This article was originally published in Russian. Read the Russian version here.
Beginning Monday a court in the Netherlands is holding 25 weeks of hearing after hearing to examine criminal responsibility for the downing of Flight MH17 over eastern Ukraine six years ago. From my apartment in Moscow, I’ll be able to watch an online live stream of the trial where relatives of all 298 people killed finally get the chance to give statements to judges, and family members unable to come to the trial can dial in by a video feed.
On my TV screen, however, Russian state channels will simultaneously broadcast out a parallel universe of disinformation stories. It’s a familiar carousel of alternative theories and newly released “evidence” that circles through state-controlled broadcasters, gets pushed out by government-paid trolls on social media and then recycled by ordinary Russians. With each related news update Russia doubles down on its denials even against the staggering evidence that shows the Russian military supplied separatist troops with the missile that shot down the passenger plane over Ukraine’s Donetsk region.
But there’s something new looming over Russia’s coverage of the MH-17 trial. The downing of a Ukrainian passenger airplane in Iran earlier this year may have already dropped from international headlines but as Russia kicks one of its most effective disinformation campaigns back into gear, it’s the elephant in the room.
It took 24 hours for the Islamic Republic to broadcast an admission that its military accidentally shot down the plane and killed all 176 people on board on January 9. That same evening, thousands of Iranians took to the streets with the rallying cry: “Our enemy is not in America, it’s here.”
In stark contrast, we’ve lived with our growing elephant for six years, feeding him a steady diet of propaganda and denials that Russia, or even the armed rebels, had anything to do with the downing of MH17.
In Russia six years isn’t enough to understand the damage caused by this big lie. I talked to my colleague, Pavel Kanygin, who was on the ground reporting for a Russian newspaper the day of the crash in Ukraine in 2014 and asked him, why after all this time do we not confess as the Iranians did?
“This political culture of denial was crafted twenty years ago,” said Kanygin. “Our authorities prefer not to answer inconvenient questions. They’re building alternative context, a new reality and make people believe that white is the new black and the victim is an aggressor.”
Kanygin is convinced that many members of the Russian establishment would be happy to admit guilt for what the Dutch called their 9/11, to pay their dues and be done with it.
“But at the top there are those who hold the position: ‘Not a single step back.’ That’s why they stick it out to the very end,” said Kanygin. Iran, he says, decided to sacrifice short term loss for the long term gain while in Russia “our children will eventually have to pay compensation for the MH17 case, apologizing to Ukraine and finding a solution to the Crimean issue.”
When Iran admitted its military shot down the Ukrainian Airlines plane, one mother whose son Brice died in the MH-17 crash wrote in a private post on her Facebook page: “We also wait to hear such words from Russia, even after more than 5 years.”
As weeks passed and news cycles have moved on from the Iran crash, we in Russia remain locked in a room with our elephant.