Russians awoke on Friday to news reports that bumbling Ukrainian troops had shot down a Malaysia Airlines jet after mistaking it for President Vladimir Putin’s official plane. Another theory: The Ukrainians intentionally shot down the jet at close range as a “planned provocation.” Or maybe there wasn’t a crash at all, and the bodies were those of passengers from Malaysia Air flight M370, which disappeared in March.
Most of these weird news reports aren’t coming from tabloids or fringe websites. They’re coming from Russia’s leading news outlets, which are almost entirely under state control. The report on the mistaken identification of Putin’s plane, for example, aired on Channel One, the country’s most popular TV network. The journalists never explained why the Ukrainians might have thought Putin was in the neighborhood, since he was attending a well-publicized summit in Brazil on the day of the crash.
State-owned news agency ITAR-TASS, meanwhile, put out a report disputing suggestions that separatist rebels may have hit the plane with a Buk surface-to-air missile. It quoted a spokesman for the rebels as saying they had no weapons capable of shooting down an airliner at 33,000 feet—overlooking that ITAR-TASS itself had previously reported that the rebels had seized Buk missiles from a Ukrainian military installation.
Someone at state-run All-Russia State Television & Radio Broadcasting even appears to have edited a Russian-language Wikipedia article on plane crashes today, to say that the plane “was shot down by Ukrainian soldiers.”
And Sara Firth, a London-based correspondent for Russia’s international TV network RT, said today that she was quitting because RT was spreading “shockingly obvious misinformation.” She’s the second RT journalist to leave this year while accusing the Kremlin of shaping the network’s news coverage.
To outsiders, Russian media coverage of the Ukraine crisis may seem far-fetched, conspiracy-laden, and contradictory. But it’s effectively convinced Russians that the Ukrainian rebels need their help to fight brutal repression by Kiev. “Aggressive and deceptive propaganda, worse than anything I witnessed in the Soviet Union,” is how Lev Gudkov, director of the Levada polling group, described it to the BBC last month. Indeed, Levada surveys show that most Russians think their country should be doing more to support the rebels, including direct military intervention in Ukraine.
Until now, this has helped Putin withstand a storm of international criticism and sanctions that risk harming Russia’s ailing economy. Yet the inflamed public opinion could also make it harder for Russia to back away from the rebels if investigators find that they shot down a civilian aircraft with 298 people on board. Putin may find that his support for the rebellion has unleashed an “uncontrollable force,” says Angela Stent, director of the Center for Eurasian, Russian and East European Studies at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service.
“As pro-Putin media and social network trolls invent increasingly fantastical versions” of the crash, writes Bloomberg View columnist Leonid Bershidsky, “Russia risks becoming a pariah even to developing countries that have sympathized with its anti-American stance.”
A major source of questionable information about the crisis has come from state-controlled Channel One. The network recently drew condemnation for a report claiming Ukrainian troops had crucified a small boy by nailing him to a billboard in the city of Slavyansk. No other news organization could find witnesses to the incident, which Channel One said took place before a crowd in the city’s central square. Among other dubious elements in the report was a glaring issue: There’s no billboard in Slavyansk’s central square.
In its Friday report on the Ukrainians’ allegedly mistaking the Malaysia Air jet for Putin’s plane, Channel One said the Boeing 777 could be confused with the Ilyushin II-96 used by the Russian president if seen from a distance. It would be hard to mistake them close-up, however, since the Ilyushin has four engines and the Boeing has two. Not to mention the Russian presidential insignia and other differentiating marks that would be easily visible at close range. Yet in a separate report, Channel One suggested that a Ukrainian fighter jet might have shot down the plane and even offered quotes from villagers near the crash site saying another plane had been flying alongside the Boeing before the explosion.
Out in Russian cyberspace, the theories get even weirder. One of the most fanciful contends that no crash occurred and that the scene was staged with corpses from the earlier Malaysia Air flight, which were sprinkled with fake passports and other items to throw investigators off the trail.
The media have “juggled different versions: Ukrainian fighter, Ukrainian rocket attack on Putin, and so on,” columnist Oleg Kashin writes on the Russian-language Free Press website. “The more versions there are, the less clear it is, and the more time there is to work out the final version that will become canonical.”