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Russia crowns terrible PR week with new “evidence” about MH17 shoot-down

Yesterday, the Russian Ministry of Defense published what they call indisputable evidence that Ukrainian forces shot down Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 (MH17).

Their press conference comes on top of a tough week for the Russian government. First, there was Viktor Zolotov’s embarrassing video rant, where the head of the national guard challenged opposition leader Alexei Navalny to a fist fight. Then there was the disastrous television appearance on RT of the men allegedly named Petrov and Boshirov. The two suspects in the poisoning of Sergey Skripal in Salisbury pleaded their innocence so unconvincingly that even RT editor Margarita Simonyan seemed to find their incoherence amusing. And finally, there was the gubernatorial election in Primorye, where election fraud was unusually blatant, and protests are unfolding.

Russians are of course aware of these things. The commentator Oleg Kashin has called it a “Week of national embarrassment” in republic.ru. He went on to speculate that perhaps there is a secret plot by a junta in the Kremlin to screw things up for Putin, because this level of incompetence is almost surreal.

So the Russian government was not exactly talking from a position of credibility, when they announced this new evidence about the downing of MH17.

What they actually revealed at the press conference was some more information about the BUK missile, which shot down MH17. Some apparently declassified documents show that this particular missile was inherited by Ukraine after the collapse of the Soviet Union. They also said that video footage showing the BUK launcher in Donbass on 17 July 2014 is falsified. And then they presented an audio recording from 2016 where a Ukrainian colonel talks about shooting down “another Malaysian Boeing”.

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Malaysian Airlines Flight 17, photographed at an earlier occasion. Photo: Alan Wilson

TV Rain has made a nice overview of the different Russian stories since the incident on 17 July 2014:

17 July 2014: Just after the incident, the Russian TV channel LifeNews reported that separatists in Donbass had successfully shot down another Ukrainian military transport aircraft.

17 July 2014: Russian media report that two Ukrainian military aircraft had flown next to MH17 when it was hit. The Defense Ministry demands that Ukraine explains this stunning coincidence. The information came from a Twitter account from an alleged Spanish air-traffic controller in Kiev. The Twitter account was later identified as fake, but nevertheless, Putin referred to the Spanish air-traffic controller in a conversation with movie director Oliver Stone.

18 July 2014: Russian Defense Ministry says that they have evidence that a Ukrainian Su-25 was in the same area as MH17.

November 2014: Russian Channel One shows sensational footage of a Ukrainian fighter jet attacking MH17.

End of 2015: Russian Defense Ministry stops talking about the theory of a Ukrainian fighter jet.

September 2016: The Dutch investigation team reveal evidence that MH17 was shot down by a BUK missile, which was launched near the village Pervomayske. According to Russia, the BUK missile was fired from Ukrainian territory near the village Zaroshchenshoye.

May 2018: The Dutch investigation team say the missile belonged to the 53rd air defense brigade in Kursk. The missile probably has the serial number 9D1318869032, which means that it was built in 1986. Russia says that it cannot be their missile because they retire missiles when they are 25 years old.

17 September 2018: Russia’s Ministry of Defense has a press briefing where they comment on the serial number. They claim this particular missile was handed over to Ukraine after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

I will not go into a deep analysis of yesterday’s press briefing. I have included the Defense Ministry’s own explanation in English in the video at the bottom, so you can judge for yourself. I will say, though, that the Russian Ministry of Defense does not have a credible track record when it comes to explanations about MH17. I expect their newest evidence to be torn apart mercilessly over the coming weeks. Especially Bellingcat has done phenomenal work so far.

The initial reactions indicate that commentators are not overly impressed. The air transport expert Vadim Lukashevich notices that it took Russia four months to find the documents after the serial number was announced. That is a surprisingly long time. Also, they only presented documents from the factory, but nothing with a Ukrainian signature of receipt, which seems like a logical thing to get when shipping a missile. Finally, it is noted that missiles from this shipment were sold by Ukraine to Georgia in 2007, which means that even if Ukraine had this missile, Russia could have conquered it back during the August war in 2008. It also seems that their presented evidence for the falsification of video footage of the missile launcher in Donetsk on 17 July 2014 is easy to dismiss. They draw some colorful lines on a few frames to show that the BUK launcher has been manipulated into place, but their logic for what can be concluded from these lines seems faulty.

So in other words, it looks like the Russian government finishes off a terrible week in public relations with a fourth shot in the foot.

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