On 17 July 2014 a missile struck the regularly scheduled Malaysian Airlines flight from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur causing it to crash. All 298 passengers and crew perished. There were no survivors. The missile which destroyed the plane was launched from a Russian BuK air-defense system positioned somewhere near the village Snizhne in rebel controlled Ukraine. The crew which served the BuK were at least trained by Russians, and possibly Russian themselves. The rebels who held the territory that the missile was fired from were led by Russian intelligence officers. When they were hard pressed they were aided by regular Russian army units that crossed the border to reinforce them. And, after it completed its deadly work, the carriage upon which the missile was conveyed returned to Russia.
The entire effort leading up to and following the destruction of Malaysian Airlines flight Mh17 was orchestrated by Russia as part of their continuing policy of aggression towards their neighbors. For years the Russian government has been operating by the principle that the strong deserve to dominate the weak, and that strength is best expressed through the application of violence. Upon these principles they set out to annex the Crimea and sow war in the Donbass region of Ukraine. Mh17 was not an intentional target, but its destruction and the murder of all those on-board was the natural consequence of a duplicitous foreign policy that seeks national advantage no matter the cost to others.
That day when they destroyed the Malaysian Airlines flight, Russia’s rebel proxies actually found cause to celebrate. They had only just received their advanced new weapon from across the border, and they were excited to put it to use. Without much indigenous support or an air force of their own, the Russian-backed militias in the Donbass had been increasingly hard-pressed trying to hold the territory that they had staked out as Novorossiyan. However, the addition of new anti-aircraft missile systems to their arsenal promised to even the odds. They had even succeeded in downing a Ukrainian military transport plane just prior to their destruction of the civilian airliner.
As such they thought that they’d struck proverbial gold. In the days just before they shot down the Mh17 flight a rebel affiliated social media account posted photos of the BuK as a sort of warning to their Ukrainian opponents. Soon after it was targeted, Igor Girkin neé Strelkov — a local commander and agent of the Russian intelligence services — attached videos of smoke billowing from the crash site to a triumphant post on social media so as to claim victory over what he thought was an An-26 transport plane like the one that they had previously destroyed. He wrote “we warned them not to fly through our airspace.” Hours later he deleted the post.
The first video from the crash site itself shows rebels arriving with the expectation that they would find military wreckage. Behind the camera someone is on the phone with his commander to confirm that he’s reached the site but, confused by what he sees, he asks if there isn’t another plane. He states that it’s a civilian passenger plane that he’s seeing and the call ends. Off camera other rebels question whether this could be a plane other than the one they shot down. At first they rationalize that it’s a fighter, a Sukhoi as the Su-series fighters are called, but as their confusion deepens they wonder aloud whether there must have been multiple planes shot down. Once it becomes clear that there was only the one, and that it was a civilian passenger jet, they begin searching through luggage, hiding identifying features, and attempting to locate the black box, all as a part of an effort to cover up their crime.
Despite claiming that they had nothing to hide, the rebels then made every effort to hide the site from public scrutiny. In the days after the crash the international investigators that arrived to conduct autopsies and examine the wreckage were blocked by tens of heavily armed and masked rebels. After a tense standoff they were driven away by the apparent rebel commander as he fired warning shots around them. Even when investigators managed to gain nominal freedom to come and go as they needed they were often hindered by periodic fighting or by simple refusal to allow them to pass checkpoints.
Though the black box flight recorder was found at most three days after the plane went down, it was not handed over to Malaysian authorities until two days after that. In the interim, the Ukrainian intelligence services were conducting an investigation of their own. Beginning the day of the crash, they intercepted a number of phone calls between rebel commanders and their subordinates, the dialogue of which betrays the high level of coordination between the rebels on the ground and their controllers in Moscow.
The first is a conversation between the former Soviet soldier Igor Bezler and his Russian handler Colonel Vasyl Mykolaiovych Geranin. Calling just thirty minutes after the crash, Bezler informs Colonel Geranin that Igor Strelkov’s group had shot down a plane. Still under the impression that it was a military flight, he is directed to find the pilots. At about the same time two other rebels identified only by their nicknames discuss what’s just happened, and one relates his conclusion that “we are completely sure that it was a civilian plane.” The other wants to know if there were any weapons found. No, is the response. Any identifying documents? Yes, but only those of civilians.
An hour later, a different militant makes contact with Nikolai Ivanovich Kozitsyn — an ataman of the Russian Don Cossacks and a commander among the rebel forces. Kozitsyn is told that it was a civilian plane that was destroyed, that “there are a whole lot of bodies of women and children,” and that his Cossacks are conducting further searches. The man who called him then recalls that Russian television was reporting that it was a Ukrainian An-26 transport plane like Igor Strelkov had supposed, but that Malaysian Airlines was clearly written on the fuselage. Kozitsyn’s response is that the shootdown was nonetheless justified, because “they were bringing spies” and he wonders rhetorically “why the hell were they flying? There is a war going on.”
The next days that followed were then suffused by a certain urgency on the rebels’ part to control as much evidence as possible so as to dictate the narrative about what occurred. Because it was impossible for them to claim that the Mh17 flight was a legitimate target, their hope lay in disguising their responsibility by obfuscating the situation through lies and misdirection. It was to this end that Alexander Khodakovsky, an associate of Igor Strelkov, was on the phone on 18 July.
In conversations recorded by the Ukrainian Security Service, he discusses the need to secure the crash site and the evidence therein with a number of other rebels. He specifically asks after “the black boxes,” and insists that they be found urgently because “Moscow asks where the boxes are.” In a second call he then emphasizes that “our friends from high above are very much interested in the fate of the ‘black boxes,’” and clarifies that he means “people from Moscow.” Speed is needed, he warns, so that they don’t fall into someone else’s hands since “all those people that are coming, [the investigators from] the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe and so on.” Finally he calls the first number back and answers a question about what to do with something that’s been found: a “satellite navigation block” as it’s described. He answers “hide it anyways, who knows how they [the black boxes] are disguised.”
Despite this attempt at deception, Alexander Khodakovsky was not always so circumspect. Five days after he made the intercepted phone calls, he sat down to interview with Reuters and acknowledged that the rebel groups possessed a weapon of the same type that destroyed the airliner. In contradictory arguments he at once faulted Ukraine for the tragedy by saying that they knew the rebels had been reinforced with air defense systems and therefore provoked the destruction of the civilian airliner by continuing to bomb rebel positions regardless, while also claiming that the rebels’ BuK missile system had been far away in Luhansk on the day of the crash. However, because his admission that the rebels possessed a BuK contradicted the Kremlin party line that no such weapons were present in the Ukraine, Alexander Khodakovsky attempted to retract his statement and name Reuters as liars. Reuters then released an audio recording of the interview that confirmed the truth of their reporting.
Against the mounting evidence that it was their rebels who had destroyed the airplane, Russia’s response was to turn again towards the familiar practice of lying. Immediately after the destruction of Mh17, Vladimir Putin made a statement blaming Ukraine for the tragedy by saying that “without doubt the government of the territory on which it happened bears responsibility” — totally neglecting to mention that Ukraine did not control the territory because of the Russian backed insurgency. For months afterwards, and unto this day, the Kremlin has maintained that Ukraine was somehow responsible for destroying Mh17. When asked to provide evidence of their claims Russia has declined. They have instead chosen to present a cavalcade of fanciful alternative theories.
For years the Russian government has even been unwilling to concede that it was a surface launched missile which brought the plane down. In a press conference on 21 July, the head of the Main Operations Directorate of Russia’s military forces Lieutenant-General Andrey Kartopolov claimed that a Ukrainian Su-25 fighter was flying near Mh17 at the same time and at the same height. This claim was made despite the fact that the Su-25 has an operational ceiling of 7,000 meters when lightly loaded and Mh17 was flying at its cruising altitude of 10,000 meters.
Months later the Russian state even went to the trouble of staging a televised farce wherein a supposed witness to Ukrainian machinations appeared on camera with a disguised face and distorted voice to claim that he had seen a Su-25 take off from Aviatorske airport the day of the crash. This effort, disseminated through the state controlled Moscow media, followed an earlier, even more ridiculous production when Channel One broadcast poorly photoshopped satellite photos of a fighter jet closing to within hundreds of meters of the Mh17 flight in order to engage it with cannons. The images were intended to support Russia’s claim that the plane had been destroyed from the air.
Perhaps recognizing that the absurdity of this first claim could not be sustained, Lieutenant-General Kartopolov also presented satellite photos which supposedly showed Ukrainian BuKs in a position from which they could have fired upon the flight. This was done in order to insinuate that it was in fact the Ukrainian state which had targeted a civilian plane in their own attempt to discredit their rebel opponents.
However, the supplied satellite evidence was a complete fabrication, as was the radar evidence which accompanied it. The Bellingcat team of investigative journalists conducted an independent forensic examination of the supplied images, and after they commissioned satellite time of their own they were able to prove that Russia’s images were not taken on the claimed dates and were also otherwise digitally altered. Discrepancies include parked vehicles inexplicably changing position, as well as major differences in local geography and vegetation to the point that the Russian Ministry of Defence’s imagery can be confirmed to have been taken before July 2nd — weeks before Mh17 was destroyed.
That the Russian state would attempt such a blatant deception is unfortunately unsurprising. Obstinate refusal to deal with the world truthfully is their foreign policy. Always some other explanation, always someone else to blame. In Crimea, for example, the Russian annexation was preceded by the sudden appearance of hundreds of armed soldiers in green uniforms without insignia. They arrived by helicopter and with heavy weapons including armored personnel carriers, and they immediately moved to seize the regional parliament building as well as airports in the vicinity of Simferopol. They were also curiously mute, and they resisted speaking with any media.
Given their equipment and coordinated action as well as their apparent objectives, it was clear from the beginning that these soldiers were Russian. Nonetheless Russia denied any knowledge or connection to them, instead choosing to characterize them as local patriots who rose up of their own accord while miraculously armed to the teeth. At a press conference in Madrid on 5 March 2014, the Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov said that “these are self-defense forces, which were created by the population of Crimea, we do not give them any orders, they receive no orders from us.” Variations of that sentiment were repeated for months as Russia continued to deny against all evidence that they had had anything to do with the Crimea’s annexation. Then, a year later Vladimir Putin abruptly admitted that the so-called “little green men” had “of course” been “our servicemen.”
It’s also quite typical that the Russian organs of state were making contradictory claims simultaneously as Lieutenant-General Kartopolov did when he said that he had evidence that the Mh17 flight was destroyed by a Ukrainian jet but also a Ukrainian surface to air missile. Their preferred method of argumentation is in the gish-gallop style. There is no regard for the truth of the matter (since truth was never the objective) nor even for consistency or plausibility (because convincing someone is a happy accident rather than a goal). Rather, the aim is to simply flood out genuine interest with a wave of confusing claims, and to make so many so quickly that refutations can never keep up or be heard above the din.
The goal of these trolls is not to elevate the Russian narrative to the level of legitimate discussion. To do so in an impossibility. Rather, they intend to sow confusion so as to erode trust in the very notion of truth itself. Dissension, division, doubt. Those are their goals, and their tools are coordinated mass media campaigns, the only purpose of which is to cheapen public discourse and faith in institutions by brazenly repeating pernicious lies.
In St. Petersburg, Russia, there is a cold faced concrete building where this worked is carried out. Known as ‘The Agency,’ it is a workplace of sorts, but what it produces is purely ethereal. Hundreds of employees sit down every day to flood social media and search engines with pre-planned propaganda. One day it is invented stories about fascist coups in Kiev, the next brings lies about fake terror attacks in the United States, or stories intended to stoke racial and political tension. Although one story may be contradicted by the next, it doesn’t matter so long as the contradictions serve to stoke fear and distrust. Because the Russian state operates according by the capricious rules of deceit, and because they are unwilling to engage faithfully with the international community, they must employ these underhanded tactics. Their goal, again, is not to disguise their own faults. Instead they serve the pretense that everyone else is just as bad.
If but the world could live in peace, with no greed nor hunger; a brotherhood of man with nothing to kill or die for, then we would have no need for governments or the politicians that populate them. If we could all just get along, then it would be so easy to come together and agree about the shape of the world and what its future should be. Of course peace is the outcome that anyone with an interest in justice and human rights should hope for. No one can be blamed for that ambition. However, whatever utopian hopes we might harbor, they must always be tempered by the reality of the world. As has been the case since time immemorial, bad actors abound, and they conduct their business with ill-intent and through duplicitous means. The government of Russia, and Vladimir Putin specifically, will never be peaceful partners until they themselves embrace the concept of peace.
President Donald Trump does not want to admit as much. He speaks disinterestedly about his relationship with Russia and Putin as if it were a trifling thing, and he bats away questions about their conduct as unworthy. Despite bragging in the past that he had a great relationship with Vladimir Putin, and despite populating his campaign and government with similarly associated figures like Carter Page, Michael Flynn, and Paul Manafort, he and his representatives have lied that they have no connection whatsoever to Russia or its government.
They’re also lying to themselves about, or at least are ambivalent to, the danger that Russia’s behavior poses. Their disregard for the Ukraine and the Baltic states only invites further Russian aggression. The excuse they offer; that it’s not the United States’ business to care, reads like a transcript from prior centuries when European powers were carving the world into spheres of influence. The thought was that there would be room enough for all the so-called great powers to exercise their might without intruding upon the others. It was false then as it is now. Their arrogance supposed that by inherent right some nations should dominate others, and that aggressive war was a legitimate tool of diplomacy.
Ultimately, because the European powers accepted war as just another transaction between states, their international system was doomed to end in calamity. By tolerating the principle of conquest in some places in hope of detente in others, the Europe neglected the difficult process of building the sort of robust international system that can sustain negotiated settlements. Instead, they favored one that operated on expediency. The tacit agreements and secret alliances that were made to secure temporary power in an ever shifting web of obligation fostered rivalries and distrust which collapsed into disaster on the battlefields of the First World War. Though Gavirio Princip’s assassins were the match which sparked the flame, Europe was already a roiling cauldron of international discontent, and it was made that way by the fact that the powers of the time had gotten used to exercising violence to get their way.
Since the end of the Second World War, however, the world has at least expressed an ambition to be better. The first charge of indictment at Nuremburg was not crimes against humanity, but rather belligerence in war. Having witnessed the carnage that had thus far marked the 20th century, the countries of the world resolved to see an end to it. At least in rhetoric, if not always in action, the world has vowed that each nation shall have the right to decide their own destinies so long as they do not trespass against another.
There is no claim here that modern diplomacy is perfect by comparison to the past. As Donald Trump would no doubt be happy to point out, the United States has all too often acted as an imperfect advocate for justice, peace, and equality. The same can be said about any country in the world. It should come as no surprise that politicians might say one thing while doing another, especially if they think it’ll advance the national interest. To acknowledge our own deficiencies is not, however, a concession of the real differences between governments as defined by the intent, scale, and outcome of the actions they take.
The argument otherwise, that there are no differences, is just a frustrating repetition of the argumentative whataboutism that’s long been the Kremlin’s favored tool for obfuscating fault and spreading doubt. Has Russia done wrong? Who are you to say! You are not perfect yourself! Under the baleful gaze of whataboutism, criticism is a thing left only for saints. The whataboutist would have you solve all the world’s ills before permitting you to comment on them.
And it’s there that Donald Trump’s recent remarks are most troubling. If Putin is a killer, he says, then so are Americans. Unilateral moral disarmament in a single sentence. As Jake Sullivan writes in Foreignpolicy, “America isn’t perfect, but it is principled. We care about freedom and equality and decency. We (mostly) try to do the right thing — and when we don’t, Americans hold their country to account.” In other words, we aspire. Donald Trump though, which his happy acceptance of false equivalencies, would sooner let us fester. His attitude is indifference, and it is born somewhere between disbelief that anything we do really matters at all, and a cynical detachment from the struggles of daily life such that can only be possessed by the obscenely rich.
Though it might wound his ego to admit it, Donald Trump must recognize that our rivalry with Russia is not merely political. They have shown active disdain for even the principle of peace. They have lied without fear, because they don’t care if they’re believed. The kleptocratic regime which has taken over their state operates according to principles that are incompatible with the trust that is necessary for the negotiation that Donald Trump prides himself on. What, after all, is the point of concluding treaties and agreements which the other side feels no obligation to honor? Why will appeasement serve us now, when it has always failed in the past? Affability is not a virtue. Vigilance is.