When Dealing With Putin's Russia, Distrust and Verify

Where there's smoke, there's fire.

Photographer: Freek van den Bergh/Getty Images

Surprising no one, the official investigation of the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 over Ukraine in 2014 has concluded that Russia was behind the incident, which killed 298 people. In so doing, the report also highlights one of the most powerful weapons in holding Russia to account, whether in eastern Ukraine or Syria: the radical transparency made possible by social media and the internet.

In addition to forensic reports, interviews and classified intelligence, the team of investigators drew on material surfaced by civilian open-source sleuths into the plane's downing -- images from Twitter, traffic camera footage and the like. The report establishes that, Russian claims to the contrary, the jet was brought down by a missile launcher sent from Russia into Ukraine at the request of pro-Russian rebels.

Three years ago, these citizen journalists helped bring the Syrian regime's use of chemical weapons to wider public attention. In recent weeks, they have also delved into the attack on a United Nations-sponsored humanitarian aid convoy, using open-source information to counter Russia's claims that it was not closely tracking the convoy and to document that the trucks were the target of an airstrike.

The threat that this kind of information poses to Russia is exactly why it has worked so hard to control the internet within its borders, and to aggressively attack its critics and spread disinformation in the wider world through its version of "hybrid warfare." Russia's denials are so bald-faced they can take on a surreal quality, as when Russian officials claimed the humanitarian aid convoy spontaneously caught fire.

The best way to counter this kind of dissembling is to promote greater access to the internet and keep it as free as possible from meddling by autocratic governments. (This is a task that takes on new importance with the impending transition of internet governance away from what has, in effect, been U.S. trusteeship.) Lies may travel fast in the Information Age, but providing more people with the means to unearth and share accurate information will help ensure that, eventually, the truth will out.

In the meantime, the conclusions of the MH17 report offer a useful lesson about dealing with Russia under Vladimir Putin: Russia's version of the truth is whatever serves Russia's interests. So any agreement with Putin, whether on Ukraine or Syria, will always be worthless without some means to enforce it.

To contact the senior editor responsible for Bloomberg View’s editorials: David Shipley at davidshipley@bloomberg.net.