• Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Subscribe
  • RSS

Russians Are Getting A Very Different Version Of The Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 Story

Vladimir Putin Russian Flag

Over at The New Republic, Julia Ioffe notes that the Russian public is getting a far different view of the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 than the rest of the world:

Did you know Malaysia Air Flight 17 was full of corpses when it took off from Amsterdam? Did you know that, for some darkly inexplicable reason, on July 17, MH17 moved off the standard flight path that it had taken every time before, and moved north, toward rebel-held areas outside Donetsk? Or that the dispatchers summoned the plane lower just before the crash? Or that the plane had been recently reinsured? Or that the Ukrainian army has air defense systems in the area? Or that it was the result of the Ukrainian military mistaking MH17 for Putin’s presidential plane, which looks strangely similar?

Did you know that the crash of MH17 was all part of an American conspiracy to provoke a big war with Russia?

Well, it’s all true—at least if you live in Russia, because this is the Malaysia Airlines crash story that you’d be seeing.

As the crisis surrounding the plane crash deepens and as calls for Vladimir Putin to act grow louder, it’s worth noting that they’re not really getting through to Putin’s subjects. The picture of the catastrophe that the Russian people are seeing on their television screens is very different from that on screens in much of the rest of the world, and the discrepancy does not bode well for a sane resolution to this stand-off.

Western media has been vacillating for days between calling Putin a murderer and peppering their coverage with allegedlys, telling the heart-rending tales of the victims, scrounging for anonymous leaks to link the Russians to the downed jet, and punditizing about exit ramps.

But in Russia, television—most of it owned or controlled by the Kremlin—is trying to muddy the water with various experts who insist that there is no way that an SA-11 missile system could possibly have downed a plane flying that high. And, mind you, this is not part of a larger debate of could they, or couldn’t they; this is all of Russian television and state-friendly papers pushing one line: The pro-Russian separatists we’ve been supporting all these months couldn’t have done this. Watching some of these Russian newscasts, one comes away with the impression of a desperate defense attorney scrounging for experts and angles, or a bad kid caught red-handed by the principal, trying to twist his way out of a situation in which he has no chance.

The propaganda war continued this morning with the a senior Russian military official claiming that they had evidence that there was a Ukrainian jet near the Boeing 777 just before it was shot down, the implication obviously being that this plane may have shot the plane out of the sky for some reason either accidental or international. On some level, of course, it is not at all surprising that an authoritarian regime like the one led by Vladimir Putin would be bending the news to suit their agenda. This is after all something that has been true of such regimes since time immemorial. Additionally, given the fact that Putin and those around him are all products of the Soviet era, when propaganda like this was common and the government in Moscow had a much tighter grip on their citizens’ access to information about the world, it isn’t all that surprising that they would resort to similar tactics now. As Ioffe notes, though, the fact that behavior like this by the Putin regime is both unsurprising and not shocking does not mean that it isn’t concerning:

This isn’t an innocent you-say-tomato moment; this is a very problematic development. The result of all this Russian coverage is that Russians’ understanding of what happened is as follows. At best, the crash is an unfortunate accident on the part of the Ukrainian military that the West is trying to pin on Russia, which had nothing to do with it; at worst, it is all part of a nefarious conspiracy to drag Russia into an apocalyptic war with the West. So whereas the West sees the crash as a game-changer, the Russians do not see why a black swan event has to change anything or they want to resist what they see is a provocation. To them, after a few days of watching Russian television, it’s not at all clear what happened nor that their government is somehow responsible for this tragedy. And the more we insist on it, the less likely the Russians are to agree.

Floriana Fossato, a longtime scholar of Russian media, says that this, coupled with the media’s conscious use of the Soviet language of crisis—“traitors,” “fascists,” “fifth columns”—quickly brings to the surface the psychological demons of a society massively traumatized by the twentieth century, traumas that society has never adequately addressed. The result, she says, is a kind of collective PTSD-meets-Stockholm Syndrome.

In Russians’ view, “Americans have recreated the situation where they have excuse for intervention,” Fossato says. “No one admits that they are afraid, but they are. They are panicked. And they are right in being afraid because they know what happened, and they know there must be an answer to what is going on. And so they lock onto Putin for protection. This is why they don’t turn to Putin and ask him to do something.”

No doubt, this is part of the reason that Putin’s popularity inside Russia has skyrocketed in the months since the Ukraine crisis began.  His actions have been appealing to Russian nationalism and a sense that things have gone significantly downhill since the Soviet Union collapsed . The fact that the late 1980s USSR was hardly a paradise in any sense of the word and objectively worse than modern Russia in every quantifiable sense isn’t really relevant, because as is always the case in politics perception trumps reality. In addition to that, though, the Russian media, much of which is at the very least heavily influenced if not directly controlled by the Kremlin, seems to have created a sense of fear in the public that causes them to look to someone like Putin as a strong leader. Of course, that’s likely at least part of the intent of the propaganda machine itself, so in the end it all becomes a huge self-perpetuating machine.

What’s unclear about all of this is how much the propaganda actually works, notwithstanding Putin’s exceedingly high poll numbers. Putin’s Russia, after all, is not the Soviet Union of Stalin, Khrushchev, or Brezhnev. In that era, the government in Moscow controlled virtually all of the information that citizens had access to and all of the means of communication. Even in that era, of course, information from the outside world would still leak in and dissidents were able to spread their word via samizdat, but for the most part the Soviet Communist Party had near total control over what its citizens knew about what was going on in the outside world and, perhaps even more importantly, elsewhere in their own country. That’s no longer the case today. Russian citizens have access to the Internet and to western news sources such as CNN, for example, and the fact that Russia is connected to the world economy in a way the Soviet Union never was, it would be next to impossible for the central government to cut off the public’s access to outside sources of information. So, to that extent, one has to wonder how much of this propaganda the average Russian actually believes. Based on the polls, though, it seems rather clear that they believe at least a good part of it.

Interestingly, and perhaps more importantly, some observers believe that Putin himself has to some extent become trapped by the very media that has helped bring him to power:

After Putin’s ascent, media became the flexible element that could be readjusted for any twist or turn of the political rudder. “Today, it’s the opposite,” says Gleb Pavlovsky, a political consultant who helped Putin win his first election and was a Kremlin advisor for years afterwards. “It’s almost impossible to turn the rudder of the picture that’s formed on television because it would mean losing the audience they formed in this year” of sword-brandishing and imperialistic conquest.

This audience is now fired up and brandishing its own swords, and the propaganda apparatus, much like the rebels in eastern Ukraine, has rolled on and on, fed by inertia and paranoia, reproducing and magnifying itself with each newscast. The sensationalized newscasts are now neck-and-neck, ratings-wise, with the sitcoms. “It keeps people in a traumatized state,” Pavlovsky says. “It’s notable in media metrics, and in conversations with people. They lose their sanity, they become paranoid and aggressive.”

This has had a noticeable impact on the ruling class, Pavlovsky says, which has to watch this stuff in order to stay au courant. And they become less sane as a result, too, which limits their ability to adequately assess a situation such as this and devise a good way out of it.

“It’s noticeable that the Kremlin is much more tempered than Russian TV but can’t change it,” Pavlovsky says. “It’s fallen into a trap, so it’s now trying to function within the strictures of this picture.”

That’s the thing about propaganda. Once you turn it on and ignite people’s passions, it becomes difficult to change course. Whether that populist anger really matters to Putin in the end, of course, is unclear. If he believes that it is in his or Russia’s interest — and on some level it appears that he thinks of those as being the same things — to back down in Ukraine, then I find it kind of hard to believe that he would find himself constrained by public opinion the same way a politician in a more democratic nation would. If nothing else, he could probably find a way to spin such a move into a win domestically by making himself and the Russian minority in eastern Ukraine out to be the victims of a rapacious and interventionist West. However this turns out, though, the fact that the Russian people are basically living in a completely different reality when it comes to the basic facts of this story specifically and the conflict in eastern Ukraine in general likely means a harder line coming out of Moscow for the foreseeable future.

Related Posts:

About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May, 2010 and also writes at Below The Beltway. Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook

Comments

  1. The fact that the late 1980s USSR was hardly a paradise in any sense of the word and objectively worse than modern Russia in every quantifiable sense isn’t really relevant, because as is always the case in politics perception trumps reality.

    Think about how many Americans are convinced violent crime is skyrocketing out of control despite crime rates being the lowest they’ve been since the 60s.

    Highly-rated. Helpful or Unhelpful: Thumb up 32 Thumb down 0

  2. KM says:

    Did you know Malaysia Air Flight 17 was full of corpses when it took off from Amsterdam? Did you know that, for some darkly inexplicable reason, on July 17, MH17 moved off the standard flight path that it had taken every time before, and moved north, toward rebel-held areas outside Donetsk? Or that the dispatchers summoned the plane lower just before the crash? Or that the plane had been recently reinsured? Or that the Ukrainian army has air defense systems in the area? Or that it was the result of the Ukrainian military mistaking MH17 for Putin’s presidential plane, which looks strangely similar?

    I seriously doubt the average Russian actually believes this tripe. Remember, they’ve lived their whole lives there – they know damn well what the state tells them isn’t always kosher. They just don’t want to speak up – long memories of what happens when you do.

    Based on the polls, though, it seems rather clear that they believe at least a good part of it.

    They didn’t ask about the plane crisis, they asked about how Putin is handling the job. Perhaps they just approve of him acting like a Boss right or wrong….

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 7 Thumb down 1

  3. Mark Kleiman says:

    Great analysis!

    Now, substitute “GOP” for “Kremlin” and “Fox News” for “Kremlin-controlled media,” and every word remains true. The politicians get caught, both politically and psychologically, in the world created by the crazified media they use to get the base fired up.

    Highly-rated. Helpful or Unhelpful: Thumb up 26 Thumb down 6

  4. dazedandconfused says:

    Check out the Ukrainian media too. Pretty silly stuff.

    I’ve been paying attention to both since things got bad, and have concluded this is a war between Nazis and terrorists. Mutually Assured Disinformation…

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 6 Thumb down 3

  5. michael reynolds says:

    I imagine the percentage of Russians who believe this is approximately equal to the percentage of Americans who believe Fox News.

    People want to be lied to. That’s the underlying problem. Given a choice between a disturbing truth and a comforting lie, most people choose the lie.

    See also: Everything was fine before Obamacare, the economy was booming before Obama, deficits are ballooning, and the Russians invaded Crimea because we didn’t attack Syria.

    A man hears what he wants to hear and disregards the rest.

    Highly-rated. Helpful or Unhelpful: Thumb up 30 Thumb down 2

  6. legion says:

    We (the world at large, not just the US) let him get away with pogroms on LGBT people.
    We let him get away with literally stealing the Crimea.
    We’ll likely let him get away with this too.

    At what point does it become obvious enough that Putin is a rabid animal that has to be put down? When does he become an undeniable threat to the entire planet?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 11

  7. george says:

    @legion:

    At what point does it become obvious enough that Putin is a rabid animal that has to be put down? When does he become an undeniable threat to the entire planet?

    I assume you’re intending to be the first to enlist for front line duty in the war you’re calling for?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 15 Thumb down 2

  8. michael reynolds says:

    @legion:

    Just how to propose to “put down” a man with thousands of nuclear warheads?

    Highly-rated. Helpful or Unhelpful: Thumb up 20 Thumb down 2

  9. JWH says:

    @michael reynolds:

    From Buffy the Vampire Slayer:

    Buffy: Does it ever get easy?
    Giles: You mean life?
    Buffy: Yeah, does it get easy?
    Giles: What do you want me to say?
    Buffy: Lie to me.
    Giles: Yes. It’s terribly simple. The good guys are always stalwart and true. The bad guys are easily distinguished by their pointy horns or black hats, and, uh, we always defeat them and save the day. No one ever dies and… everybody lives happily ever after.
    Buffy: Liar.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 10 Thumb down 0

  10. Muchbox says:

    Russian citizens have access to the Internet and to western news sources such as CNN.…lol so now they just think they finally found the missing plane. @mr Fox news the most trusted news there is by contrast, MSNBC places last with just five percent, a hair behind The Daily Show.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 6

  11. mantis says:

    @Muchbox:

    Fox news the most trusted news there is

    And the Russian propaganda machine is the most trusted source there. Tell people what they want to hear, define an enemy for them to blame for their troubles, and tell them everyone else is lying to them. Tell them this consistently and long enough, and they will believe it, reality be damned.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 14 Thumb down 0

  12. James in Silverdale, WA says:

    @Muchbox: There do not appear to be very many people left watching cable news these days. Here’s a peek at last Friday.

    http://tvbythenumbers.zap2it.com/2014/07/21/cable-news-ratings-for-friday-july-18-2014/284492/

    1.2 million viewers remains challenging to characterize at any rational value above doodly-squat. But they are REALLY mad and REALLY don’t like (insert, well, anything here).

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  13. Ben Wolf says:

    @mantis:

    Tell people what they want to hear, define an enemy for them to blame for their troubles, and tell them everyone else is lying to them.

    So, the same thing we get from western media on a daily basis.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 7 Thumb down 4

  14. Ben Wolf says:

    @michael reynolds:

    People want to be lied to.

    A hundred years of psychology and anthropology tell us human thinking is extraordinarily easy to manipulate. You either question every single sentence you hear from media sources or you get your mind bent and most choose to get bent; questioning is too exhausting, I guess. Better to focus on how much you hate your neighbor, or the black guy across the street, or the gay kid.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 5 Thumb down 1

  15. Ben Wolf says:

    The fact that the late 1980s USSR was hardly a paradise in any sense of the word and objectively worse than modern Russia in every quantifiable sense isn’t really relevant, because as is always the case in politics perception trumps reality.

    There is no basis for making the claim modern Russians have it better than did those of the late 1980’s. I strongly suggest you read Robert Allen’s Farm to Factory.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  16. Jack says:

    @Mark Kleiman: You mean the way the GOP and FOX News claims that the Hobby Lobby case “eliminated” a woman’s right to chose? Or that the GOP and FOX News claims that it’s only “Unaccompanied” minors crossing the border? Yeah, this administration could teach Vlad a few things about controlling the media.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 11

  17. dazedandconfused says:

    @legion:

    At what point does it become obvious enough that Putin is a rabid animal that has to be put down? When does he become an undeniable threat to the entire planet?

    Hey, if we could tolerate Dick Cheney….

    Seriously though, some evidence to back those wild assertions. And no, backing separatist rebels doesn’t get-r-done. We do that too every now and again ourselves. Looks like the shoot was a pile of screw ups. Including, but not limited to, a failure to close the airspace over a combat zone to commercial traffic after at least half a dozen aircraft have been shot down, including one at 20,000 ft.

    “Boneheaded” doesn’t begin to describe.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 6 Thumb down 1

  18. C. Clavin says:

    Speaking of lies and liars and propaganda…

    “People are looking at Putin as one who wrestles bears and drills for oil,” Palin said, “They look at our president as one who wears mom jeans and equivocates and bloviates.”

    She forgot to cream her mom jeans over Vlad killing innocent people in airplanes.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 9 Thumb down 1

  19. Tyrell says:

    @Stormy Dragon: Well, not everywhere. This past weekend, Chicago had over 40 shootings, with 5 killed. Just about all of it gang related. Outrageous. Of course, it got little attention on the news networks. Clean this up: deport gang members.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 5

  20. Xenos says:

    @Tyrell: Where would you deport American citizens to?

    I know some native americans you like your ideas and want to subscribe to your newsletter, so please flesh this out a bit.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 5 Thumb down 1

  21. Eric Florack says:

    @Stormy Dragon: think about how those stats are being manipulated so as to make things appear better than they are.

    Rather like the emploment stats.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 10

  22. Ben Wolf says:

    @dazedandconfused: I’m still not sure why people are so upset. Assuming the separatists did shoot down the plane (a supposition for which there is no evidence, by the way) it’s the sort of thing inevitable in a war zone. The United States shot down an airliner in 1983 and spent the next three years lying about it. Somehow the U.S. is less murderous or barbaric?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 5 Thumb down 2

  23. SC_Birdflyte says:

    Ignorance of the past guarantees imbecilic and ineffectual policies in the present. Listening to many Russians with whom I spoke during a trip there three years ago indicates that knowledge of history (even their country’s own) is fairly widespread. Rather like some parts of the U.S.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  24. Ben Wolf says:

    @Ben Wolf: My apologies, that airliner was shot down in 1988, not 1983.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  25. Rick DeMent says:

    … you could say that same thing about people who watch FOX news.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  26. Tillman says:

    @Ben Wolf: Heh, look, at least four people who really like western media. I’m guessing they loved the nearly nonexistent adversarial coverage of the buildup to the Iraq war.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 0

  27. Eric Florack says:

    @dazedandconfused:

    “Boneheaded” doesn’t begin to describe.

    Hmm.
    I tend to agree it doesnt.
    and perhaps, in light of that, we should be looking at this not from a stupidity standpoint, but from a standpoint of intentional action. After all, to assume stupidity assumes no malace, or corruption, or no political goal outside the status quo. Given your (I think) offhand, yet accurate observation, might I suggest that is too large an assumption?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  28. Grewgills says:

    @Tillman:
    I think it’s his stream of Putin apologetics that has people down voting him now.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  29. dazedandconfused says:

    @Eric Florack:

    I’m having a problem with motive for the Ukrainian government hoping an airliner would be accidentally shot down by the separatists. They have been either successfully suppressing the coverage of their shelling of cities in the western media or it was happening all by itself. They wanted a spotlight? Then we are right back at stupid mistakes again. I suspect you are over-thinking this.

    Occum’s Razor suggests an oversight.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  30. anjin-san says:

    @ Florack

    think about how those stats are being manipulated so as to make things appear better than they are.

    Ah, so the guy who cited Dick Morris as an authoritative source on on truth in polling in the 2012 elections can see through the BS to discern what is really going down? What was it you said back then? Oh yes, “Read, and learn.”

    Well, we did learn. We learned that there is no right wing meme too nonsensical for you to repeat with great conviction.

    Thanks, I needed a good laugh today :)

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  31. Eric Florack says:

    @dazedandconfused:
    Eh, possibly.
    Thing is one doesn’t achieve a leadership role without first having a certain level of smarts. When such people can be accused of acts that stretches the definition of “stupidity” is seems reasonable to ask if it is stupidity at all.

    @anjin-san: ah. So, we’ve never seen stats manipulated to make the current administration look good. Kinda like there isn’t a smidgen of corruption, right, An jin?

    Its my guess you are the happiest person on earth.
    If you need help decoding that one, let me know.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  32. anjin-san says:

    Its my guess you are the happiest person on earth.

    I just popped a perfectly matched pair of 48 year old Telefunken ECC88s into my amp, and I have an excellent remaster of “Famous Blue Raincoat” on.

    I may not be #1, but I’m in the top 20.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  33. dazedandconfused says:

    @Eric Florack:

    Thing is one doesn’t achieve a leadership role without first having a certain level of smarts. When such people can be accused of acts that stretches the definition of “stupidity” is seems reasonable to ask if it is stupidity at all.

    There have been a lot of republics (banana and whatever) which have been peopled with half-literate clowns shortly after their revolutions. Sometimes much, much later. Favors must be rewarded and all.

    “Heck of a job, Browniski.”

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0