The Turkish downing of the Russian SU-24 jet last November saw a predictable series of statements from each side claiming complete innocence and blaming the other entirely. Social media was a key battleground for both sides—the Turkish and Russian governments, along with their supporters—as each tried to establish a dominant narrative explanation for what had just happened.
In the midst of the online competition, a little-observed, funhouse mirror of an online hoax was brilliantly perpetrated, one with consequences likely exceeding the expectation of the hoaxster. The Russian Ministry of Defense was duped by a fake image that Russian state media itself had circulated more than a year earlier, as a way to deny Moscow’s involvement in the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17.
As most of the civilized world now acknowledges, that commercial airliner was shot down in July 2014, in skies above war-racked eastern Ukraine, by Russian-backed separatists, almost certainly with the help of Russian military technicians, using a Buk anti-aircraft missile. Every passenger and every crew member onboard—in all, nearly 300 people of varying nationalities—were killed in what was no doubt an accident, yet one criminally occluded after the fact by the responsible party.
Without being exhaustive, the list of scapegoats put forward by various Kremlin surrogates included a Ukrainian SU-25 or SU-27 fighter jet; an onboard bomb; a Buk missile but of a make and model that the Russians military claimed to no longer use, the implication being that it must have come from, and been operated by, the Ukrainian military.
The first serious attempt by Vladimir Putin’s government to pin the blame for this tragedy on anyone but Russia came via Channel One, the most-watched television channel in that country, which released what it said was imagery taken by a Western spy satellite. This purported smoking gun was meant to reveal the exact moment a Ukrainian SU-27 shot down MH17. Here it is below:
The image was instantly, widely debunked for being an obvious forgery, relying on Google Earth imagery (spy satellite, indeed) and Photoshop. The Russian government doesn’t seem terribly committed to arguing otherwise, as it now accepts the theory that a Buk took out MH17, but still blames Ukraine for firing it.
Fast-forward to Nov. 24, 2015. Two Turkish F-16s knowingly and willingly downed a Russian SU-24, which had temporarily penetrated Turkish airspace. Moscow was bound to follow a similar script to the post-MH17 coverup by releasing another piece of airbrushed “satellite footage” to argue, at the very minimum, that its warplanes never entered Turkish airspace, the provocation for which Ankara justified its (admittedly highhanded) military response.
No doubt anticipating the inevitable, the parody Twitter account “@sputnik_intl,” which spoofs headlines of the Russian state-owned news organ Sputnik, let loose its own disinfo deluge. On the day of the incident, Nov. 24, at 22:01 GMT, the fake Sputnik published an image claiming to show that Russia’s SU-24 had indeed flown consistently on the Syrian side of the border when it was unwarrantedly attacked by the Turkish Air Force.
The tweet is both an obvious parody as well as a clear reference to the notorious fake originally floated after MH17. Only now, it shows a crudely drawn red line with “Syria” and “Turkey” labeled on each side, superimposed over the very same Google Earth image used by Channel One.
Shortly after that tweet went live, two Iranian news outlets—one of them belonging to the Basij paramilitary force; the other to the Revolutionary Guards Corps-linked Fars News—and Cumhurriyet, a Turkish newspaper, ran stories taking the fake Sputnik’s lampoon as a genuine piece of Russian government-submitted evidence. Subsequently, another site, defensionem.com, ran its own version.
The story was then picked by a Ukrainian blogger known for revealing fake news items, and by the Russian Ministry of Defense’s own media organ, TV Zvezda, which seized on it as the perfect gotcha to exculpate the SU-24 and to denounce the perfidious Western press for blaming poor Russia for another mid-air disaster. Yet Zvezda evidently did not realize that it was relying on Russian-fabricated evidence from a prior international incident, or if it did, it just didn’t care. The same image was subsequently uploaded to its Facebook and VKontake pages.
The Russian government fooled itself with its own outmoded lie.
A lot of Russian observers noticed the flagrant blooper and proceeded to leave comments on Zvezda’s VKontake page. Didn’t matter. The story and all the related social media postings are still online as of this writing. No corrections or clarifications have been issued.
And herein lies the lesson. The goal of Kremlin disinformation is not to persuade people of what the truth is; it’s to fashion a compelling, counternarrative for what the truth might be for and only for use in an abbreviated period of time. Thus any empirical investigation to establish the who, what, and where of a Russian controversy is obfuscated and confused.
Even in the face of incontrovertible evidence, the Ministry of Defense still does not admit to recycling a see-through deception of its own side’s contrivance. It’s content to let its lie just sit there in perpetuity as it ushers everyone along to the next self-serving falsehood.
Kremlin forgeries or inventions in the 21st century aren’t meant to last forever because they’re only meant to serve short-term interest. Let’s not forget that the Kremlin once denied it was sending the very aircraft to Syria that it now denies entered Turkish airspace. Anyone suggesting Russia was planning a military intervention on behalf of Bashar al-Assad during the first week of September, prior to the official announcement of the fact, risked the wrath of the Kremlin troll army—and got it.
That’s because Russia wasn’t ready to be seen prepping for war just yet. What if NATO or the United States, seeking to preempt this intervention, implemented its own no-fly zone over Idlib and Aleppo provinces in the summer of 2015, before Putin’s airfields in Latakia had been constructed and before the first SU-24s had taken off from them to bomb the Syrian opposition? The entire project would have been for naught.
So indicating the possibility or probability of its existence was a matter of Russian national security, and those doing the indicating had to be denounced as alarmists or frauds. (Naturally, the very same trolls who denied Putin was going to war in Syria now defend that war and insist that it is targeting ISIS.)
Putinist propaganda is a series of amnesiac vaudeville acts, where each performance appears to undermine or flatly contradict the plot line of the last. Yesterday’s lie doesn’t matter because by the time everyone notices, tomorrow’s is already here.