The Russian media has made one thing clear in the aftermath of the destruction of Malaysian Airlines Flight MH17: it generates a view of the world corresponding to the political needs of the Kremlin. Yet even the Kremlin spin machine has been incapable of coming up with a plausible account of this tragedy that could deflect responsibility from the Putin administration's policies and actions.
So far, Russian official statements have been limited to generalized finger-pointing at the Ukrainian leadership for supposedly fomenting conflict and protests that "nothing has been proven yet." As a result, the state-controlled mainstream Russian media has been left spinning its wheels, rather than the facts as usual.
As many commentators have noted, following the awful events of this week the Kremlin's policy of covert "hybrid warfare" in Eastern Ukraine is at a crossroads: Putin must balance the domestic political risks involved in backing down from conflict and, at least implicitly, acknowledging Russian responsibility for the tragedy, on the one hand, against the growing dangers of Russia's global economic and political isolation, on the other.
Given the unknowns involved, it is small wonder that his administration is refraining from extensive public pronouncements, in the hope that no more conclusive evidence surfaces that Flight MH17 was destroyed by incompetent separatists, perhaps supplied and aided by the Russian armed forces, as western specialists and intelligence services believe to be the case.
This has left the mainstream Russian media, used to taking the lead from the Kremlin narrative, uncomfortably hanging. With no officially endorsed version of events to echo and embellish, media accounts have concentrated on casting doubt and offering murky proposals. Russia's established news sources of record are either refraining from offering analysis at all or resorting to half-baked insinuations.
Maksim Kononenko, a commentator in the enduring Russian newspaper Izvestia, begins his rather historically questionable and even more analytically vacuous column "Chronicle of a Broadly Undertaken Provocation" (July 18, 2014):
In the Donetsk Oblast a Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777 has crashed. 295 people have died. The airplane fell from a height of ten kilometers, which usually happens for one of two reasons -- either an explosion on board or a rocket strike. Taking into consideration the region in which the airplane came down, it is completely logical to assume that it was shot down. The only question is: by whom? On our planet there are only two countries that have in the past shot down a civilian airliner by accident. Those countries are Ukraine and the USA.
The lead article by political correspondent Natalya Rozhkova on the Flight MN17 tragedy in the popular mass-audience paper Moskovsky komsomolets is entitled "The Downed Boeing: There is No Truth. And There Will Be No Truth?" (July 20, 2014). It boldly announces:
The legend that in our marvelous new world of information you can't bury the truth with propaganda has collapsed in ruins. And we're not just talking about a little truth, but a whole rocket -- the one that downed the ill-fated Malaysia Airlines Boeing on Thursday.
What follows is a litany of doubts, suspicions and outrage at western media for jumping to conclusions concerning Russian culpability. Finally, the respected post-Soviet newspaper Kommersant is working overtime to offer a completely inconclusive account. Its coverage of the catastrophe, "The Boeing Was Struck By Shrapnel" (July 19, 2014) informs readers that:
Yesterday the first evidence appeared that the Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777 that crashed near Donetsk killing 298 people was shot down by a surface-to-air missile. Zenith rocket complexes capable of reaching a plane at an altitude of ten kilometers are included in the weaponry of both Ukraine and the unrecognized Donetsk People's Republic (DNR). Both sides, now accusing one another of aerial terrorism, had reason to use the Zenith. Nevertheless, the United States has already threatened Russia with a tightening of sanctions.
Given the lack of any authoritative version of events in these professional news sources, it is unsurprising that the Russian blogosphere and marginal media sources have erupted with a slew of absurd conspiracy theories -- that the actual target was Putin, who was in flight over Europe at the time of the rocket attack on MH17, that the tragedy was staged and the Boeing was filled with corpses (shades of BBC's Sherlock series), etc.
In short, Russian news audiences, who had already been quarantined in a quasi-reality created by state-dominated Russian media's twisted coverage of conflict in Ukraine, have now been left with hardly any grasp on reality at all.
Within a few days or weeks more facts regarding the attack on Flight MH17 will become available as a result of inspections of the wreckage. When the time comes, the Kremlin will settle on its version of events, which will be quickly represented as the only truth by mainstream Russian journalists. One may hope, however, that in the interim some Russians will notice how flimsy the world that Kremlin-controlled media creates for them really is.