MOSCOW — As consensus builds in the U.S. government that pro-Russian rebels are responsible for shooting down a Malaysian airliner in eastern Ukraine, Russians are embracing a smorgasbord of alternate explanations.
Like: Maybe it was actually part of an assassination plot. Maybe those bodies were planted.
Khadija Gamzatova, 50, heard on the news that Vladimir Putin’s plane crossed flight paths with the Malaysian jet at one point — and thus believes that Ukrainian government troops shot down the jet, thinking it was the Russian president’s plane.
“They were flying close to one another,” said Gamzatova, sitting on a park bench in central Moscow and gesturing to show just how close she believed the planes had been. Ukrainian forces “wanted to shoot down our plane, but this is what they got.”
Tattoo artist Sergey S. had a different theory. “A whole lot of witnesses on the Internet shot video and said the corpses weren’t natural, that the people died a long time before [the plane crashed],” said the 45-year-old, declining to give his last name and emphatically expressing reservations that the reporter to whom he was speaking might be an American spy.
No evidence has emerged to support such explanations. But in Russia, each has earned the stamp of approval of either a mainstream media outlet or an influential corner of the Internet.
Since Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 crashed last Thursday, killing all 298 people on board, the Russian media has either repeated or originated several theories about what might have brought down the plane — and almost none leaves open the possibility that the plane crash might have been the Russians’ or the pro-Russian rebels’ fault.
Each account of Ukrainian “provocation” seems to have found a ready audience.
Both Interfax and Russia’s state-owned Channel 1 advanced the theory of a Putin assassination attempt. Russian media reported that Putin’s plane and the Malaysian airliner had crossed the same point on their flight paths near Warsaw about a half hour apart — and that the planes had similar contours.
Various television outlets led their broadcasts with another idea: that a Ukrainian flight dispatcher intentionally steered the jet into a war zone to get shot down. Vitaly Trubin, 24, heard one such report on Russia 24.
“Why would the dispatcher do that?" Trubin asked. "Because the [Ukrainian] government told him to. Because the SBU [Ukrainian Security Service] told him to.”
Meanwhile, tattoo artist Sergey’s preferred explanation — that the downed plane was actually filled with planted corpses — sped around the Russian-language Web after a rebel leader in eastern Ukraine, Igor Girkin, a Russian citizen also known by his nom de guerre Strelkov, was quoted spouting the theory on a VKontakte page dedicated to him Friday.
“According to the people who collected the corpses, most of the corpses were ‘not fresh’ — people died several days ago,” Girkin said, according to the page. Many of the corpses, he claimed, showed no sign of blood.
Russian media aren’t simply presenting alternate theories; seemingly wherever U.S. or Ukrainian officials offer what they say is evidence that could implicate pro-Russian rebels in shooting down the plane, the Russian media is ready to contest it.
When the Ukrainian army said it could show militants had surface-to-air missiles that could have shot down the aircraft, Russian media produced experts to rebut that and rebels to argue that even if they did have such missiles, they were all under repair.
As the U.S. government moved to verify the authenticity of recordings of phone calls that indicated rebels had fired at the plane, Russia 24 aired segments featuring sound production experts to demonstrate how those same recordings were a “fabricated fake.”
Russians have picked up on the home-grown explanations not so much because they trust their own media, said one expert, but because it’s simply anathema to believe an American source.
“We sincerely don’t trust the U.S. We absolutely think you are vicious and cowardly and nasty,” explained Ivan Zassoursky, who chairs the new media department at Moscow State University.
“But then, we also really don’t know anything,” he added.
Zassoursky said the possibility of war with neighboring Ukraine had revived both feelings of national pride and latent mistrust of the West, stemming from the days of the Cold War and reinforced by the U.S. military campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan. The latest crisis is also playing out at a time when Russians have unprecedented access to news that fits a somewhat jingoistic view of their country.
The mainstream media in Russia is dominated by state-funded television and newspapers. But the rise of the Internet has provided Russians with many other sources of information, even at a time when the Russian government is passing laws to limit the diversity of media on television and online.
“What is happening now is complete madness in a sense, because everybody has dropped their intellectual facilities as unneeded and is trying to join some kind of team,” Zassoursky said. “And that is happening as there is a shift in media, from the old media — which was centralized, and about personalities — to a new media, where people can find communities.”
Not all Russians believe what they read on state-funded media, Zassoursky added, or trust theories presented on social media. Younger and more educated people — especially those who speak languages other than Russian — tend to have a more critical view of the world, he said, and of their government.
But even those who filter their news somewhat often don’t come to radically different conclusions about who is to blame for the Malaysian plane crash.
Alexei Smirnov, 45 and his wife, Olga Smirnova, 43, said they regularly tune out the state-funded channels in favor of EuroNews, which is based in France and partially funded by the E.U., or LifeNews, which is pro-Kremlin but not state-owned. But even if they don’t believe any of the reports about Putin’s plane or planted bodies, they still think that fault for the accident lies with Ukraine.
“It’s a terrible situation for these people, but the responsibility must rest with Ukraine, regardless of where the rocket [that hit the plane] was flown from,” Smirnov said.
And even those who are loath to speculate at all on who is at fault still can’t really swallow the U.S. version of what brought down the Malaysian jet.
“It’s possible,” Artyom Kruglov, 19, a university student who studies physics and speaks some English, said when asked whether the American government's version of events — in which Russia bears some fault — could be true. “But — why?"