Let's imagine that someone commits murder, with eyewitnesses present. That someone didn't even try to flee the scene or hide. 'Here I am, here's the weapon, it's mine and it's registered.' But then that person suddenly changes their mind because they realize they killed the wrong person. And despite the dead solid evidence, despite own confession, despite testimonies of many eyewitnesses, they stubbornly deny everything. 'No, it wasn't me ... I don't know who did it... Maybe it was you... See who's the beneficiary... I don't know what you saw there ... I didn't plead guilty…' What would you think about that person?
If someone acted this way, we would consider them either a schizophrenic or simply a stupid criminal. After all, that person has nothing to lose and the court will obviously find them guilty. But when a state actor acts this way, it's different.
Despite firm and obvious evidence, the Russians continue to shamelessly lie to the rest of the world
On July 17, 2014, Russian Armed Forces deployed in the Ukrainian territory launched a Buk ground-to-air missile that brought down the Malaysian Airlines Boeing flight MH17 en route from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur. Despite firm and obvious evidence, the Russians continue to shamelessly lie to the rest of the world. But they aren't just lying, they've been conducting – and not to no avail – an information operation aimed at avoiding responsibility for their terrorist act or at least minimizing reputational losses.
There's nothing new in the technique employed by Russian propagandists, and it has been repeatedly applied in similar situations. Conditionally, it can be divided into three stages.
Stage 1 – "Not everything is as clear as it seems" – at this stage, the most important thing is to sow doubt about the already established fact, so to speak, to soften the information space, creating gaps and vulnerabilities through which info-ops can be developed. But how? First of all, it's about saturating the information space with "alternative versions". Even the sickest ones. Here, the more, the better. Freemasons, aliens, whatever... Everything will work. Let people discuss, criticize, or ridicule ... The main thing is to divert attention from the truth. Don't let it gain a foothold in people's minds.
At the second stage – "See who's the beneficiary" – the versions have to be substantiated. Here, an important component is the skillful exploitation of stereotypes embedded in mass consciousness. They may vary for different audiences. For the Arabs, it's the Jews who could be blamed, for the European anti-globalists – it's the Americans, for the Russians – it's Ukrainians. It doesn't matter which version dominates different audience, the main thing is to make sure it's not the true version of events.
At stage 3, the guilty one shall be appointed unambiguously And, of course, it will be anyone but the terrorist state. The most common tools applied here are the so-called "leaks of classified information", which will explain everything and be spun by "independent journalists". Although journalists may indeed be independent, they may as well be not really smart. But it's best not to take any chances. Real journalists might start looking for confirmation of that "leak" and – who knows – might even dig up the one standing behind the fake news...
A terrorist states still manages (hopefully not for long) to escape responsibility and even remain a member of the international community
After this stage, there's no reason to keep fooling around. The guilty one has been appointed, the versions are well-grounded, and all trials and investigations are just a global conspiracy against Russia. And this may go on forever, in circles.
These are just the official Kremlin versions of what happened to the MH17:
- Rebels shot down a Ukrainian military aircraft (shortly after MH17 crash);
- The Boeing was hit by a Ukrainian SU-25 fighter jet;
- MH17 was brought down by Ukrainian MiG-29 fighter jet;
- The Boeing was downed by the Buk SAM, although the launcher was operated by Ukrainian forces;
- The Ukrainians shot down the passenger jet because they mistook it for Putin's plane;
- The Boeing had no passengers on board, just bodies. This is an operation aimed at discrediting Russia; and
- The Ukrainians have deliberately chosen to leave their airspace open and brought that passenger jet into the war zone."
Once again, I emphasize that these are only official versions that do not take into account the so-called "leaks of classified information", "expert" opinions, and the rest of the information noise.
Now, add to this the Kremlin's widest potential in disseminating this information. All those TV channels, troll factories, diplomats, experts, foreign influencers, and so on. And we will understand how a terrorist state still manages (hopefully not for long) to escape responsibility and even remain a member of the international community. Although its reputation has been badly tarnished, it's still not a complete outcast.
What should Ukraine do in such conditions? Our message to the world must be clear: Russia is a terrorist state, an aggressor state. Russia committed this crime in Ukraine during a military invasion of Ukraine. This invasion is ongoing, while crimes against humanity are a daily occurrence.
Our position must remain firm and projective – at all levels, at every opportunity to expose the enemy, reminding the world of its crimes. The world needs to know: anyone who cooperates with terrorists shares responsibility for their atrocities.
Yuriy Kochevenko heads the International Center for Countering Russian Propaganda