According to Russian state television, flight MH17 was shot down by Ukrainian government forces who believed they were targeting Vladimir Putin’s jet returning from a summit in Brazil. An unnamed Spanish air traffic controller allegedly overheard two Ukrainian fighter pilots talking about the secret operation at Kiev’s Boryspil Airport. Ukrainian jets were supposedly seen tailing the doomed flight just before it exploded. Or, no — the plane was actually downed by a surface-to-air rocket fired from Kiev-controlled territory. Russian spy satellites recorded the whole incident, apparently. Sorry, scratch that: according to the Donbas Republic’s self-declared minister of defence, Igor Girkin (nom de guerre Igor Strelkov), the Malaysian Boeing was actually filled with dead bodies. ‘A significant number of the bodies weren’t fresh’ when they fell from the sky, Strelkov told Russian TV viewers. He also claimed that many of them had been ‘drained of blood’ and ‘stank of decomposition because they had been dead for days’. The whole incident was a plot cooked up by Kiev to discredit the separatists. ‘They are capable of any baseness,’ he said.
Indeed: the Kremlin-controlled media seem capable of any baseness in their rush to deflect blame and scramble the minds of their audience with conspiracy theories. Russia’s official media have been bending the truth to order for decades — apart from a brief and chaotic respite in the 1990s. But in recent months Vladimir Putin’s propaganda machine has gone to a new level of credibility–defying cynicism. The kind of stories it is prepared to create to obscure the truth of what happened to MH17 — and what’s going on in Ukraine in general — have left the realm of spin and entered the fantastical.
Last week, Russian TV viewers were horrified by a report from Russian Channel One’s Rostov-on-Don bureau on atrocities apparently committed by the Ukrainian army. A hollow-cheeked blonde woman in her thirties, introduced as Galina Pyshnyak, ‘a refugee from Slavyansk’, recounted how she had witnessed Ukrainian army soldiers crucifying a three-year-old boy before dragging his mother around Lenin Square behind a tank. A horrific story to which she was apparently the only eyewitness. But sharp-eyed viewers recognised the ‘refugee’ as actress Galina Astapenko from Obukhov, near Kiev, whose husband Dmitry Pyshnyak is a former member of the notorious Berkut paramilitary police unit (since disbanded by the government in Kiev) who is now fighting with separatists in Donbass.
According to recent posts on her social networking page, Astapenko is enjoying summer with her own children. And there is no Lenin Square in Slavyansk. Television gossip credits the ‘crucifixion’ scenario to Yulia Chumakova, Channel One’s Rostov bureau chief, who is apparently a big fan of Game of Thrones — where the terrible sight of a crucified child at the beginning of the fourth season moves the blonde Daenerys Stormborn to tears.
Russian state TV has also convinced its viewers that the newly elected government in Kiev is dominated by ‘fascists’ (though far right parties polled around 4 per cent), and that the ‘self-defence forces’ in eastern Ukraine are preventing a ‘genocide’ of ethnic Russians by the Ukrainian army. Most bizarrely, they have convinced the Russian people that censorship itself is normal and good. In a recent poll by the Moscow-based FOM, 72 per cent of respondents in 42 Russian regions were ‘indifferent’ to the idea of media censorship, and 54 per cent said that the government had the ‘right to distort information for the good of the country’ — up from under 30 per cent a year ago. And though a large number of young Russians get their information from the internet, state television’s prejudices and worldview translate online too — in a recent poll by the liberal online paper Slon.ru, 43 per cent of respondents had a negative view of the Kiev government.
Interestingly, Putin himself has carefully avoided actually lying. He’s appeared twice on national television — the second time at half-past one in the morning, to coincide with the prime-time evening news in the US — to say that MH17 would not have been shot down if Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko had made peace. Technically, of course, he is right. But that is like saying that the accidental sinking of the Lusitania by a German U-boat in 1915 — the tragedy which brought the United States into the first world war — was Britain’s fault because Britain had failed to make peace with Germany. That twisted logic is typical of Putin’s KGB training — and in fact, deliberately spreading disinformation is a recognised KGB technique systematically taught to all officers. Fill the information space with crazy conspiracy theories and lies and enough people will believe you that the real picture will never become clear.
Always blame Ukraine — according to Sara Firth, who was until recently a reporter for the Kremlin-funded English language RT television (formerly Russia Today), it’s even part of the channel’s official guidance on how to report a story. Firth resigned last Friday after five years at RT after her editors ‘disrespected the facts’ of MH17. ‘I walked into the newsroom and they were running an eyewitness account of God-knows-who blaming the Ukrainian government,’ Firth told Press Gazette. ‘I was asked to burn the facts.’ RT — which has made a name for itself by reporting on homelessness in America, interviewing Hugo Chavez, covering conspiracy theories about Barack Obama’s real place of birth and hiring Julian Assange as a current affairs presenter — responded that Firth and the channel ‘have different definitions of truth’.
Burning the facts and changing definitions of the truth — to the Kremlin, those are perfectly legitimate weapons in a tooth-and-nail information war being fought both at home and abroad. The aim of this campaign is not just improved public relations but, in an updated version of Stalin’s dictum, to ‘engineer men’s souls’. Control what people believe, and you control how they behave.
Tragically, the empire of lies that Putin has created has real-world consequences. The rebels fighting in Donbass genuinely believe they are protecting their families from fascism. A frighteningly high proportion of Russians — including many intelligent and well-travelled Russian friends who should really know better — are convinced that the US is hell-bent on destroying their country. Propaganda works: and when it does, it truly does become a weapon that creates and sustains shooting wars.
As the evidence about the downing of MH17 points more and more clearly to a tragic blunder by inexperienced pro-Russian separatists using deadly rockets supplied by Moscow, the Kremlin’s spin machine has gone into a different gear. Western Sovietologists used to call it ‘whataboutism’ — ask about the invasion of Afghanistan and the Soviets would reply, ‘What about Northern Ireland?’ The latest permutation of this is: what about the Iranian airliner shot down by the Americans in 1983? What about a Russian civilian airliner accidentally destroyed by bungling Ukrainian troops in 2001? And — to charges that Russian media have lied — what about Iraqi WMD? Don’t talk to us about lying: your leaders lied, and the western press parroted the lies. The message is: you’re just as dishonest as us, but just more hypocritical with your high-minded notions of a free press.
Last week the Dutch Prime Minister said that Putin had ‘one last chance to do the right thing’ by allowing investigators on the scene. He might have added that Putin has one last chance to stop insulting the intelligence of the world with his obfuscation. But taking control of Russia’s independent media was the first thing Putin did when he came to power. His hold on the Kremlin depends on him being able to brainwash his people into believing his view of the world — which in the aftermath of MH17 just became more distorted than ever.
Owen Matthews is the author of Glorious Misadventures and Stalin’s Children, and a former Moscow bureau chief for Newsweek.