Originally published in Latvian on www.delfi.lv
Mārcis Balodis, researcher at the Centre for East European Policy Studies
Russian disinformation campaigns frequently have a very short-term focus. They are created and implemented with the “immediate and now” principle in mind, adapting to the current situation. Accordingly, as circumstances change, so does the need for disinformation, particularly when an event loses relevance. However, there are times when Russia tries to spread disinformation for years because of a single issue. Disinformation will be of varying intensity in such cases, increasing in response to events that threaten the Kremlin’s interests and official position.
On 17 November of this year, the Hague District Court issued a verdict in the case of the downing of flight MH17 on 17 July 2014, which led to the death of 298 people on board the aircraft. Three people were given life sentences for the crime. Sergey Dubinsky, a Russian citizen serving in the armed forces of the self-proclaimed “Donetsk People’s Republic” (hereinafter referred to as DPR), was in charge of transporting the “Buk” missile system to and from the missile launch site. Russian citizen Igor Girkin, better known by the nickname Strelkov, was the self-proclaimed DPR’s minister of defence at the time and bears ultimate responsibility for the use of military resources and armaments. Ukrainian citizen Leonid Kharchenko, on the other hand, provided security for the missile system.
Understandably, after the verdict was announced, a new wave of disinformation began to muddy the waters in order to find the “true culprits”. According to the pro-Kremlin news outlet “Ria Novosti”, the Hague District Court found no link between the downing of the airliner and the Russian Federation.
The publicly available court ruling, which is also available in Russian, states that at the time of the airliner’s downing, an international armed conflict between Ukraine and the DPR was taking place in Ukraine, with the DPR itself under the control of the Russian Federation. The court justifies this by noting that many of the DPR’s leaders at the time were Russian citizens; additionally, as evidenced by the intercepted communication, DPR representatives regularly communicated with Russian representatives, including at the political level. It is also reminded of the existing evidence of Russia’s financial and material-technical support; in addition, Russia has participated in military activity coordination. This leads us to believe that the DPR was under Russian control at the time of the event.
This theory is consistent with another strategy used by the Kremlin for years: distraction. Actually, Moscow has been trying to come up with various theories since July 2014, all of which point to one possible culprit – Ukraine. Furthermore, it is frequently stated that Ukraine is the true culprit, while Western countries actively try to conceal this fact in order to blame Russia. Already on 21 July 2014, the Russian Ministry of Defence held a press conference to present “evidence” that flight MH17 was within range of two Ukrainian armed forces’ “Buk” missile systems, using satellite photos. However, a comparison of the photographs reveals that the images provided by the Russian side were taken and edited about a month before the downing of the flight. At the press conference, an attempt was also made to claim that the flight had been significantly diverted above the territory where Ukrainian weapon systems could reach it, but this argument was also refuted. Given the willingness of the Russian authorities to use fabricated “evidence” to justify themselves, it is clear that this issue has captured Russia’s attention.
Disinformation under a foreign flag
This is also demonstrated by an intriguing case in the Dutch media space. In the Netherlands, a special media project called “Bonanza Media” was created in 2019 to raise alternative explanations for the MH17 disaster. The content was created by Max van der Werff from the Netherlands and former “Russia Today” journalist Yana Erlashova. Both of them had previously been seen speaking out in the context of the specific tragedy, criticising Ukrainian authorities and the international investigation. For example, van der Werff volunteered his help for the DPR’s public communication shortly after the disaster.
Already in 2020, the website claimed to have received leaked investigative information with the intent of creating a sensation. However, the documents only confirmed that the investigation was conducted qualitatively. The most important thing is that, according to Bellingcat, Erlashova coordinated her activities with Russian military intelligence, even visiting its headquarters.
Therefore, one specific case, the downing of an airliner, is able to demonstrate the varying scope and approaches of pro-Kremlin disinformation. Disinformation is spread in a situational and relatively operational manner, with the clear goal of justifying Russia. An “explanation” is offered, claiming that Russia (and often Russians) are unfairly accused in the name of Western imperialist interests.
Even the Ministry of Defence, which is not directly involved in the spread of disinformation during conditional peace, is used to amplify the signal, using fabricated materials that are easily debunked. Admittedly, this raises the question of why such deceptive images are made public. This is largely explained by the need to first persuade one’s own internal audience, knowing full well that dissenters can be labelled disloyal and even expelled from the media space. Finally, institutions are being established in Western countries with the goal of amplifying the Kremlin’s messages to Western audiences by posing as independent and sensationalist journalism.
Battle with symbols
Behind such initiatives is the Kremlin’s overarching desire to change people’s perceptions of Western society for the better. In context, it is important to remember that the downing of the flight became one of the symbols of Russia’s war in Ukraine. A relentless desire to discredit the investigation in any way is a tool with which Russia attempts to save its image in Western countries, since the opinion of Western society has a direct influence on the policies implemented by the countries. If society as a whole holds Russia responsible for what happened, Russia’s ability to freely implement its foreign policy and defend its interests is hindered.
Around 2020, the war in Ukraine was no longer relevant in Western society, but the findings of the international investigation on Russia’s responsibility threatened to cast a negative light on what was going on in Russia. In light of current events, it is clear that Russia’s primary goal of swaying public opinion in its favour remains relevant. It is worth noting that such Russian efforts can be seen outside of the Western world, where Russia retains influence and political appeal.
However, the case of “Bonanza Media” reminds us of a key Kremlin tactic: the use of sharp power. Its essence is to spread deceptive messages in the Western liberal information space by posing as independent journalism, allowing it to hide behind free speech. Through this, “Bonanza Media”, an apparently independent Dutch journalistic project, is able to spread pro-Kremlin information, attempting to influence public opinion in Western countries. Given this year’s restrictions and even bans on the presence of Russian information channels in the West, sharp power will remain a tool in Russia’s influence arsenal to circumvent the restrictions in place.
Looking more broadly, there is no reason to believe that Russia is willing to accept international isolation and conditionally withdraw from its current behaviour. Contrarily, the conflict with the West gives Russia more motivation to sway political events and encourage the consolidation of a vision that is in its best interests. This essentially means that Russia is prepared to look for weaknesses in our own institutions and systems in order to hide its extensive influence.
This publication has been financed by the European Media and Information Fund (EMIF) that is managed by the “Calouste Gulbekian Foundation”: The sole responsibility for the content lies with the author(s) and the content may not necessarily reflect the positions of EMIF or the foundation.
 District Court of the Hague in the Netherlands, “Summary of the day in court: 17 November 2022 – Judgment”, skat. 05.12.2022., https://www.courtmh17.com/en/news/2022/summary-of-the-day-in-court-17-november-2022—judgment.html
 RIA Novosti, “Гаагский суд не увязал напрямую с Россией применение ЗРК “Бук” в деле MH17”, skat. 05.12.2022., pieejams: https://web.archive.org/web/20221118190758/https://ria.ru/20221117/mh17-1832279612.html
 District Court of the Hague in the Netherlands, “Решение суда по делу МН17”, skat. 04.12.2022., https://www.courtmh17.com/en/news/2022/court+decision.html
 Юрий Котенок, “Бесовской шабаш в Гааге”, skat. 04.12.2022., pieejams: https://web.archive.org/web/20221126233608/https://asd.news/articles/v-mire/besovskoy-shabash-v-gaage/
 Bellingcat, “MH17 – Forensic Analysis of Satellite Images Released by the Russian Ministry of Defence”, skat. 05.12.2022., https://www.bellingcat.com/news/uk-and-europe/2015/05/31/mh17-forensic-analysis-of-satellite-images-released-by-the-russian-ministry-of-defence/
 Bellingcat, “The GRU’s MH17 Disinformation Operations Part 1: The Bonanza Media Project”, skat. 05.12.2022., https://www.bellingcat.com/news/uk-and-europe/2020/11/12/the-grus-mh17-disinformation-operations-part-1-the-bonanza-media-project/