#PutinAtWar: Dismissing MH17

How the Kremlin responded to the latest MH17 charges

Headlines by Sputnik and RT on the latest MH17 findings. (Source: Sputnik / RT)

On May 24, 2018, a Dutch-led international investigation said that the weapon which downed Malaysian Airlines flight MH17 over Ukraine in July 2014 had been provided by a Russian military unit.

Kremlin and pro-Kremlin outlets were quick to launch a counter-offensive, denying any Russian involvement, and attacking the investigators and their methods.

Many Kremlin responses to criticism follow a pattern we term the 4 Ds: dismiss, distort, distract, and dismay. The latest response by the Russian government and its supporters to the MH17 charges used the first three techniques, but not, interestingly, the fourth.

Background and Evidence

MH17 was shot down on July 17, 2014, with the death of all 298 people on board. Russia has always denied any involvement, but in September 2016 the Joint Investigation Team (JIT) of criminal investigators from the Netherlands, Australia, Belgium, Malaysia and Ukraine said that they could prove MH17 was downed by a BUK-M1 missile of the 9M38 series.

At that stage, the JIT said that the missile had been brought into Ukraine from Russia, and fired from a field held by Russian-backed separatists, but did not give more precise detail on the source of the missile.

At a press conference on May 24, 2018, investigators said that they had concluded that the fatal missile “originated from the 53rd Anti-Aircraft Missile Brigade of the Russian armed forces.”

Sample detail of the BUK launcher. (Source: Bellingcat)

They based the identification on a number of images of the apparent weapon, which provided “many unique features,” together with “other findings such as witness evidence.” During the press conference, Wilbert Paulissen, the head of the National Criminal Investigation Service of the Netherlands Police, referred to the features as a “fingerprint, as it were,” of the weapon in question.

A selection of the “unique features” can be reviewed in this report by investigative team Bellingcat, which was the first to identify the weapon as coming from the 53rd Brigade.

The diplomatic repercussions were swift. The following day, Dutch Foreign Minister Stef Blok said, “On the basis of the JIT’s conclusions, the Netherlands and Australia are now convinced that Russia is responsible for the deployment of the Buk installation that was used to down MH17. The government is now taking the next step by formally holding Russia accountable.”

Dismiss

Russia’s response was to attack the JIT’s findings. In line with earlier incidents, the response used elements from the pattern we term “dismiss, distort, distract, dismay.”

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters that Russia “absolutely” denied the charge of involvement, and questioned the trustworthiness of the JIT itself — a classic way of implicitly dismissing its findings.

“Of course, without being able to be a full participant, Russia does not know to what extent the results of this work can be trusted,” said Peskov, according to Kremlin broadcaster RT.

Archived on May 25, 2018. (Source: RT)

A few hours later, Russian President Vladimir Putin complained that there were “different versions of the MH17 crash, but nobody takes them into account,” and that it was “certainly not” Russia which was responsible.

The Russian Defense Ministry was as categorical, saying in a statement reported by RT: “Not a single anti-aircraft missile system of the Russian Armed Forces has ever crossed the Russian-Ukrainian border.”

It, too, attacked the JIT’s credibility and said, “The Dutch investigators completely ignore and reject the testimony of eyewitnesses from the nearby Ukrainian communities.”

The Russian Foreign Ministry, meanwhile, called the JIT investigation “openly biased and lopsided,” and that it “completely ignored important evidence submitted by the Russian side.”

Kremlin broadcasters provided supporting criticism, as in so many cases like @DFRLab’s analysis of RT’s role as the “information weapon”, which can be found here. Kremlin outlet Sputnik, for example, headlined its main story, “Investigators: MH17 Downed by Missile Launcher ‘From Russia,’ Won’t Show Proof.”

In fact, the JIT showed a considerable volume of evidence, but withheld some to protect the ongoing investigation. The headlining of the alleged failure to provide proof appears designed to undermine the investigation’s credibility.

Sputnik headline on May 24, 2018, archived on May 25. (Source: Sputnik)

RT, meanwhile, wrote in its coverage of the Defense Ministry statement that the images put forward by the JIT had been “previously displayed by the infamous British online investigative activist group, Bellingcat,” and added that the JIT “essentially just repeated the conclusion made by Bellingcat a year ago.”

“Infamous” is a clearly pejorative term; “essentially just repeated” denigrates the JIT’s findings. Neither is presented as a direct quote from the Ministry statement; the decision to use them therefore appears as an editorial one.

RT also wrote that Bellingcat’s research had been “refuted by aviation experts, journalists and online activists.” It provided a hyperlink to an RT article dated to September 2016, which covered a report by an anonymous group called “anti-Bellingcat” attacking Bellingcat’s work.

The 2016 article linked to by RT’s piece of May 24, 2018, archived on September 21, 2016. (Source: RT)

As @DFRLab wrote at the time, the “anti-Bellingcat” group was in fact led by a Russian state employee in the arms industry, and an employee of a state-funded think tank with close ties to the rebels in Ukraine, and to Russian ultra-nationalists.

These official statements all served to undermine the legitimacy and credibility of the JIT’s approach, and thereby to dismiss its conclusions.

Distort

The second common technique is to distort the evidence, to make it easier to refute. Sputnik’s claim that the JIT “won’t show proof” is a good example.

The Defense Ministry also distorted the JIT’s findings. According to RT, its statement said that the JIT experts “should rely in their statements primarily on facts and witness testimony instead of products by fakemakers from Bellingcat or the SBU (Security Service of Ukraine).”

Thus, the Ministry represented the JIT as “relying on” evidence from Bellingcat and the Ukrainian Security Services.

In fact, Paulissen underlined that the JIT had not relied on Bellingcat’s findings, but verified them:

“Earlier, the investigation collective Bellingcat came up with the same conclusion.

“As a JIT, we carry out our own independent investigation and the conclusions we draw from that investigation must be based on legal and convincing evidence which, will stand in the courtroom. The collection of this evidence — and the validation thereof — must be done carefully and that takes a lot of time.

“We are convinced that our findings confirm the conclusion that the BUK-TELAR which was used, originated from the 53rd Brigade.”

A further possible case of distortion is a statement by Russian State Duma deputy Yury Shvytkin, the deputy head of the legislature’s Defense Committee, calling the JIT report “fake” because it referred to a “fingerprint.”

“How could they establish the fingerprints? They don’t have the sort of database that would allow them to identify (Russian soldiers’) biometric data. They’d have to have various sorts of expert analyses which would prove that the fingerprints belong to someone or other. And how could the fingerprints belong to a brigade? They ought to belong to one soldier,” Shvytkin said.

It is unclear whether his misinterpretation was accidental, or a deliberate distortion aimed at discrediting the JIT.

Distract

The distraction technique, often called “whataboutism,” usually consists of launching accusations against anyone who accuses the Kremlin of a specific crime or misdemeanour.

In this case, the Defense Ministry again came out with such an accusation, claiming that the JIT had been “solely using images from social networks that have been expertly altered with computer graphic editing tools.”

In fact, an investigation using the Tungstène suite of forensic tools carried out by defense blog armscontrolwonk.com in July 2016 showed that the Ministry itself had published photos which had been “significantly modified or altered” to claim that Ukraine was responsible.

A number of pro-Kremlin Twitter users also posted accusations that Ukraine was, after all, responsible. These include self-styled “pro-Russia Media-Sniper” @MarcelSardo, who tweeted a number of times on the subject:

Archived on May 25, 2018. (Source: Twitter / @marcelsardo)

While Sardo’s post cited a YouTube video as evidence for Ukraine’s possible guilt, fellow Kremlin supporter @Ian56789, a few hours earlier, tweeted a meme suggesting that YouTube footage was insufficient as evidence.

Archived on May 25, 2018. (Source: Twitter / Ian56789)

These various comments from Kremlin and pro-Kremlin sources appear designed to divert attention from the main point: the JIT’s finding that the missile came from a specific Russian military unit.

Dismay

The final tactic is to dismay the audience by warning of the cataclysmic consequences of angering the Russian government.

Interestingly, on this occasion, the Kremlin’s response was muted, and does not appear to have resorted to threats.

Putin himself took a moderate tone, at a joint press conference with French President Emmanuel Macron: “In any event, we will treat [the investigation] with respect and analyze everything which is set out.”

The Foreign Ministry statement concluded, “we will continue to provide assistance so that the truth about the crash of flight MH17 is established, and the true perpetrators are brought to justice.”

Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said, “we are still ready to cooperate despite numerous questions that arise in our minds in connection with this situation. The important thing is that this cooperation should be honest and that the information and facts we provide should not be ignored or used selectively.”

Thus, while three of the four Ds were deployed within the twenty-four hours after the JIT published its case, the fourth was not. We discuss this below.

Conclusion

The Russian government’s response to the JIT’s latest accusation largely followed an established pattern. Despite Putin’s stated desire to treat the JIT with respect, the bulk of the comment appeared designed to dismiss it as a credible and unbiased investigation.

Some comments distorted parts of the JIT’s argument; others appeared designed to distract from the main thrust of its findings.

Perhaps the most striking feature in the response is the fact that there does not appear to have been a significant attempt to dismay either the investigators or Western countries — for example, by warning that any call for compensation would jeopardize ties in other areas.

The likelihood is that this comparative reticence was aimed at the Russian domestic audience. The Kremlin’s messaging appears designed to claim the moral high ground by criticizing the JIT, while continuing to emphasize its own constructive attitude.

Overall, however, the response followed the by-now familiar pattern. The JIT’s latest accusations moved the investigation a step forward. They did not lead to a corresponding move in the Russian government’s rhetorical position. On that basis, it is highly unlikely that any further revelations and accusations will do so.


Ben Nimmo is Senior Fellow for Information Defense at the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab (@DFRLab).

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