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Published on July 25th, 2014 | by Ross Arthur Griffith
Image © "Putin Malaysia Airlines" by Presidential Press and Information Office - Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons -

Putin holds a minuet of silence for MH17.

MH17: Propaganda, Lies and Denial

MH17 is a tragedy. But it was also an accident.

Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 – recently shot down by pro-Russian Ukrainian separatists – and the furor over this incident provides only the most recent example of lies and propaganda on the international – and national – stage. There can be no doubt that Russia supplied the “separatists” with anti-aircraft missile systems (and the personnel to use them). In terms of proof, there is a graphic on the International New York Times homepage of the crash site smack-dab in the middle of the ‘area of rebel activity’. I find this to be totally convincing in and of itself; the recordings supplied by the Ukrainian intelligence agency seem perhaps too “good” to be true, or at least, too good to not take with a grain of salt.

But it was an accident: it was in nobody’s interest to shoot that plane down. Russia, Putin, the “separatists” have one of the largest PR disasters possible on their hands. Putin has already denied it – claiming that it was the Ukrainians that shot the plane down – and the “separatists” have strenuously denied it as well, pleading a lack of the technology and skill to do such a thing, despite the downing of a variety of Ukrainian air force planes over the past few months.

Putin – his entire ‘line’ being that the Ukrainians themselves want to join Russia and receive no direct orders or military aide from Moscow – is in danger of losing face, and worse, being forced to backdown on the Ukraine crisis (a choice which might even generate huge internal to Russia problems for him). From the start, the Russian military and intelligence agencies have been all over the Ukraine crisis, but more than being a sort of ‘fifth column’, they seem to be constituting the entire backbone of the confrontation.

With the “Federal State of Novorossiya” in the balance, Putin has little choice but to deny and obfuscate the issue and the crime. The only thing we can be sure of is that a direct and frank admission from Putin will not be forthcoming. Personally, I fear that ultimately direct international pressure will not be brought to bear; the missile launcher will never be found; all evidence will probably remain circumstantial, or if direct, inconclusive (i.e., yes this is part of a Buk missile, but it could be Ukrainian as well as Russian, there is no serial number). Russian state television will continue to generate alternative theories, or try to ‘disappear’ the issue.

Does any one remember Muhammad Saeed al-Sahhaf or “Baghdad Bob”? He was the Iraqi Minister of Information during the 2003 invasion, who as the Iraqi army and state crumbled, confidently maintained that Iraq was winning the war and defeating the Coalition. Using a variety of male innuendo and bravado (“We are thrusting at them.”) and downright lies (“They are not near Baghdad. Don’t believe them!”), al-Sahhaf’s amazing denial of fact has won for himself an odd, ironic sort of fame. Take “” for example, or watch some of his highlights here.

Of course, the supreme example of propaganda is North Korea. My favorite examples – leaving out the fantastic brinksmanship and saber-rattling of the regime – is the recently constructed ski resort, Masik Pass, deemed to be “the most exotic ski destination on Earth”, and in an odd way this actually winds up being true, but not in the way they intended.

Even more intriguing is North Korea’s protests over the “The Interview”, staring Seth Rogan and James Franco and due to be released in October, which portrays an assassination Kim Jong-un. I find it fascinating that the North Koreans have formally complained to the United Nations and the White House over the film, going so far as to call the release of the movie an “act of war”.

So what do all these examples of lies and propaganda mean? If we take the example of Putin’s denial of MH17, it seems that there is no way he can realistically expect western nations to believe him. Thus his denial is for ‘domestic consumption’. Propaganda is about maintaining a ‘narrative’, a consistent view of events. Propaganda – be it Russian, Iraqi, North Korean, or whomever – is always shaped by internal, domestic concerns.

I want to introduce here the idea of “cognitive dissonance”, which is the idea that people who hold conflicting or inconsistent ideas will experience mental discomfort and seek to either bring their beliefs into consistency or to disguise or hide the inconsistency. In frank terms, people in general will act to confirm and maintain the beliefs they hold in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Putin knows that few ‘westerners’ will believe the denial (the best he can hope for is to maintain a level of doubt), but that huge portions of the Russian and pro-Russian Ukrainians will believe the denial.

In the example of North Korea’s protest over “The Interview”, we can again see that this is for domestic consumption. “Look,” the North Korean regime can be seen saying to its starving people, “the US is crazy and provocative: they’re making a movie about assassinating our leader!” In the murky world of the North Korean leadership, it must seem to confirm their own worst fears; military regimes always have lots of problems with the subtleties of humor (a humorous example of this is how Iranian news channels read The Onion news stories literally).

The example of the North Korean ski resort seems to be the simple need to keep up appearances, or to not “loose face”. It also functions as a distraction, because building a ski resort is a problem much more tractable then feeding the entire North Korean population. Again, we can see here that propaganda has more of a domestic role then an international role. While it can be argued that Putin’s denial buys him some time to make a strategic decision about what to do about the “separatists”, this provides with a window into Putin’s original motivations for provoking this crisis.

Since the end of the Cold War, there was an implicit agreement between the Western powers and Russia: “We will treat you like a Great Power, provided that you do not act like one”. However, to maintain Putin’s regime, and emboldened by the US’ squandering of political and military capital in Iraq and Afghanistan, Russia has been playing at being a Great Power again, most notable in the 2008 South Ossetia War, and now the Ukraine crisis. These actions provide a patriotic enthusiasm for the regime.

Propaganda does not necessarily take the form of states lying openly. We live in an age of misinformation, distraction, and the manufacture of “reasonable doubt”. The classic example is tobacco companies funding “research institutes” to discredit the link between smoking and cancer: “doubt is our product” being the famous direct quote from one of the institute’s internal papers.

Even the more mundane way we use the internet is increasingly becoming a controlled and monitored space. Everything we do and say online is probably recorded; data-mining is relentless, and the online world we experience is increasingly like looking into a distorted mirror of yourself.

This leads us back to MH17, where pro-separatist social media sights, after initially bragging about shooting down the plane all mysteriously deleted all references to the event, and even pictures of previously captured Buk missiles from Ukraine by the “separatists”.

Winston Churchill said that “The truth is so precious that it needs a bodyguard of lies”. This statement is perhaps even more relevant today then when he uttered it during WWII. I can only conclude with the observation that it is what you most sincerely believe in that will be the vehicle through which you will be lied to and manipulated.

Please note that all blog posts do not represent the views of Catch21 but only of the individual writers. We also aim to be factually accurate and balanced across all content taken as a whole.

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About the Author

Originally from Olympia, Washington State, I am currently an intellectual history MA student at the University of Sussex. What interests me is 'big picture' questions: the area where psychology, economics, history, and politics deeply interact.

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