Monday

27th May 2019

Analysis

MH17: EU and Russia in 'mirror image' worlds

  • Russian state media have changed message on the air disaster

People in the EU and in Russia are living in “mirror image” worlds in terms of perceptions of the flight MH17 disaster.

The killing, in July 2014, of 298 mostly Dutch civilians over Ukraine came back into the spotlight on Tuesday (13 October), when a Dutch inquest published its conclusions.

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  • Previous Russian story, on Ukrainian air attack, debunked (Photo: 1tv.ru)

It said the airliner was shot down by a Russian-made Buk missile, without saying who fired it.

The inquest put victims’ relatives first, giving them its report in a closed briefing prior to holding a press conference.

EU institutions followed suit.

The EU foreign service, in a statement, said: “Those who lost their loved ones have the right to know the facts”.

The Dutch report corroborates the prevailing theory - that Russian forces shot down MH17 because they thought it was a Ukrainian military jet.

But the EU statement didn’t mention Russia, adding only: “States that are in a position to assist with the investigation and prosecution of those responsible must fully cooperate with the ongoing criminal investigation”.

It also published, on Twitter, an image of the victims’ memorial in Amsterdam airport.

Russian media and officials focused on technical issues.

They gave wide coverage to a press briefing, also on Tuesday, by Almaz-Antey, the Russian firm which makes Buks.

The company invited 250 journalists to its event, where it claimed, using mathematical formulas and videos of trial explosions, that the Buk model which hit MH17 has been out of production for 25 years.

It added the Buk was fired from an area which implies Ukraine did it.

The Russian foreign ministry said it has “repeatedly voiced misgivings about how the [Dutch] investigation was conducted”.

It said it’s blocking a UN probe into who fired the Buk because the envisaged UN inquest doesn’t square with its “proposals” on how to proceed.

Ukraine’s message was harder.

Its PM, as well as a former intelligence chief, said they have new evidence that Russian special services fired the Buk.

Mirror image

“We took very different approaches”, an EU source said.

“We focused on the moral principle that families need to know the truth. They [Russia] took a technical approach. Their approach is a technical blurring of reality”.

The EU contact said Russia’s media strategy has changed over the past 15 months.

In the immediate wake of the disaster, Russia’s top story was that the Ukrainian airforce did it in a false flag operation.

It also promulgated wilder theories - for instance, that the US intelligence service, the CIA, did it.

“They’ve stopped the conspiracy theories and acknowledged that MH17 was shot down by a Russian-made weapon. Now the debate is when it was produced or where it was fired from. So that’s a kind of progress”, the EU source said.

He added, however: “A clear majority of people in Russia don’t apportion any blame to Moscow, but they do to Kiev. In the EU, it seems to be the mirror image”.

Anton Shekhovtsov, a scholar of propaganda at Legatum, a British think tank, agreed.

He said Russia’s initial media strategy was “to confuse everybody”.

But when the Ukraine airforce story was debunked, it switched to technical details as “a last line of defence”.

“They have repositioned themselves to be in line with the major international investigation [that a Buk did it], while implying it came from Ukrainian-held territory”, he said.

He criticised what he called Ukraine’s MH17 “propaganda”, saying Kiev has no new evidence.

Why?

For his part, Alexey Levinson, from Levada, an independent Russian pollster, also said most Russian people think Ukraine shot down MH17, a “small proportion” think pro-Russia "militias" in east Ukraine did it, while “a few” believe the CIA theory.

The EU source said the main goal of Moscow’s communications is to justify blocking the UN probe.

Shekhovtsov said it concerns Russia’s image on the world stage.

“Passenger planes are sacred”, he told EUobserver. “When the Soviet Union, in 1983, accidentally shot down a Korean airliner it was a PR disaster for the regime”.

Levada's Levinson said MH17 is important for Russia’s broader narrative on the Ukraine war.

“Russia has said from the beginning that it’s not involved, that it’s an internal Ukrainian conflict, and that it's providing only humanitarian supplies”.

Syria

Shekhovtsov and Levinson noted that, Tuesday aside, Syria is now the main topic on Russian TV.

According to Levada, 72 percent of Russian people approve Russia’s bombing of “terrorists” in Syria.

Meanwhile, Russian leader Vladimir Putin’s approval rating rose one point to 84 percent last month.

Levinson said Russian media is trying to switch people's attention from Ukraine to Syria to “have something new and fresh”.

“But it isn’t so succesful. Syria is too far away and Ukraine is too close [to Russia] in many respects”.

Shekhovtsov disagreed.

“I think the Syria story appeals to the Russian audience and I find that frightening”, he said.

“Russia seems to be addicted to big news stories … so when the Syria campaign ends, Putin will think he needs another story to consolidate public opinion, to mobilise support”.

“If you look back on his presidency, there’s been a big crisis almost every year, so that Russian society is kept in a permanent state of mobilisation”.

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