An-26 transport plane.
In the months that followed, news media and citizen journalists have pieced together a thorough picture of the events. They’ve zeroed in on the exact launch location, the BUK’s exact journey into and out of Ukraine, and even the likely culprits behind the tragic misfire—Russian soldiers of the 53rd Air Defense Brigade from Kursk. On October 13, the Dutch Safety Board intends to publish a final report on the crash after more than a year of meticulous investigation. (There’s also a parallel criminal investigation that will take longer.) The report is expected to confirm and expand upon the above understanding of the incident.
Meanwhile, in Russia, media coverage of the MH17 tragedy has been somewhat . . . different. Rather than settling on a single story, Russian news outlets have released a flurry of often self-contradictory claims. They’ve ranged from at least hypothetically plausible explanations to completely absurd conspiracy theories. Here are some of the most glaring examples of how Russian media has (mis)treated the story.
10 LifeNews Anchor Contradicts Herself Within Minutes
Shortly after MH17 crashed, an anchor for Russia’s LifeNews channel appeared on TV to announce that the separatists had successfully downed yet another Ukrainian An-26. (One was shot down just three days prior, on July 14.) She described the incident in detail, including the fact that the plane was hit by a missile and that it crashed near Torez, which was under separatist control. Her report was accompanied by video footage of black smoke rising from the site of the crash.
Of course, it wasn’t long before the sad truth became clear. There was no An-26; the plane that fell near Torez was none other than MH17. Once that news got out, a curious thing happened: The same anchor, wearing the same blue outfit and what must have been the best poker face in the industry, came back on to say that MH17 could not have possibly been downed by separatists because they didn’t have the right weapons for the job—the same separatists that minutes earlier took credit for downing the nonexistent An-26. We got to see the Orwellian “Oceania has always been at war with Eurasia” switcheroo happen in real time.
As for the phantom An-26 that was allegedly hit by a separatist missile? There was no further mention of it. Yet, bizarrely, you can still read the original An-26 story on the LifeNews website and the site of the TASS news agency.
9 Channel One Shows A Crude Photoshop Image Of A Fighter Jet Firing At MH17
One of the more popular Russian claims is that a Ukrainian Su-25 jet brought down MH17. The main problem with that claim—aside from the lack of any evidence—is that it’s a physical impossibility. The Su-25 is not designed to intercept other planes, but to provide close air support to ground troops. More importantly, its service ceiling is only 7,000 meters (23,000 ft), while the MH17 was downed at an altitude of over 10,000 meters (33,000 ft). The Su-25’s chief designer, Russian Vladimir Babak, has even gone on record to explicitly state, “The Su-25 could attack a Boeing at a height of three or four thousand meters, but it can’t shoot down a plane flying at an altitude of 10,500 meters. I believe that all allegations of the Su-25 involvement in the tragedy are an attempt to cover tracks. I can’t explain it in any other way.”
We’ve already talked about how someone in the Russian government tried to manipulate the Su-25’s Wikipedia entry to suit the false narrative. But even that fades in comparison to how Russia’s Channel One covered the jet fighter theory in an episode of a show called “Odnako.” On November 14, 2014, the show’s host, Mikhail Leontyev, revealed a “sensational” satellite image of a Ukrainian jet fighter (which Leontyev suggested was a MiG-29) caught firing a missile at MH17. He hinted smugly at how this image would shatter the BUK theory and give Putin a clear trump card at the G20 summit in Australia. The photograph was apparently sent to the Russian Union of Engineers (RUE) by one George Bilt. In an ironic foreshadowing, Leontyev wrapped up his show with this statement: “To fake something like this, you’d have to be an even bigger professional than to have access to this kind of information.”
Almost instantly, Russian bloggers exposed the “satellite photograph” as a laughably crude fake. The scale of the two airplanes was way off. The map of the area, including a uniquely shaped cloud, was taken directly from a Google Earth photo . . . from August 28, 2012. Perhaps most ridiculous was the image of the Boeing itself, which appeared to simply be the first Google search result for “Boeing view from above,” showing just how lazy this Photoshop job really was. The Internet proceeded to mock the image mercilessly, pasting Nazi UFOs in place of the Ukrainian jet and grabbing video game screenshots as “undeniable proof.”
BuzzFeed managed to interview George Bilt, the man who forwarded the image to the RUE. Bilt confirmed that he’d found the photo in an online forum but was shocked to see it used on live TV. “Those guys are either desperate or totally unprofessional,” he said. When confronted about the ludicrous “Odnako” episode, Leontyev called his critics “brutes” and then quickly backtracked, “I never claimed that this proved anything. We don’t prove, we tell the story. Experts are the ones who should prove.” As for those experts, the comment from RUE’s leader Vladimir Saulyanov should tell you everything you need to know about their level of professionalism: “How could we check it? It came to us from the Internet.”
8 Komsomolskaya Pravda Claims It Was An Attempt To Assassinate Putin
Yet another wild conspiracy theory that featured an Su-25 was published by Komsomolskaya Pravda, a Russian tabloid. According to this explanation, then-governor of the Dnepropetrovsk region Ihor Kolomoyskyi got word that Putin’s Plane Number One would be flying over Ukraine on its way from Latin America. Kolomoyskyi then ordered an Su-25 pilot, Dmitro Yakatsuts, to bring the plane down, assassinating Putin in the air. The inept pilot managed to mistake MH17 for Plane Number One because of their similar silhouette and coloring. After the plane was shot down, Yakatsuts disappeared to Dubai, along with Dnepropetrovsk-based air traffic controller Anna Petrenko, who was responsible for MH17’s flight path.
This theory incorrectly assumes that regional governor Kolomoyskyi somehow had access to Putin’s routing plans and the authority to command Ukrainian military forces. The names of Petrenko and Yakatsuts do not appear on any official sites or in any sources other than the ones quoting the story. Unsurprisingly, it gained little traction outside of Russian media and fringe conspiracy sites. The story tends to only receive passing mention when other Russian conspiracy theories about MH17 are discussed.
7 Russia 24 Accuses Ukrainian Air Controllers Of Deliberately Diverting MH17
The day after the crash, Russia 24 (formerly Vesti) asserted that Ukrainian air traffic controllers forced MH17 off its normal path for unspecified nefarious purposes and that the whole world was now expecting answers from Kiev. The news outlet also claimed that it was normal practice for governments to fully shut down all air traffic over war zones.
The same day, Malaysia’s transport minister Liow Tiong Lai unequivocally stated that MH17 was on an approved flight path used by multiple other airlines and received “no last-minute instructions” to change course. Instead, there was indication that the pilots of MH17 may have requested a route adjustment to avoid a brewing thunderstorm. Finally, Russia 24’s claim that air traffic is always closed over war zones is inaccurate. Unless aviation authorities issue a special “notice to airmen” (NOTAM), commercial air travel often continues as usual over war-torn areas. In the case of Ukraine, the most recent NOTAM raised the minimum allowed altitude over the country to 9,800 meters (32,000 ft). MH17 was flying above that minimum.
To be sure, the MH17 tragedy does call for a serious look at whether a more stringent NOTAM was needed and whether Ukraine should have fully closed its airspace based on the information that it had on hand. We can expect the report from the Dutch Safety Board to do exactly that and to offer recommendations for how similar situations should be handled in the future. Turning flight controllers into evil masterminds is probably going a few steps too far, though.
6 The Tale Of Carlos, The Mystery Air Controller
A certain “Carlos,” who claimed to be a Spanish air traffic controller based in Kiev, offered a chilling first-person account of what had happened. According to him, not one but two Ukrainian jets were chasing MH17. Carlos, who apparently lives in a fast-paced action movie, watched the chase unfold while soldiers were simultaneously raiding his air control tower. He chose to share his sensational story in a series of sporadic tweets. His claim was quickly picked up and published by TASS.
As you may have guessed, air controller Carlos is a fictional character. Matthew Bennett of The Spain Report reached out to the Spanish embassy in Kiev. An embassy spokesman confirmed that Carlos wasn’t known within the rather small Spanish community there and that his Twitter account had previously made unsupported and exaggerated claims. Moreover, citizen journalists have pointed out that, according to Ukrainian law, all traffic controllers employed by the country must be Ukrainian citizens. That was the last we’ve heard from Carlos. TV station RT (formerly Russia Today), which originally also published the “Carlos” story, has since updated the article to state that his Twitter account was considered fake and has been removed.
5 LifeNews Reports A Bomb Explosion Aboard MH17
On July 29, 2015, LifeNews published an explosive interview with Sergei Sokolov, an alleged expert from a Russian federal information center called Analytics and Security. Sokolov claimed that MH17 was blown up from within as part of a special operation. His proof was an audio tape that he’d purchased in 2014 from someone in the Ukrainian Security Service for $250,000.
The tape is said to be a conversation between a Ukrainian Su-27 pilot and a flight dispatcher. The Su-27 observes an explosion aboard MH17 and calls dispatch to stipulate that the Boeing was destroyed from the inside. LifeNews assures us that the tape is authentic, as established by a team of unnamed experts.
How was this plot carried out? What was its purpose? Why did the Ukrainian Security Service sell incriminating tapes to a random, self-proclaimed expert in Russia? Such questions are not addressed. Instead, LifeNews says that the West has failed to present a common version of the events. This is patently untrue: The Russian BUK has always been and remains the primary explanation.
The article goes on to say that Dutch experts have been sloppy in investigating the crash site and that Europeans are more interested in establishing a tribunal for MH17 than “correcting their own mistakes.” It’s hard to say which of those claims is more insulting to the memories of MH17 victims. And yet, this story gets even more far-fetched.
4 RT Suggests MH17 Was Downed By An Israeli Python Missile
Forget about the bomb for a moment. Let’s return to the persistent Su-25 theory. In mid-July 2015, RT published a report from another unspecified “group of old-hand aviation security experts.” This report was supposedly “leaked” via someone’s private LiveJournal (a blogging platform popular in Russia). According to these “old-hand experts,” MH17 was hit by an Israeli Python missile fired from a Ukrainian Su-25, which was specifically refurbished to carry such missiles, since they are visually similar to Su-25’s native R-60 air-to-air missiles. Are you with us so far?
At first glance, the report looks impressive. It’s full of photos and diagrams and littered with enough numbers to overwhelm a casual reader. But once you study the report, you quickly see how brusquely it dismisses the painstakingly detailed BUK hypothesis and how it relies on the already debunked Su-25 story line.
RT correctly points out that the report is “yet another one among many other unofficial versions” about MH17. What it fails to mention is that the lion’s share of those unofficial versions has been spawned by Russia’s relentless media machine.
3 Komsomolskaya Pravda Publishes Fake CIA Phone Calls
Russian media wasn’t quite done with the “bomb aboard the plane” theory. Weeks after the original LifeNews publication, the theory mutated into a convoluted CIA plot. It went something like this: CIA agents planted an explosive device in the cockpit of MH17. Their intention was to blow up the plane in a false-flag operation and blame the pro-Russian separatists for the disaster. But the bomb was actually just a backup plan. The real plan was to deliver a BUK to the Ukrainians, who would then target MH17. When the BUK misfired, the onboard bomb was detonated using a satellite signal.
To support this claim, Komsomolskaya Pravda released a YouTube audio of two CIA agents discussing their master plan in a string of phone calls. The recording is so ludicrous that simply describing it doesn’t quite do it justice. One of the “agents” is confused about his identity, switching his accent from British to American. The dialogue itself is stilted and sounds less like a natural conversation and more like two voice actors reading a script. The story that these phone calls tell is worthy of a spy novel. Naturally, commenters didn’t hesitate to ridicule the audio, giving it “three out of five spy stars,” and calling it “the dumbest thing” they’ve heard.
2 Speculation That MH17 Was Actually The Missing MH370
Russian fringe site News2 published a bizarre conspiracy claim that there was never any MH17 to begin with. Instead, the plane that crashed over Ukraine was MH370, another Malaysian Boeing that disappeared over the Indian Ocean on March 8, 2014. According to this theory, MH370 was actually hijacked and taken to a US military base. Later, the plane was relocated to the Netherlands, where it took off with pilots who then jumped out wearing parachutes. Autopilot directed the plane all the way to Ukraine. There, the CIA blew it up in an attempt to frame Russia and start a major conventional war.
The main proof point of this theory is that the aircraft registration numbers look nearly identical: MH370’s registration number was 9M-MRO, while MH17’s was 9M-MRD. MH370 was allegedly repainted to mask this fact, which is allegedly proven by photos of the wreckage. Even though it really shouldn’t be necessary, people have actually spent time to carefully debunk the false claims.
Russia isn’t alone here. Variations of this version can be found on many conspiracy sites worldwide. However, it does appear that the story first originated on another Russian LiveJournal and was picked up by other Russian-language sites. Appallingly, this theory goes as far as to dismiss the real families of the MH17 victims, insisting that the media never showed us any specific relatives. (A simple Google search should be more than enough to refute that.)
“But wait a moment,” you may say, “how does this theory account for the people aboard MH17?” Well, that brings us to perhaps the most cynical claim of them all . . .
1 The Infuriating Claim That MH17 Was Filled With Corpses
Russian Spring—a pro-separatist site with the ironic tagline “Only verified information”—published an interview with the then-commander of separatist forces, Russian citizen and presumed GRU (Russian military intelligence) officer Igor Girkin. In that interview, Girkin said that the bodies at the crash site were not “fresh,” according to some of his sources. He also pointed out wild claims that some bodies had been drained of blood. As sickening as his claims were, they soon found a home on many dubious sites and served as a building block for the MH370 conspiracy theory.
It is noteworthy that Girkin himself was one of the first to celebrate the downing of what separatists first believed to be a Ukrainian An-26. Girkin announced the An-26 crash on his Vkontakte (Russian version of Facebook) page and stated, “We have warned them—not to fly in our sky!” His post was deleted soon after the plane turned out to be MH17, closely mimicking the LifeNews anchor’s sudden amnesia about the same event. The rest, as we have shown, is sad media circus history.
+ The ‘Ukrainian BUK’ Theory Deserves A Mention (Though Debunked)
For the sake of fairness, we should touch upon the more sensible version voiced by Russian defense firm Almaz-Antey. In their June 2015 presentation, the company conceded that the MH17 was most likely downed by a BUK. However, Almaz-Antey insisted that the launch site was to the south of a tiny settlement of Zaroshchenske, rather than in Snizhne (where the primary BUK theory places it).
The presentation heavily implied that the BUK belonged to the Ukrainian military. This claim relied on a number of assumptions. First, a BUK launch from Snizhne would be inconsistent with the type of damage sustained by MH17. Second, Zaroshchenske was controlled by Ukraine rather than the separatists. Third, there was a Ukrainian BUK in Zaroschenske. Fourth, the exact type of BUK missile used—9M38M1—was out of production since 1999 and could therefore not have come from Russia.
Russian media, including the English-language Sputnik website, widely circulated this presentation. This version also got a more thorough treatment outside of Russia, since it broadly coincided with the main BUK theory. Upon closer scrutiny, multiple journalists have debunked the “Ukrainian BUK” theory on all counts.
An open-source investigation by Bellingcat journalists showed that Zaroshchenske was not controlled by Ukraine and that no Ukrainian BUK was present at the site identified by Almaz-Antey. The same report also concluded that it was “highly unlikely” that a missile was launched from Zaroshchenske in the first place. A separate article from the same team took apart the claim that 9M38M1 missiles were not in use by Russia. In addition, the team has traced this specific type of missile to a Russian convoy seen in June 2014 close to the Ukrainian border.
In parallel, Pavel Kanygin, a journalist from Novaya Gazeta (one of Russia’s few remaining independent news sites), traveled to both Zaroschenske and Snizhne to conduct a series of personal interviews with the locals. Their accounts corroborated the fact that Zaroschenske was under separatist control and that no BUK was ever seen there.
Perhaps most damningly, Almaz-Antey’s presentation relied on satellite imagery originally provided by Russia’s Ministry of Defense (MoD). This imagery was later proven to be falsified and became part of a larger collection of MoD manipulations in an article called “Russia’s Colin Powell Moment.”
You can read more from Daniel on his humor blog.