BY JONATHAN EYAL, EUROPE CORRESPONDENT, Straits Times
EVERY international disaster produces its own stream of conspiracy theories. Some are silly but innocuous, such as stories that neither Elvis Presley nor Britain’s Princess Diana ever died. Others are more dangerous and enduring, such as claims that the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the United States were perpetrated by the US government.
But even by these rather low standards of human “ingenuity”, the scale and vicious nature of the myths woven in Russia about the destruction of Malaysia Airlines (MAS) Flight MH17 are breath- taking. For never before have so many conspiracy stories been created in such a short period of time and in such a brazen, cynical way.
The unusual twist in the case of the current MH17 disaster is that many of those who came up with conspiracy theories were not the usual collection of cranky individuals who pop up after any major disaster but, rather, mainstream Russian commentators.
And they did not have to struggle to be heard: Their conspiratorial ideas were picked up and re-broadcast by Russia’s state-controlled media. This was an industry of smears tolerated at the highest political level.
STILL, the methods to which Russian conspirators resorted are by now quite familiar.
The first technique – used by myth-makers worldwide – is to latch on to a strange coincidence of events in order to claim that everything must be suspect.
“How can you explain the fact that Malaysia Airlines already lost a plane only a few months ago and has yet to find it?” asked a commentator on Russia’s Channel 2 TV.
“We remind you that this is not the first extraordinary situation regarding a passenger plane above the territory of Ukraine. Thirteen years ago, a Ukrainian anti-aircraft missile shot down a Sibir Airlines plane,” intoned a stern reader on the Rossiya-1 main TV evening news bulletin.
In both cases, the events referred to were correct, but their juxtaposition with the current MH17 tragedy was bogus.
It was designed to imply that either MAS has a habit of losing planes, or that the Ukrainian government has made a habit of shooting them down. The fact that Russia itself actually has a longer history of shooting down civilian aircraft was, of course, never mentioned.
A more effective method to start a conspiracy theory is to base it on observations which, in themselves, are irrelevant but, put together, suddenly acquire the status of “proof”.
That is what has happened with the most potent myth to date about Flight MH17: that the plane was shot down by the Ukrainians because it was mistaken for the aircraft of Russian President Vladimir Putin.
‘Similarity’ to Putin’s plane
THE entire conspiracy story is based on two random observations. The first is that both the MAS planes and Mr Putin’s jet are painted with similar thin stripes of red, white and blue along their fuselages. The second is that both Flight MH17 and Mr Putin’s aircraft flew over Ukraine’s airspace at about the same time last Thursday afternoon.
But this yarn does not stand up to even casual scrutiny.
The shape, size and “footprint” of the two-engine MAS Boeing 777 is entirely different from that of Mr Putin’s Russian-manufactured, four-engine jet. Mr Putin’s aircraft has the word “Russia” emblazoned across it in large Cyrillic letters, while MAS planes have the word “Malaysia” painted over them in Latin script.
In short, the differences between the aircraft are far more numerous and important than the one similarity of one multi-coloured stripe, an inconvenient fact which the conspirators conveniently ignore.
Furthermore, although Mr Putin’s plane did cross Ukrainian airspace, it did so farther to the north of the country. There was no purpose for Mr Putin to be anywhere near the area where the attack on MH17 took place, for the very simple reason that the spot of the tragedy was in the southern part of Ukraine, while Mr Putin’s jet headed sharply north, towards Moscow.
And, most importantly, at a cruising altitude of 10km, aircraft are not identified by the colour of their livery, but by radars and electronic signals; the idea that someone could have mistaken planes because of their colours is only credible for those who know nothing of the military.
If Ukraine was after assassinating Mr Putin – in itself a dubious idea – it would not have looked for him in another part of the country, and it would have tried to spot the plane by other means than just looking with binoculars for the colours painted on its tailfin.
Undaunted, however, conspiracy theories continue to multiply, even though not even a week has passed since the tragedy.
The most obscene of all these stories is probably that put forward by Mr Igor Strelkov, rebel leader of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic in Ukraine, who claimed that Flight MH17 was “full of dead bodies” before it took off, and was guided by remote control to break up over Ukraine with the intention of “discrediting” the rebels.
This and many other “theories” were picked up and broadcast by Russia’s national television as though they were legitimate points of view.
And not to be undone, Russia’s state institutions swung into action with the aim of feeding even more conspiracies. Computers belonging to Russia’s state broadcasting authority were caught trying to amend the Wikipedia entry for the MH17 disaster so that it suggested that the Ukrainians were the culprits.
MEANWHILE, the Russian Defence Ministry claimed earlier this week that it has “proof” of the presence of Ukrainian jets in the “vicinity” of the MH17, and called upon the US to release “all” the spying satellite information it allegedly has about the airliner’s tragedy.
By issuing this challenge, Russian officials know that they cannot lose. If the Americans refuse to supply the requested information, Washington would be accused of having something to hide. But if the US releases some information, this could be dismissed as tainted or incomplete. The Russians want the US to prove a negative, to show that there was no plot over the stricken airliner. It is, of course, an absurd request.
But all these rather sordid games have one main purpose: to encourage the creation of an even larger number of conspiracy stories in order to stifle any proper investigation about the culprits.
By the time an international committee of inquiry is established, the number of claims and counter-claims will be so huge that nobody would either believe or even notice what the official inquiry concludes.
Soviet leader Josef Stalin once memorably remarked about his country that “it does not matter how people vote; it matters who does the counting”. Mr Putin is continuing this tradition by assuming that facts are unimportant – the only thing that matters is who spins the narrative.