Politics & Policy

From Russia with Lies

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Its media work overtime to attack Ukraine and the U.S. in the aftermath of the Malaysian-airliner crash.

It has been two weeks since Malaysia Airlines flight 17 was shot down over eastern Ukraine, and the Russian media continue to paint a picture of the horrific crash almost completely at odds with that of their Western counterparts. Rejecting any theory that lays responsibility at the feet of eastern Ukrainian separatists and their Russian sponsors, Kremlin-controlled outlets have instead opted to push stories disputing any and all evidence pointing to such a conclusion, all the while portraying Kiev and Washington as working nefariously together to damage Russia’s international standing.

True, some of the more farcical conspiracy theories — MH 17 was actually the vanished MH 370, the plane was full of corpses before it was shot down, it was all the work of the CIA — are no longer reported with the same gravitas and frequency as they were in the immediate aftermath of the crash. Some reports have even been deleted from state-controlled sites. Nevertheless, most of coverage devoted to MH 17 continues to center on what is portrayed as an American–Ukrainian disinformation campaign, one intent on blaming Russia at all costs.

Typical of the Russian media’s treatment of the crash was a long report run by Channel 1, a state-owned television network and news site similar in scale to the U.S.’s CBS or NBC. The report, which aired on Sunday, presents itself not as an opinion piece but as a straight-news examination of how “Kiev and Washington, not waiting for the results of the investigation of the Malaysian Boeing catastrophe, are trying to convince the whole world that only Russia is guilty.” All Ukrainian and American evidence pointing to pro-Russian separatists’ having shot down the plane is dismissed as little more than unfounded Internet rumors that “clash with the facts.” The report goes on to quote Leonid Reshetnikov, the director of the Russian Institute for Strategic Studies, established “to provide information support to the Administration of the President of the Russian Federation.” “When you lie,” Reshetnikov explains, “it’s necessary to do so energetically, aggressively, and without abandon. The Ukrainian authorities continually demonstrate this.”

In the version of the report aired on television, Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko is shown speaking only English in a CNN interview. This has long been a tactic employed by the Russian media to paint pro-Western or opposition leaders as American stooges or puppets. To the extent that they are ever covered by the state-controlled outlets, prominent oppositionists such as Garry Kasparov have been for the most part shown speaking English as well. In turn, Kremlin-controlled channels are careful to never show President Putin or former president Dmitri Medvedev in such a “compromising” situation.

Coverage such as Channel 1’s is par for the course. Another report published Tuesday by the Kremlin-controlled outlet Russia Today (RT) cited the “expert” commentary of former Soviet minister of civil aviation Oleg Smirnov, who contends that the investigation is being hindered not by pro-Russian separatists but by Ukrainian forces. Even though it is the separatists who currently control the crash site, it is in fact Ukraine that is deliberately delaying the investigation and destroying evidence — because they already know who shot down the plane. (Hint: In Smirnov’s telling, it wasn’t the Russian-sponsored separatists.)

To the extent that possible repercussions for Russia following the catastrophe are reported, it has also been through the context of an anti-Western, pro-Russian angle. Sanctions against Russia in the wake of the crash, for example, seem to be covered exclusively in the context of American and Western European bankers and businessmen fearing adverse economic effects from any potential lack of clarity in their wording.

This is not to say that the Russian media portray all Americans in a negative light. On the contrary, RT, Channel 1, and other state-controlled outlets and news sites have approvingly quoted director Oliver Stone, who recently took to his Facebook page to promote two articles offering “alternative” theories of the crash, saying that they “probe deeper than [America’s] propagandizing fourth estate.”

No word yet on whether Putin will mandate Stone’s Untold History of the United States as required reading for high-school students.

— Nat Brown is an associate editor of National Review Online.

Nat Brown is a deputy web editor at Foreign Affairs and a former deputy managing editor of National Review Online.

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