Editor's Note: The following is an opinion-style article by Givi Gigitashvili, the Caucasus research assistant with the Digital Forensic Research Lab (DRFLab). It first appeared here and is republished with the author's permission.
Following Iran’s admission of shooting down Ukrainian Airlines flight PS752, the Kremlin continued denying Iran’s culpability, in part because accepting it would point toward the possibility that Russia shot down the Malaysian Airlines flight MH17 over eastern Ukraine on July 27, 2014.
Even after a Dutch-led international investigation found that Russia's armed forces were involved in the downing of the Malaysian plane, the Kremlin continued to issue denials. Moscow officials and pro-Kremlin outlets dismissed the overwhelming evidence, asserting that it was Ukraine, not Russia, that shot down the plane.
Iran shot down PS752 in the aftermath of the U.S. airstrike that killed Iranian Major General Qasem Soleimani – a tense, hair-trigger situation very similar to the one when MH17 was shot down. Unlike the Kremlin, however, after three days of denial, Iranian authorities admitted on January 11 that the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC) had “unintentionally” shot down the passenger jet due to “human error.” Despite this confession, however, Kremlin propagandists continued to insist that the United States was to blame for the tragedy, as validating the cause of the PS752 shootdown would necessarily add credibility to the claims around MH17.
If Moscow had confessed to shooting down flight MH17, it would have confirmed Russia’s involvement in eastern Ukraine. The Kremlin’s likely calculus here is that the political price of the admission would be higher than that of the enduring U.S. and European sanctions imposed on Russia after the tragedy. With regard to the shootdown of PS752, Russia would likely have preferred for Iran to not have accepted responsibility. Iran’s doing so put Moscow in an even worse light, given the latter’s reaction to the MH17 tragedy. To that end, the Russian propaganda machine tried to distract from the negative implications of Iran’s confession for the Kremlin by supporting Iran’s initial denials and accusing other countries of shooting down the plane instead.
Russian Narratives Prior to Iran’s Admission
Before Iranian authorities issued their admission, pro-Kremlin media tried to sow doubt about the cause of the tragedy. Kremlin outlet Russia Today stated that Western media outlets speculated Iran was responsible in an effort to further demonize the country. Russian politician Franz Klincevich reiterated to the Federal News Agency outlet (or RIA FAN) the conspiracy that the United States tried to frame Iran after an U.S. drone shot down the plane. Klincevich’s colleague, Vitaliy Milonov, claimed to Russia's Komsomolskaya Pravda outlet that the speculation that the Tor-1 Russian missile system had downed PS752 indicated that Western countries were planning a major provocation against Russia. In addition, an article in the pro-Kremlin military media outlet Voennoe Obozrenie (Military Review) asserted that most of the passengers on the plane were from NATO countries, and perhaps the United States shot it down to incentivize its NATO allies to increase their military engagement in the Middle East.
Russian short-range anti-aircraft missile system Tor-M1 is seen on a training ground in Volgograd, Russia, 01 September 1998 (reissued 21 January 2020). Photo: EPA-EFE/STRINGER
Russian Narratives After Iran’s Admission
After Iran confessed its involvement in the crash, Kremlin propagandists started to shift the blame for the downing of the plane onto the United States. Two days after Teheran’s confession, Russian state-run Sputnik news agency published an op-ed claiming to have uncovered the U.S.' role in the shootdown. The authors of the piece, Soraya Sepahpour-Ulrich and Finian Cunningham, are well-known anti-American conspiracy theorists who frequently provide commentary for Kremlin media.
Sepahpour-Ulrich and Cunningham claimed that, normally, Iranian radars can differentiate between civilian airliners and military aircraft, but that the U.S. military intentionally broadcasts deceptive signals to confuse Iranian systems. (The authors ascribed this interference to the IRGC’s confusion in shooting down a passenger jet.) According to the authors, with its use of electronic warfare, the United States has managed to undermine Iran’s international image and trigger domestic unrest.
This article first appeared on Sputnik and was then picked up by 13 additional outlets, including American Herald Tribune, which CNN outed as an Iranian proxy on January 24.
A BuzzSumo analysis showed that the “Iran Jet Disaster Setup” narrative amassed nearly 6,000 engagements across different platforms between January 13–20, 2020. The vast majority came from two outlets: Sputnik and American Herald Tribune, a U.S. fringe outlet. (Source: @GGigitashvili/DFRLab via BuzzSumo).
The authors of the Sputnik op-ed claimed that the Pentagon used a Miniature Air-Launched Decoy (MALD) unmanned vehicle to create deceptive signals, but that explanation was nonsensical: the MALD can create signals that an enemy radar will interpret as a valid signature, but it cannot take an existing signature (i.e., that of a civilian airliner) and alter it to resemble that of a hostile object. Outside of the viability of the claim, the Sputnik authors failed to back it up with evidence that the United States had used electronic warfare to cause the crash of flight PS752.
Meanwhile, Russian officials expressed disappointment with Iran’s admission of fault and countered that the United States was the main culprit in the tragedy. Among those commenting was Aleksey Pushkov, a senator in the Russian State Duma, who said to state-owned Rossiya24 channel that “the dangerous politics of the United States create conditions that lead to military clashes and large-scale wars all around the world […] I think the United States carries some of the blame for this tragedy.”
Other Duma senators, including Vladimir Dzabarov, Alexander Sherin, and Yuri Shvytkin, also made similar statements.
People walk past a poster reading in Persian 'we are all in pain and sympathize' to honor the victims of the January 8 Ukrainian passenger jet downing, in a street of Tehran, Iran on January 13, 2020. EPA-EFE/ABEDIN TAHERKENAREH
In addition to the anti-American narratives, Iran’s confession appeared to trigger some introspection on the handling of the MH17 disaster from within Russia. Margarita Simonyan, RT’s editor-in-chief, posted a Twitter thread on January 11 that obliquely referenced the need for countries to admit guilt in similar circumstances. In the thread, Simonyan wrote:
There are two philosophies on how a big country that demands respect should behave if it messes up catastrophically. Some people believe that the country is obliged to start denying and never confess anything and never apologize for anything. Otherwise, it will get completely strangled and ‘it will only get worse.’ Well, and in general, why should [they] be even bothered to try [to admit it]? The most responsible decision-makers in most powerful countries I know, including our own, adhere to this philosophy. The other school of thought holds up Iran as an example.
Margarita Simonyan’s tweet thread hinted at an ongoing discussion within Russia’s political establishment about admitting Russia’s culpability in the downing of flight MH17.
Blaming Ukraine for Downing of Malaysian Flight MH17
The disinformation campaign following Iran’s admission demonstrated the extent to which a possible admission of guilt around MH17 unnerved Kremlin officials. To that end, Kremlin officials seemed to double down on anti-Ukrainian disinformation. Konstantin Kosachev, head of the foreign relations committee at the State Duma, posted on Facebook that, following the crash of PS752, Western intelligence services began to claim that they had obtained satellite imagery shedding light on the circumstances of the shootdown. According to Kosachev, these same countries have made similar claims, but failed to provide any evidence, following the crash of MH17 in the Donbas region of Ukraine. He ultimately concluded that the United States was reluctant to publish satellite evidence of the MH17 accident because doing so would allegedly prove that Ukraine shot the plane down.
This narrative, however, is completely unfounded: in 2014, the United States handed over highly classified satellite images of the MH17 accident to the Joint Investigative Team (JIT) responsible for investigating the crash, and the head of JIT, Fred Westerbeke confirmed this fact to Russia's independent news site Novaya Gazeta. The images remain unpublished due to their high classification. The U.S. Office of the Director of National Intelligence, however, did release another set of satellite images in 2014 that showed the movement of a surface-to-air missile launcher across the Ukraine-Russia border near the area where MH17 was shot down.
In both the case of flight MH17 and that of PS752, Russia and Iran made fatal errors that resulted in the loss of hundreds of innocent lives. The two regimes diverged, however, in their willingness to admit culpability.
Emergency workers walk among the wreckage of a UIA plane carrying 176 people that crashed near Tehran Airport on January 8, 2020 EPA-EFE / ABEDIN TAHERKENARE
Iran’s decision to come clean on the downing of PS752 cast even more of a pall over Russia’s continued denial around MH17. The Kremlin’s decision to respond with continued denials – including denying Iran’s now-admitted responsibility for PS752 – indicated that Moscow remains determined to avoid paying a political and moral price for the downing of flight MH17. Moreover, the domestic outrage that flared in Iran following the Iranian regime’s confession may have served to reinforce the Kremlin’s belief in its strategy of plausible deniability. Plausible deniability, however, is unsustainable in the face of overwhelming evidence.