It is almost five years since flight MH17 was destroyed by a BUK missile fired by Russian soldiers, yet many people still think Putin’s regime did not shoot down the plane.

On 17 July 2014, Malaysian Airways flight MH17 was shot down near Snizhne in Ukraine by a Buk M1 missile fired by a Russian missile unit. All 298 people on board the Boeing 777 flying from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur – most of them Dutch – were killed. The corpse of one victim crashed through a woman’s kitchen ceiling.

We know who the perpetrators were thanks to the efforts of Bellingcat and the Dutch-led joint investigation team. However, the Malaysian Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad announced in May that there was no evidence Russia had fired the missile. How has Putin created an environment in which the Malaysian Prime Minister could undermine an investigation in which his country participated?

On 19 June 2019 Bellingcat published the names of some of Russia’s Donbas proxies involved in shooting down MH17. Their role was probably to commission the missile from the regular Russian military and provide logistical support en route to the launch site

Dr Mohamad’s statement misrepresented the evidence regarding Russia’s responsibility for destroying the plane. 

Social network users in Donbas, eastern Ukraine, had spotted the missile travelling towards Snizhne days before its deployment. The missile was also filmed travelling to the launch site by a driver and screenshots from the footage were printed by Paris Match. A resident of Torez, near the launch site, photographed the missile’s vapour trail after it had been launched. The owner of the Volvo truck which had transported the footage would later confirm that the vehicle had been requisitioned by Russia’s Donbas proxies.

Russia’s MH17 information strategy was quite simple: flood the information space with lies, deploy an army of conspiracy theorists and manage journalists by tried and tested methods.

The open source journalism project, Bellingcat, was able to identify the Buk as belonging to Russia’s 53rd missile brigade. Igor Girkin, the Russian intelligence agency GRU’s colonel – who ran Russia’s Donbas paramilitaries – boasted about downing a Ukrainian plane on social media shortly after MH17 was destroyed.  Approximately 45 minutes after the event, Aleksandr Boroday, the Russian PR manager handling media relations for its Donbas occupation, phoned Russian media outlets and said “we have probably shot down a civilian aircraft”. He would subsequently deny his own words. 

An account clearly operated by or on Igor Girkin’s behalf boasted about downing a Ukrainian plane after MH17 was destroyed

Yet, no western leader initially accused Russia of downing the plane despite these admissions. Putin’s regime was able to exploit this hesitancy. 

Lying about MH17 became one of the country’s growth industries. As each lie was disproved in turn, the regime brazenly served up another tale contradicting the previous one. It was aided by the internet’s ‘tin foil hat’ brigade, who developed their own ‘theories’.

More seriously, Moscow-based western correspondents helped portray Russia’s invasion in morally neutral terms. The Wall Street Journal’s Moscow bureau chief James Marson apparently wrote in 2015 to the press department of the Donetsk People’s Republic, backed by Russia, stating that he was “objective” and had never referred to them as “terrorists.” It was, at this point, using “human shields” by shelling Ukrainian positions from civilian areas. Its soldiers frequently tortured and murdered people in Donbas. Yet, the neutral picture of Russian aggression which emerged from most western coverage helped nullify any outrage over MH17.

The relatives of the flight’s victims – currently suing internet companies such as Paypal using anti-terrorist legislation, accusing them of providing financial support to Russia – would disagree with Marson. But, their voices are all too rarely heard. 

James Marson said he had never called Russia’s Donbas-based proxies terrorists. The email is in a cache of hacked documents released by the Distributed Denial of Secrets Initiative

Russia’s MH17 information strategy was quite simple: flood the information space with lies, deploy an army of conspiracy theorists and manage journalists by tried and tested methods. 

The naming of some of the culprits by the Dutch authorities and Bellingcat last year was an important step. However, these suspects – who include Girkin – are the people who requested the missile, rather than the senior politicians who authorised its use.

Russia’s information strategy has neutralised revulsion against its role in MH17 among senior politicians across the globe. Its delegation was reinstated in the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe on 25 June 2019, ending its expulsion for annexing Crimea in 2014.

It is unlikely that those who gave the orders which led to MH17 will ever face justice.  

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