There are at least 8 different storylines about the Malaysian plane crash that are either unproven – or, at worst, downright untrue. All of them have the capability to change the narrative of events and set the stage for what happens next in Ukraine.
A journalist takes photographs at the site of Thursday's Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777 plane crash near the settlement of Grabovo, in the Donetsk region July 18, 2014. Photo: Reuters
If you’re like most Americans, you’ve spend the better part of the past 24 to 36 hours following the gripping saga of the Malaysian plane crash either via TV or social media. Maybe you’ve skipped past channels like CNN and MSNBC and tuned in to Al-Jazeera.
Maybe you’ve tried to find out first-hand what the Russian media was actually saying about all this. But let’s face it – nobody really seems to know what’s going on – the Americans blame the Russians, the Ukrainians blame the separatists, and the Russians blame the Ukrainians.
It’s a mess – and given the need for American cable TV and social media to provide a running commentary on the disaster 24/7 – there’s bound to be a lot speculation and rootless commentary mixed in with fact, and that’s where a lot of controversial storylines about MH17 emerge.
The problem, quite simply, is that the fog of war that characterized the first phase of the Ukraine crisis has transformed ominously into the impenetrable smoke of a downed commercial airliner and the flaming wreckage of a Boeing 777 that claimed nearly 300 innocent lives.
Storyline 1: The pro-Russian separatists have something to hide and are making it impossible for crash investigators to get to the scene. This appears to be the running storyline on CNN these days – various talking heads are implying that investigators are indiscriminately imposing a series of random checkpoints across Eastern Ukraine and seriously impeding the ability of any international observers to get to the scene.
President Obama, in his remarks to the nation, has also implied this. Yet is this, actually, the case? Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has pointed out again and again that international observers are on the scene, and that all attempts will be made to make this a traditional air crash investigation, in accordance with all international norms.
Storyline 2: The black box and the BUK missile launcher were found by the separatists and immediately shipped to Moscow. Again, this is a fact rejected by the Russian Foreign Ministry. Sergey Lavrov pointedly noted that Moscow does not want, and is not in possession of, the black box from MH17.
Storyline 3: The Russian media is completely under the control of the Kremlin and is now busy cranking out its own version of the events.
One version of the events, mentioned more than once on CNN, is that Russian media is busy creating a storyline in which the missile was actually fired by the Ukrainian army and was an attempt to take out the plane of Russian President Vladimir Putin.
The bizarreness of this story, of course, is used to show that all Russian media is essentially propaganda, and hence, untrustworthy.
Storyline 4: We can expect the same behavior from Russia now as when the Soviet Union covered up the Korean Air Lines (KAL) downed airliner story in 1983. The problem, quite simply, is that we haven’t heard or seen any Russian sources on TV, so we assume that the Russians are hiding behind the facts, trying to find a way to make this story go away.
And it doesn’t help that a Cold Warrior like John McCain is getting a lot of airtime, sharing his Cold War mentality with the media. He, surely, still believes that the Soviet Union and Pravda are alive and well.
Storyline 5: Vladimir Putin is somehow personally behind the missile attack – and can also somehow personally end the violence in Eastern Ukraine. Sadly, this is the storyline that emerges just about any time there’s a story about Russia’s involvement in Ukraine.
Yet, as some analysts have pointed out, the efforts at “plausible deniability” (in which Russia aids covertly, but not overtly, the separatists) have led to a difficult situation for Russia, in which some elements may have gone “rogue.”
The Kremlin may have lost its grip on exactly what is happening in Eastern Ukraine. So when the White House warns that “Putin better bring an end to the violence, or else!” – they better be sure that he really can bring an end to the violence.
Storyline 6: Amateur YouTube videos, audio recordings posted online, theories from “unnamed” sources and deleted tweets are allowable evidence against the Russians. In the information vacuum of the past 24 to 48 hours, people have been scraping for any proof for whom (and what) caused the airliner crash.
They are posting YouTube videos from Eastern Ukraine, discovering purported calls made between evil separatists at the moment they realize the airliner wasn’t a Ukrainian transport plane, and pointing to deleted tweets from Igor Strelkov and other separatists, who appear to brag of bringing down Ukrainian planes.
“Unnamed officials” – no doubt, the same unnamed officials who had no idea that Russia was planning on getting involved in Crimea – suddenly are sure beyond a shadow of a doubt that a Russian missile brought down the plane. Yet, keep in mind, even CNN has added the caveat to most everything it shows on the TV, a version of “We have no way of verifying this information.”
Storyline 7: People who speak English to reporters on cable TV are more reliable than people who don’t. This is one of those white elephants in the middle of the room that people don’t want to talk about.
Yet, consider for a moment the following: the “good guys” in Kiev dress in suits and speak English, while the “bad guys” in Donetsk have their phone conversations subtitled in English and are usually seen in file photos wearing army fatigues or dressed in masks.
To the casual observer, the subtext is clear: people who act like the West, dress like the West and speak like the West must be friendly to the West. And vice versa. (This should remind you a lot of the Russian-Georgian War in 2008, when the Georgians used this approach to win over Western media, and then Western policymakers).
Storyline 8: The attack on the airliner was entirely unprovoked. Again, patently untrue, when you consider the attacks that the Ukrainian army have been carrying out in Eastern Ukraine as a renewal of the campaign against the separatists.
Bombing campaigns against villages convinced the separatists that they needed to get their hands on more advanced military equipment, not the other way around. For weeks, the Russians have been trying to show Western observers the damage and destruction caused by the attacks by Ukrainian government forces.
If these 8 storylines are not addressed immediately and credibly, this plane crash is going to become a global geopolitical nightmare for Russia. At the very least, people in the West (especially the Dutch and the Aussies) aren’t going to have any willingness to trust Russia on anything for a long time.
Already, the same cable TV guests who were once calling the pro-Russian forces in Ukraine “separatists” are now calling them “militants.” Soon, they will be doing what the Ukrainians are doing, and that’s calling them “bastards” and “terrorists.”
Russia has got to get somebody on TV and social media talking about this – and not just the venerable Stephen F. Cohen, who’s already been on Al-Jazeera - or the Ukrainians are going to create their own narrative about the event, just like the Georgians did back in 2008. Remember, this was an information war before it became a shooting war. Now it threatens to become a disinformation war.
The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.