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Dead and a lie

By concealing the facts of war crimes in Ukraine, Russia is using the same methods it did eight years ago. This tactic is easier to understand if you know some events that followed the MH17 crash

Alexander Mineev, exclusively for Novaya Gazeta. Europe
Alexander Mineev, exclusively for Novaya Gazeta. Europe

Despite the raging war, the District Court of The Hague is scrupulously continuing the hearings concerning the crash of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 (MH17), with all due procedures meticulously observed. The Boeing 777 was downed in Donbas on July 17, 2014, claiming the lives of all the 298 people on board. The defense team presented its arguments challenging the investigation's and the prosecution's conclusions from March 7 to 30. The prosecutors are to start responding on May 16.

In retrospect, the matter can be boiled down to disproving the unending lies and the official narrative produced by the Russian authorities.

Press conference Joint investigation team

These lies are not even what they might call ruse de guerre in their lingo, as they are intended to deceive not a potential foe (who would quickly figure everything out) but their own people deprived of alternative sources of information. Another purpose is to maintain discipline within their community — so that nobody should resort to interpretations but rather memorize the right legends and, instead of calling things what they are, use the officially authorized cliches and labels. A lie is like identification friend-or-foe.

Labels like "Nazis", "fascists", or "genocide" persistently being hammered into the people's heads are also part of official lies in this context. An intelligent person can easily read the definitions of these terms in Wikipedia to decide what sociopolitical system they fit better.

"They are lying, we know that they are lying, and they know that we know that they are lying," Ria Van der Steen, who lost her father and stepmother in the crash, said in Russian while speaking in the courthouse. She was actually trying to quote Alexander Solzhenitsyn, not quite accurately though, and yet she did manage to convey his idea. "Lies and falsifications are a routine tactic in this cat-and-mouse game, in which we're striving to find out the truth," she said.

The crash of the Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777 downed en route from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur was like an alarm bell that drew the entire world's attention to the conflict between Russia and Ukraine even more than the annexation of Crimea by Russia and the establishment of the separatist 'republics'.

Those events perhaps worried only politicians as a glaring violation of international order established by the start of the third millennium. But where was it not violated?

For the rest of the world, the former Soviet republics were something like exotic regions with their peculiar corruption systems. But then three hundred people having nothing to do with the faraway conflict were killed. For a small and densely populated country like the Netherlands, where most of the victims lived, these were relatives, or neighbors with whom you socialized in a nearby pub or at a parents' meeting in school, or co-workers, or hobby fellows. Someone else's war suddenly intruded into their private lives. True, in 2014, it was still too far from the moment when the EU leaders acknowledged that war returned to Europe in February 2022.

To probe the MH17 crash, the Joint Investigation Team (JIT) was set up on August 7, 2014, comprising law enforcement experts from Australia, Belgium, Malaysia, the Netherlands, and Ukraine, as well as the EU Agency for Criminal Justice Cooperation (Eurojust). In the fall of 2019, Dutch prosecutors identified four people as criminal suspects for their role in the downing of MH17. The defendants are three Russian citizens, namely Igor Girkin (a.k.a. 'Strelkov'), Sergei Dubinsky ('Khmury'), and Oleg Pulatov ('Gyurza'), as well as one Ukrainian citizen, Leonid Kharchenko ('Krot'). None of them has actually appeared in the courtroom, and only Pulatov, a retired Russian military officer, joined the hearings in absentia by hiring an expensive international team of lawyers.

This is obviously yet another lie: this was done apparently for Russian agencies to gain access to the court filings. After all, it is not the state as such but individual suspects who have been brought to trial. But no, there can be no 'private individuals' in such cases, and "we don't leave our people to their fate." Even if, as President Putin put it, they simply bought the tanks and camouflage uniforms in a local surplus store. To be honest, this one sounded more like a jeer than a lie.

The first hearing was held on March 9, 2020. The prosecution concluded that MH17 was downed by a missile fired from a Buk surface-to-air launcher deployed at the time in the territory controlled by the unrecognized DPR. The Buk launcher belonged to Russia's 53rd Air Defense Brigade and had been delivered to the launch site from Russia. All alternative theories were ruled out as inconsistent. The investigation is of the view that, while none of the defendants fired the missile personally, all of them jointly handled the operation.

The relatives trust the court and are not inclined to believe the Russian side. Hans de Borst, who lost his daughter in the crash, said this mistrust is well understandable if only because "Moscow has changed its account way too often: now it's a Ukrainian jet fighter, then it's a Buk surface-to-air missile, but also a Ukrainian one..."

Following the crash, Moscow started producing multiple theories to divert any possible suspicions from its people: only Ukraine can be to blame for anything bad, even though, as it's obvious from the documents made public during the trial, Moscow knew the cause of the MH17 crash perfectly well from the very start but stubbornly denied Russia's involvement. What did they count on? Perhaps they hoped that the truth would sink in the torrent of mendacious theories and foreign investigators wouldn’t be able to get to the bottom of what happened. Or perhaps they really didn't care what the foreign public would say.

As soon as any new theory obviously turned out to be fake, it was adjusted, and when this didn't work again, TV hosts seemingly forgot it, as if it never existed, and switched to another, also a false one. They aren’t ashamed at all. Moreover, not only the state propaganda machine, reinforced specifically for the purpose, but also authoritative research institutes and corporations were engaged in those efforts.

State-sponsored lies are obvious even if you simply look at the list of the defendants, whom the international investigation has identified as those who were immediately involved in and organized the delivery of a Russian Buk surface-to-air missile launcher to the village of Snizhne near Donetsk and its removal back to Russia. Three of the four are professional Russian military officers and citizens of Russia. This fact alone speaks volumes about an "internal Ukrainian conflict" and "people's militias" of the DPR and LPR, of which we've been persistently told all the eight years since the start of the "special operation."

In telephone intercepts presented in court, the suspects invent legends offhand, as soon as they come to realize what happened, and it's on that very basis that propagandists then built their conspiracy theories.

At 6:20 p.m. on July 17, 2014, one 'Igor' (speaking in 'Strelkov's' voice) calls supposedly 'Dubinsky'.

"Reporters are pestering me here, like from NTV and others. Saying a Boeing crashed near Donetsk. About 80 kilometers away from Donetsk. Is that true?"

"What d'you mean, a battle going?"

"I say, a Boeing. A plane crashed."

"Oh, that's our men downed one over Savur-Mohyla, near Marynivka. Our men downed a Su jet. Two hours..."

"They're saying some Boeing crashed there."

"I heard another one crashed somewhere between Khartsyzsk and Horlivka. I am not aware so far. And our men downed a Su..."

"That I know. I am interested in a Boeing now."

"No, Igor, I don't know anything about that. Honestly."

General confusion. Notably fewer joyful remarks, compared to the previous exchanges between the gunmen about supposedly downed enemy planes.

At 6:44 p.m., between 'Pulatov' and 'Kharchenko':

"Right. Everything's well. The point is, that Su jet downed a Chinese passenger plane just a minute before."

"No, no, no. We worked that Su," 'Kharchenko' says confidently.

"I know. The Su had downed a Chinese [plane] just before that, okay? And then we got that Su right away. The whole world is going to howl now... Everything is very good. What's most important now is not to say anything... ahead of time..."

In the following exchanges between 'Pulatov', 'Kharchenko', and 'Dubinsky', they polish this account up with details about how "our Buk took down a [Ukrainian] Su jet," which had "taken down" a passenger airliner just a minute before.

At 7:54 p.m., 'Dubinsky' shares it with 'Girkin' a.k.a. 'Strelkov'.

"Our people also saw from Snizhne how the Su downed a Boeing, and then our guys downed that Su with a Buk, on the second approach. [A lot of] our people were watching that, Gyurza [Pulatov] has just reported... Isn't that good news, Igor?"

"Well, I don't know. Honestly, I don't quite believe that, but..."

"But they'll heap the blame on us anyway, that it's us who downed it. See what I mean?"

'Kharchenko' calls 'Dubinsky'.

"Nikolayich, shall we allow the OSCE to the crash site or not?"

"Of course you do. But are you sure people really saw that a Su downed it, or was it us?"

"Not us, Nikolayich, not us."

"Was it a Su?"

"That's right, a Su, there was one parachute."

"Okay. And then we downed the Su with a Buk, right?"

This account still involves "our Buk", that is, a Russian one. Then this account was updated: the militias couldn't have had a Buk, and Russia didn't supply them with one. Then the account evolves further: the Boeing was downed with a Buk, but that Buk was a Ukrainian one. At the same time, it was apparently decided to remove the Buk back to Russia.

The passenger airliner was downed unintentionally, perhaps through a lack of skill, while hunting for Ukrainian Su jets. But acknowledging that was unthinkable.

Firstly, that would go against 'our traditions'. Secondly, that would amount to admitting that a powerful weapon system had been brought to Ukrainian territory from Russia and was operated by Russian military specialists. But there are none of them there, as it had been said before.

Within days following the tragedy, key Russian propaganda outlets issued reports about a Spanish air traffic controller named Carlos, who supposedly worked at Kyiv's Boryspil Airport and, while monitoring MH17, saw two Ukrainian fighter aircraft nearby. RT interviewed him and showed a thriller-style report of him being persecuted by Ukrainians. It turned out later that the Spaniard was actually not an air traffic controller and could not have been such in line with Ukrainian law, that he was charged with fraud in his home country, and that RT paid him for the interview. And so Carlos eventually disappeared from TV screens.

And yet pro-Kremlin media kept on feeding the public with the story of a Ukrainian jet fighter downing the civilian Boeing. Mikhail Leontyev, a former propaganda celebrity who was later rewarded for his services with a cushy job as Rosneft spokesman, showed his worth in November 2014. In his Odnako TV program on Channel One, he demonstrated a sensational picture allegedly taken by a spy satellite on July 17, with a very specific silhouette in its left corner and a clearly visible thin white line crossing the Boeing's flight path, looking like the trail of a missile launched from under the left wing of a MiG-29 fighter aircraft. Below is the date and UTC (universal time used by aviation specialists).

No matter how the TV show author's "if the picture is authentic" reservation served to disclaim his responsibility, it was lost against the backdrop of a detailed pseudo-analysis. Moreover, the theory was buttressed by an opinion of Ivan Andriyevsky, first vice president of the Russian Union of Engineers, a broadly circulated report from the Union itself, and even a statement by a prominent American aviation expert, an MIT graduate named George Bilt having a 20-year professional record. The experts' conclusion was unambiguous: the only technically plausible theory of the MH17's downing is its interception by a missile fired by another plane. Truth be told, Leontyev later had to apologize for his fake story by saying that he was just speculating rather than asserting anything. And yet speculations in a general context of lies are lies as well.

A big choir of propagandists addressing "common people" didn't even care about inventing some pseudo-scientific fake stories. One of these, Anatoly Vasserman, a welcome guest on state TV channels, wrote at the time, "The Malaysian Boeing was undeniably downed by the Ukrainian military following U.S. directives. This is obvious if only from the fact that nobody else could have done that. This has been explored thoroughly enough. The question is why the American masters and their Ukrainian accomplices needed that." This sort of primitive lies immediately becomes part of the unconscious in the absence of alternative information and thoughts.

Even though the fighter jet theory somewhat wore out in time, it did reach the court owing to efforts by Pulatov's lawyers. However, the Russian propaganda machine also had different ones in stock, which gradually became predominant. Moscow had to agree that the MH17 might have been downed with a Buk missile — as long as it was a Ukrainian rather than a Russian one, implying that Kyiv arranged that disaster on purpose to draw the international public's attention and demonize Russia.

The theory of an onboard explosion, which would have spared Russia of any liability by definition, was dismissed by the investigation at the initial phase, based on a technical analysis of the airliner's wreckage. Therefore, Moscow chose not to pursue this line but preferred to dispute the missile's model and the launch site location.

It maintained that the Boeing was hit by an obsolete Soviet-type missile, which Russia, with its advanced military, decommissioned long ago, but which Ukraine still kept using. It also insisted that the missile was launched from an area controlled at the time by the Ukrainian Armed Forces rather than the Donetsk 'militias'.

To uphold its conclusions, the Kremlin rolled out the big guns, like the Almaz-Antey state defense corporation. Perfectly aware of the true cause of the MH17 crash, it spent huge money from the budget (let's remember that Russia wasn’t formally a party to the conflict at the time) to carry out two full-scale experiments and compile a doorstopper of a report presenting its findings. The District Court of The Hague included it in the trial bundles, and Almaz-Antey specialists were allowed to examine the aircraft wreckage reconstruction in a hangar at a Dutch airbase.

And then the investigation played its trump cards, such as satellite imagery of the launch site near the village of Pervomaiske, with burnt grass and the traces of the Buk launcher's tracks, as well as the butterfly-shaped shrapnel found in the crewmembers' bodies, which could have been used only in the latest versions of the missile that Ukraine did not possess. Apart from that, erasures were discovered in the documents submitted by Russia concerning the transfer of old Buk models to the Ukrainian Armed Forces, and the photos of the Buk's movements presented by the Russian Defense Ministry contained signs of doctoring, while the ministry did not save the originals.

The court's efforts to expose and disprove each element of lies sponsored by the Russian state seem insignificant and even unwarranted amid the global disaster into which the war in Ukraine has plunged the world. The past lies have been laid bare and pale beside this war. The scope of these lies has grown manifold, but the approaches, methods, and objectives remain the same. Therefore, the MH17 trial's verdict, which is expected before the end of this year, will still be important.

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Editor in chief — Kirill Martynov. Terms of use. Privacy policy.
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