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'The Magical Powers Of The Con': For Many, Moscow's Defense Of Iran Is Redolent Of Its Denial Over MH17

A child's shoe is pictured at the crash site of the Ukrainian airliner that was shot down over Tehran on January 8.

MOSCOW -- In the early hours of January 11, as the world awaited information about the tragic crash near Tehran of Ukrainian Airlines Flight PS752, Russia's state-funded news agency RT published an article titled The Demonization Of Iran: How The West Blames Tehran For The Downing Of The Ukrainian Boeing 737.

The leaders of several Western countries had already cited evidence strongly suggesting the plane, and its 176 passengers, had become collateral damage in Iran's missile attack on U.S. bases in Iraq on January 8, itself a response to Washington's targeted killing of Iranian Major General Qasem Soleimani on January 3.

But RT muddied the waters around the tragedy. Washington had opted for an "informational escalation" around Flight PS752 aimed at discrediting Tehran and justifying Soleimani's assassination, the article claimed, an effort the authors compared to purported previous campaigns to smear Moscow.

"The circumstances around this tragic incident and the blame campaign launched by Western media show that all of this is an information attack against Iran," the authors wrote.

RT was pushing a line echoed by Russian officials and media reports. Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov called U.S. accusations "nothing more than bombastic, unfounded claims."

Vladimir Dzhabarov, a senior lawmaker, said the West had "blamed Iran in advance" and insisted "there is no -- and can be no -- Russian trace." Russian Major General Sergei Lipovoi said the incident was a U.S. provocation in "the signature style of American foreign policy aimed at justifying its own aggression."

Obfuscation Campaign

To many observers, Moscow's reaction to the incident in Iran was redolent of the obfuscation campaign it launched following the July 2014 shooting down of MH17 over eastern Ukraine. In the hours that followed reports of that catastrophe, in which the West quickly implicated Moscow-backed rebels, several Russian state news agencies claimed the separatists had shot down a Ukrainian An-26 military plane in the area.

Updates to those stories became increasingly muddled after it emerged that MH17 had crashed in the location where the rebels had reportedly downed the Ukrainian military aircraft, giving the false impression that two planes had gone down.

In subsequent days Russia would launch into a concerted campaign to push conspiracy theories and so-called alternative facts, even as evidence of its complicity mounted.

Russia has not only denied involvement in the MH17 disaster, but has also denied providing military assistance to the separatist formations in parts of eastern Ukraine. The International Criminal Court (ICC) ruled in November 2016 that the war in eastern Ukraine -- which has left more than 13,000 people dead -- was "an international armed conflict between Ukraine and the Russian Federation."

A years-long international criminal investigation has since concluded that MH17 was shot down by a surface-to-air Buk missile from Russia's 53rd Antiaircraft Missile Brigade, fired from territory held by the Russia-backed separatists. Dutch prosecutors have announced murder charges against three Russian nationals and one Ukrainian for their alleged roles in the crime.

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Some asked why, following the downing of flight PS752 in Iran, Russia insisted so adamantly on Tehran's innocence. Others suspected many Russian journalists were genuinely incensed by the parallels with Russia's treatment in 2014.

"Guilty until proven innocent. It's the new name of the game in today's political landscape," an RT anchor intoned in an English-language segment on Iran, in a veiled reference to past accusations against Russia. "Tehran will not hand over the plane's black boxes," a Rossiya 1 journalist said, because it fears "machinations and provocations."

Some critics suggested Russia's line was determined by fears that PS752 was shot down by a Russian-made Tor missile sold to Tehran. On the Russian talk show 60 Minutes on January 9, commentators claimed that no Russian-made Tor complexes could have been in the area of Tehran's airport and reiterated claims of a Western "information war."

Few now doubt it was indeed a Tor missile that downed PS752.

Narrative Falls Apart

The problem, for Russia, of denying Iran's complicity in a tragedy that Moscow had little fear of being directly blamed for is that Tehran admitted responsibility for it on January 11 -- mere hours after RT's Demonization Of Iran article came out.

In an instant, Russia's coordinated narrative on the incident fell apart, bringing into stark relief the parallels between Iran's admission of guilt and Moscow's dogged denials over MH17 throughout the past five years.

"I didn't want to believe it until the last. A full remake of July 17, 2014," Gleb Pavlovsky, a former adviser to Russian President Vladimir Putin, wrote in reference to the MH17 downing. "But the Iranians admitted it -- a strong nation."

"Iran acknowledged that it downed the plane," wrote Sergei Smirnov, the chief editor of online news outlet Media Zona. "That means we're worse than Iran. This is a national humiliation that some inexplicably see as greatness."

Investigators inspect wreckage at the PS752 crash site near Tehran.
Investigators inspect wreckage at the PS752 crash site near Tehran.

And yet, despite being faced with Iran's admission, Moscow continued to portray Tehran as a victim of a Western information war and appeared to seize the chance to again trash claims it was complicit in the downing of MH17.

"Just a reminder: #FakeNews doubled down on #BlameRussia from day 1 on #MH17," the Russian Embassy in Canada, 57 of whose nationals died aboard PS752, posted on Twitter on January 11. "Despite irrefutable technical proofs and declassified documents Russia presented, 'independent and honest' western media continue this narrative full of lies and hateful rhetoric."

'Naive And Amateurish'

Russian government newspapers on January 13 avoided mention of MH17, despite the obvious comparisons, and many instead drew parallels only with the accidental U.S. downing in 1998 of an Iranian passenger jet amid a battle with the Iranian military in the Persian Gulf, an incident which claimed 290 lives.

In an op-ed titled Iran Jet Disaster Setup, Russia's state-owned Sputnik news agency reiterated previous Russian allegations that the downing of flight PS752 was orchestrated by the United States in a bid to take advantage of regional instability in the wake of the killing of Soleimani.

"The Americans exploited a brink-of-war scenario in which they anticipated Iranian air-defense systems to be on a hair-trigger," the authors wrote, despite scant evidence. "The fateful incident was a setup."

Many in Russia appear immune to such claims and deeply skeptical of the sources they marshal as evidence. In an op-ed on January 11 titled Lies Are Costly, the politics editor of opposition newspaper Novaya Gazeta, Kirill Martynov, ridiculed Russia's campaign of denial.

"In 2020 we've begun to develop an antidote to the white noise of propaganda -- attempts to cheat all of humanity look naive and amateurish," he wrote. "But then again, we live in a country whose authorities continue to believe in the magical powers of the con."

They may have reason to. In the aftermath of MH17, almost two weeks into Russia's campaign to sow doubt about the tragedy, a survey by independent pollster Levada Center showed that 82 percent of Russians blame Ukraine for the downing. Only 1 percent implicated the Russian military.

A man rides a motorbike past the wreckage of Malaysian Airlines Flight MH17 in eastern Ukraine in 2014.
A man rides a motorbike past the wreckage of Malaysian Airlines Flight MH17 in eastern Ukraine in 2014.

In interviews conducted by RFE/RL on the streets of central Moscow in September 2016, more than two years after the catastrophe, Russians reacted with cynicism and distrust toward any reports -- Russian or Western -- about the incident.

More recent anecdotal evidence suggests the climate of opinion hasn't shifted much.

And many Russian Twitter users who followed the large anti-government protests that broke out in Tehran following the PS752 tragedy saw the political dangers an admission of guilt can bring. With demands that Iran's leaders resign reverberating through the streets of its capital, commentators in Russia noted the difference: In 2014, amid Moscow's defiant denials and the propaganda campaign that helped spread them, the population rallied behind the Kremlin.

"I'm envious once again," prominent Russian opposition activist Leonid Volkov wrote on January 11, citing images from the Iranian protests. "Our liars have been lying for 5.5 years now. And we couldn't care less."

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    Matthew Luxmoore

    Matthew Luxmoore is a Moscow-based journalist covering Russia and the former Soviet Union. He has reported for The New York Times in Moscow and has written for The Guardian, Politico, The New Republic, and Foreign Policy. He’s a graduate of Harvard’s Davis Center and a recipient of New York University's Reporting Award and the Fulbright Alistair Cooke Journalism Award.