MOSCOW — Russian state television has reeled off almost every possible reason why a Malaysian Air passenger jet exploded over rebel territory in eastern Ukraine except for the one western military experts say is the most likely: a Russian-made missile fired by pro-Russian insurgents.
Within hours of the crash, Rossiya 1 speculated that Ukrainian fighter pilots shot down the plane after mistaking its red-white-and-blue livery for Vladimir Putin’s presidential jet returning from Brazil. The channel failed to mention that Putin stopped flying over Ukrainian airspace after Russia annexed the Black Sea peninsula of Crimea in March.
Then Channel One, the most-watched station in the country, said the rebels did indeed shoot down a jet, but it wasn’t flight MH17. Rather, it was a Ukrainian warplane that had just destroyed the Malaysian Air jet. The channel cited a woman it identified only as Tatiana as saying she saw two planes in the area at the same time.
The current rallying cry, voiced by officials including the speaker of parliament, Sergei Naryshkin, is that Ukraine’s aviation authorities are “criminally negligent” for letting the Amsterdam-Kuala Lumpur flight cross a war zone at all. Missing from this version is who actually fired the missile.
“I switch the channel now as soon as I see news about Ukraine comes on,” Elena Gurman, a 30-year-old Muscovite who works at a passport and visa center, said today. “Our generation has seen so many lies – Perestroika, the breakup of the Soviet Union, the Chechen war. They say one thing on TV and then as soon as the ‘top secret' label goes away the truth turns out to be completely different.”
After coming to power in 2000, Putin regained government control over every major TV outlet in the country, pushing vocal dissent to the corners of the Internet. With the Kremlin managing the tone and topics broadcast across the country, his approval rating has risen to 86 percent, near an all-time high, boosted by hosting the Winter Olympics in February and the annexation of Crimea.
State television is the authoritative voice for most Russians who live outside major cities, allowing the Kremlin to use the Ukraine conflict to boost Putin’s popularity, according to Lev Gudkov, director of the independent Levada Center polling group in Moscow.
“People can’t check who shot down that plane like they can check if groceries are getting more expensive,” Gudkov said Friday by phone. “The strategy, which is controlled by the Kremlin’s political technicians, is extremely effective. Even the Sochi Olympics couldn’t do to Putin’s rating what the Ukraine conflict has. The last time his rating was comparable was during the war with Georgia in 2008.”
Nikolai Levshchenko, a 40-year-old former Russian officer who was born in eastern Ukraine during the Soviet era, said he relies on Rossiya 24, a 24-hour state-run news channel, and other government media for information.
“I don’t fully support the government,” Levshchenko said Friday in central Moscow. “But Kiev is violating our borders and killing innocent civilians and children. We should have a more muscular response.”
For Sara Firth, a London-based reporter for the government’s English-language cable network Russia Today, the state-ordered coverage of Thursday’s tragedy was too much to bear, according to Press Gazette.
The U.K. newspaper cited Firth as saying she quit because she was fed up with the “level of disrespect for the facts.”
Putin told ministers on Thursday that Ukraine’s government was responsible for the downing of the Malaysian Air plane, which killed all 298 people on board, because it wouldn’t have happened if there were no war, according to a transcript of the meeting. Putin said he ordered all his agencies to do everything to “investigate this crime.”
Ukraine’s state security service said it intercepted phone conversations among militants about the missile that struck down flight MH17 about 18 miles from Russia. The rebels denied the accusation. Evidence so far indicates that the jet was hit by an SA-11 or Buk weapons system, according to four U.S. officials who asked for anonymity because the probe is continuing. The missiles, widely deployed in eastern Europe, are mounted on vehicles that resemble tanks.
Russian television has made frequent reference to the accidental downing of a Russian passenger jet by Ukraine’s military in 2001. A Sibir airline Tupolev 154 flying from Tel Aviv, Israel, to the Siberian city of Novosibirsk exploded over the Black Sea in October of that year. Ukraine initially denied responsibility for the crash. It later admitted that a stray anti-aircraft missile downed the jet in error.
“It’s difficult to believe what they say on TV because there’s no authentic data,” said Mikhail Voronkov, 32, a system administrator in Moscow. “It’s sad that unverifiable information is being broadcast on state television. It’s probably a propaganda ploy. Maybe we'll be told later why they are doing this.”
With assistance from Tony Capaccio and David Lerman in Washington and Henry Meyer and Elena Mazneva in Moscow