When Malaysian Airlines Flight MH17 was shot down over Donetsk Oblast, the Ukrainian conflict went global. True, the fighting had already dominated several news cycles in Europe and North America, but the death of 298 people with no connection to either Ukraine or Russia was a reminder to the rest of the world that that this local conflict could have wide-ranging repercussions.
Of course, in the Russian media, this conflict had been global from the start, a staging area for the struggle between Russia, as the hedge against imperialist liberalism and guarantor of conservative civilization, and a globalist, Atlantacist, expansive, Russophobic West. The fighting in Ukraine was inherently meaningful, a part of the narrative that the Russian media was in the process of consolidating during Putin’s third term. How, then, could the MH17 disaster be assimilated to this geopolitical melodrama? The answer was conspiracy.
As a reminder, here is what happened: on July 17, 2014, Flight MH17 left Amsterdam for Kuala Lumpur, carrying mostly Dutch passengers, including seven AIDS researchers on their way to the 20th International AIDS Conference in Melbourne (a detail that will prove relevant later). At least twenty families were on the plane, including 80 people under 18. Early in the afternoon, the plane crashed outside of Hrabove, spreading debris over a 50 square kilometers. The recovery, marked by accusations of looting and disrespect to the bodies of the dead, would take over a month.
The human tragedy here is undeniable, but the downing of MH17 is also one of those events whose international media coverage that directs the audience’s attention to aspects of contemporary Russia that were previously unfamiliar. The 2013 meteor collision in Chelyabinsk drew the world’s attention to the Russian dashcam phenomenon (a familiar feature of YouTube videos, the dascham was now ready for prime time). The Russian response MH17 disaster offered the Western media endless insight and entertainment, drawn from the seemingly inexhaustible well of conspiracy theories spun in the aftermath of the crash. These include:
1) False flag (Ukraine). The Ukrainian government shot down the plane (possibly via jet) and framed the Donetsk separatists, in order to make them look bad.
2) Failed assassination attempt. Putin was flying nearby at the same time. The Ukrainians aimed at Putin, hit MH17, and then covered it up (see: false flag).
3) The Illuminati did it. Because they always do.
4) The Zionists did it. See #3, with a pinch of #1.
5) The CIA did it. Ditto.
6) The HIV Conspiracy. The plane was shot down to stop the researchers on board from either a) revealing that AIDS is a manufactured disease, possibly having nothing to do with HIV and/or b) sharing their newfound AIDS cure with the world.
7) MH17 was actually the missing Malaysian flight 370, and all the people on board were already corpses. The corpse-filled plane also features in some of the other theories, though the provenance of the dead may vary.
With the Russian and American media framing this story in entirely contradictory fashion, MH17 becomes a test of faith. The Dutch Safety Board’s report confirmed what most Western experts and analysts had long claimed: the plane was downed by a Russian-made BUK surface-to-air missile shot from rebel-held territory. The Russian government has been at great pains to debunk this report, and to demonize Bellingcat, the investigative journalism site that spent months posting evidence (or “evidence”) to support this explanation. The average media consumer (myself included) cannot be expected to read through all of these reports, let alone understand them at the level of detail and expertise to evaluate their truth or falsehood. Instead, we do what we usually do: respond based on our trust in the sources and institutions making the case.
The Donetsk BUK explanation has the virtue of simplicity, as well as consistency with the first bits of-pre spin information to come out of war-torn Ukraine. Before the identify of the plane was known, Donetsk separatist leader Igor Girkin (nom de guerre: Strelstov (the shooter)) bragged on VK that his forces had shot down a Ukrainian airliner, with Russia’s LifeNews declaring “a new victory for the Donetsk militia.” In other words, the rebels shot down the airplane by mistake.
This explanation was intolerable. While there are theoretically a number of different ways the rebels could have gotten their hands on a BUK, cooperation with the Russian military was the simplest and most obvious. Yet the same energy spent on devising ridiculous theories about the plane could have been expended on equally ridiculous theories about the BUK’s origins. The proliferation of inconsistent stories fits the most popular paradigm of Russian propaganda—by drowning out the “truth” in a flood of contradictory “lies,” the spinmasters cast doubt on every possible explanation.
But the response to MH17 shows something much more fundamental. In all likelihood, the downing of the Malaysian plane was a terrible mistake. We could call it an accident, except that this would obscure the fact that the rebels were, in fact, trying to shoot down a plane, but hit the wrong target.
As horrible as it sounds, this is not unprecedented. In 1988, the United States shot down an Iranian passenger plane mistaken for a Tomcat fighter, killing all 290 on board. Though President George H.W. Bush expressed “regret” for the lives lost, he did not make a formal apology (during his election campaign he promised that he would "never apologize for the United States”). Eight years later, the U.S. agreed to pay Iran $131.8 million by way of a settlement. The parallels between Iran Air 655 and MH 17 have been repeatedly noted online, with accusations of hypocrisy in American rhetoric about MH17 leveled by critics from Noam Chomsky to Samarth Gupta at the Harvard Political Review o Paul R. Pillar at The National Interest.
The key difference between Iran Air 655 and MH17, however, is the willingness to admit a mistake. Allowing for the possibility of random error is inconsistent with the conspiratorial mindset that has dominated Russia’s coverage of the war in Ukraine. People do not spontaneously rise up to express their discontent; they are bought and paid for by the State Department. Western Ukrainians could not possibly have legitimate reasons to want to keep Russia at a distance; they are being manipulated by Americans, the EU, and globalists of all stripes. And a missile-happy former war reenactor with surface-to-air missiles in his command could not have mistaken one target for another. The people who live and die in the course of this conflict are not nearly as important as the story that is told about them.
Next: Instead of a Conclusion