Associate Fellow, Russia and Eurasia Programme
Russia and the United States have both presented versions of what they believe happened to Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17. The two briefings could not have been more different, both in terms of content and of their attitude to the truth.
High-ranking Russian military officials speak with journalists during a briefing in Russia's Defence Ministry in Moscow on 21 July 2014. Photo by Dmitry Serebryakov/AFP/Getty Images.High-ranking Russian military officials speak with journalists during a briefing in Russia's Defence Ministry in Moscow on 21 July 2014. Photo by Dmitry Serebryakov/AFP/Getty Images.

A briefing to selected media by US intelligence agencies has described a single explanation for the shootdown: a mistake by Russian-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine who thought they were firing at a Ukrainian government aircraft, but lacked either the information or the competence to realize they were targeting a civil airliner. This was the scenario I suggested two days after the crash, on the basis of information from the separatists themselves.

But the day before the US briefing, a presentation by the Russian Ministry of Defence put forward a range of scenarios for the shooting down of MH17, all of which place the blame firmly on the Ukrainian government. The US officials thus spent much of their briefing time rebutting a number of Russian suggestions which were implausible, dubious, flawed or simply fantasy.

One telling difference between the two briefings was the US willingness to say ‘we don't know’. In the absence (so far) of smoking gun evidence, rather than speculate, the US officials confirmed that they could not state positively who launched the Buk missile that downed the Malaysian airliner.

The US intelligence briefers did not, as some had expected, rely heavily on previously classified material; in fact, so much of what happened can be pieced together from open sources, available to all. Where there was reference to classified information or capabilities, it added little to what is already known. The US officials said that recordings of telephone conversations between separatists, which had been publicised by the Ukrainian security service, had been compared to previous intercepts by the US and found to match. But this was an exercise already carried out by journalists and independent experts, who even took the extra step of calling the separatists' numbers to speak to them directly and confirm that they were in fact real people.

Suspension of Disbelief

By stark contrast, the Russian briefing put forward a number of conflicting arguments, many of which relied heavily on suspension of disbelief. Video footage of the Buk missile launcher crossing from Ukraine back into Russia had to be fabricated, the briefer argued, because the background showed a billboard advertising a car dealership in a town in Ukrainian government hands. That argument holds good if you happen to believe that businesses only ever advertise in their home towns.

And a key suggestion of the Russian briefing - that the Malaysian airliner could have been shot down by a Ukrainian Su-25 ground attack aircraft - falls down in more ways than one. First, there is the Russian statement that the Su-25 can ‘briefly’ reach the same altitude as the Boeing 777, despite all other sources - including the aircraft's manufacturer - quoting a ceiling which is over 10,000 feet lower. Even if this were true, and under ideal circumstances and through skilled piloting a Su-25 could briefly reach the claimed height, it is even more unlikely this would be possible for long enough to engage a target while carrying a weapon load - which restricts the Su-25’s normal ceiling to an even lower altitude.

The Russian claim about this weapon load also includes assertions which immediately place it in doubt. According to the Russian briefer, the R-60 air-to-air missile which can be carried by the Su-25 has a probability of destroying its target which is ‘guaranteed at a distance of up to five kilometres’. But there is no such thing as a guaranteed missile kill. Even the most advanced missile systems need to be fired within an ‘envelope’ of specific flight and direction parameters to acquire their target, and even then a successful launch is not guaranteed. Suggesting that the missile is infallible may be believable for the general public, but demonstrates clearly the Russian lack of concern for the truth.

Domestic Consumption

But even if the Russian arguments are implausible to the rest of the world, in the end this may not matter to Moscow. Russia has repeatedly demonstrated throughout the Ukraine crisis that when plausible deniability of its involvement is not possible, even implausible denials are acceptable.

The story of the crash presented by Russian domestic media is unrecognizable from what has been established as fact so far. Russian viewers - and those worldwide who tune in to RT, the Russian state propaganda network - are in many cases told the direct opposite of what is really happening. This suits those in power in Moscow, as it continues to insulate them from criticism over the MH17 incident. And the Russian information machine has swiftly swung behind the stories presented by the Ministry of Defence. Russian media are carrying ‘unconfirmed’ reports that Ukrainian air traffic control recordings have been seized to conceal the presence of the supposed Su-25, and Wikipedia entries in Russian and English have been amended in the hope that they would no longer show the Russian scenarios to be impossible.

In May this year, Moscow's International Security Conference heard how ‘in information warfare, the side that tells the truth loses’. In the case of Flight MH17, the truth is the last thing Moscow needs.

To comment on this article, please contact Chatham House Feedback