After a prolonged Russian-media lull on the topic of MH17, last week a Russian publication claimed to have landed an explosive scoop, which – if true – would imply a Ukrainian role in the downing of the Malaysian Boeing on July 17, 2014.
Russian media publish (in English, too) “leaked Ukrainian secret service docs that incriminate Kyiv in MH17 case” https://t.co/w44TK5MjBW
— Christo Grozev (@christogrozev) May 22, 2017
The original – alleged – scoop was published in the sensationalist weekly Sovershenno Sekretno (“Top Secret“), which claimed to have received several internal SBU (Ukrainian Secret Service) documents. The contents of the alleged memos suggested that in the immediate wake of the Boeing crash, SBU had been on the look-out for potential witnesses and/or evidence, arguably as part of a clean-up operation after a Ukrainian-caused downing. The paper claimed it only had “photocopies of a sample of a few documents” that were “part of a larger stash that was offered to us“. The paper said it was publishing them in the “hope of furthering debate” and of pointing the international investigation team in the direction of such hypothetical evidence.
Even before analyzing the content of the alleged SBU documents, the mechanism of the alleged leak suggested that it was an active propaganda measure, as opposed to an actual scoop.
A Russian, controlled propaganda/disinformation plant traditionally follows a particular “echo chamber” pattern, which in its simplest form includes (a) an initial story drop in a fringe or sensationalist publication, (b) the story being “noticed” and “validated” by controlled, allegedly independent bloggers or experts, and (c) the story, thus validated, being picked up in (controlled) mainstream media, with the hope that (d) this will lead to reprints in non-controlled media.
On Day 1 (May 22), The initial story dropped in Sovershenno Sekretno: а recently pro-Kremlin paper that thrives on a mix of facts, kompromat and conspiracy, which over the years has struggled with a number of high-profile slander and defamation cases. Simultaneously, the story was published in English in a sister website FLB.ru under the clumsy heading “Kompromat: To Destroy The Facts of Conducting a Special Operation”.
On Day 2, the story was picked up under the mellifluous heading “SBU orders to destroy all evidence of the conducted special operation MH17″ by The Saker, a pro-Russian, anti-Bildeberg conspiracy blogger. Saker used to describe himself as a “former NATO operative” until his former employee outed him as a Russian undercover blogger residing in Florida, who – in his own words – had to leave his previous residence in Switzerland “due to my strong pro-Russian views”.
On Day 3, the story received wider dissemination via hundreds of self-styled “independent news”, anti-establishment, pro-Russian and/or conspiracy websites, such as www.thetruthseeker.co.uk, www.ninefornews.nl, oorlogisgeenoplossing.blogspot.com, quemadoinstitute.org, and the like. By my count, this story was reprinted in at least 24 languages on Day 3 and 4, yet it was not picked up by any serious news outlet.
At about the same time, the narrative surfaced in US “intelligence information” sites, such as the VeteransToday.com, where its senior editor Gordon Duff headlined it with the definitive-sounding:
“BREAKING: Documents Prove Kiev Downed MH17”
Duff, who promotes himself variously as a disabled/counter-intelligence/ counter-insurgency/mercenary/diplomat/veteran, and is a frequent guest-expert on Iran’s Press TV and RT, awarded the Russian SBU story its own “independent verification” stamp, as per this intro:
Editor’s note: The article below with documentation came from Ukraine and has been vetted as “moderately reliable or better.” I have set a team on it to do cleanup but we did review sources and decided to put it up with minimal reformatting out of “need to know.” This is very much a public issue.
What this does is present documentation that Ukrainian security services planned the coverup of MH17, reasonable evidence that they are responsible for the downing of that crash.
(You may want to check this eerie interview with Gordon Duff where he openly admits that 30% of the information published on VeteransToday,com is “patently false”, and 40% of what he himself writes is “knowingly untrue”).
At the end of Day 3, following the story’s echo-chamber reinforcement in dozens of quasi-expert and quasi-independent “foreign outlets”, it found its way back into Russian mainstream media. For the international audience, it was carried by state-run Sputnik, which headlined with the quizzically titled: Could Ukraine Have Destroyed Evidence of Its Responsibility for MH17 Crash? Sputnik reinforced the original story by quoting “an analyst” by the name of Vladimir Kornilov:
“Although I cannot confirm the authenticity of the documents, SBU did a lot of suspicious activities in the hours after the crush (sic).. Since evidence [of what happened to air-traffic controllers tracking flight MH17] is absent, we can assume that this absence is the result of some special operations by Ukrainian security and intelligence agencies, including the SBU”
What Analyst Kornilov was apparently alluding to, was the debunked Russian narrative that certain air-traffic controllers – such as the fabled “Carlos the Spanish Air-Traffic Controller” – had been disappeared following the MH17 downing (What was disappeared was this Russia Today video which claimed to interview Carlos several hours after the plane’s downing).
Like Gordon Duff, analyst Vladimir Kornilov is a multi-functional expert. When he is not dispensing expertise on Ukrainian fascism and ballistics to foreign and Russian audiences, he plays the part of a Ukrainian emigre in the Netherlands. This NYT investigation pinpointed Kornilov as a Hague-based agitator against the 2016 Ukraine-EU association referendum, during which he collaborated with Dutch Russia-friendly and anti-EU politicians such as Thierry Baudet, an up-and-coming star on the Dutch political landscape, and avid purveyor of Russian fake news such as the “crucifix boy” fable.
A similar echo chamber developed in Russian domestic media, where the Sovershenno Sekretno “scoop” was carried, with subsequent exaggeration , “expert” validation, and confirmation by dozens of Russian mainstream media.
Even without the benefit of an expert review of the alleged content of the “leak”, it is apparent that the “scoop” story makes little sense. The original publication claims that the people who possess the original, verifiable documents – allegedly former, disgruntled SBU functionaries – were willing to sell them for a financial profit. However, the paper decided not to pay – yet still got photocopies, because “the source wanted the truth to be known”. This makes no sense, obviously. If the “sources” indeed were after financial gain, they would not go to a fringe paper as their most likely transnational counterpart. They would have had a buffet of affluent Russian and international media to pick from, although they would be by far most likely to maximize their profit by selling the information to the Russian government. On the other hand, if they were after the truth-seeking effect, they would probably not hand over unverifiable photocopies, and again – unlikely to a fringe media outlet that literally has “kompromat” in its meta-tags.
A content analysis of the “leak”, while redundant in this case, confirms the forgery hypothesis.
First, the alleged SBU documents are rife with linguistic and stylistic errors suggesting a native Russian speaker authored them (note: this is not necessarily a smoking gun, as there are SBU officers who grew up with Russian as their mother tongue).
Second, as I tweeted immediately after glancing at the “documents”, the alleged SBU memos refer to the “Donetsk People’s Republic” (DNR) as a “neighboring state“. For anyone who has followed even perfunctorily the political, social and linguistic dynamics between Russia and Ukraine since the Russian invasion in 2014, it would be obvious that under no scenario other than contemplated suicide, would an SBU officer forego the official Ukrainian nomenclature for DNR as “a terrorist organization” (as per May 16 2014), in favor of “neighboring state”.
My tweet did not go well with Ivan Rodionov of RussiaToday Deutschland, who chastised me for “distorting facts” because “single reference to Foreign States is part of the standard general classification of SBU investigation procedure”. I promptly asked Mr. Radionov to share with us said “standard general classification procedure”. I will share it with you as soon as Mr. Rodionov provides it.
Third, all “documents” published by Sovershenno Sekretno carry an official stamp on top of the signature of the SBU chief. This formalistic practice, which was a must-have in the Soviet block system, continues to exist in Russian documentary turnover. In Ukraine, however, it was discontinued in the early 90’s. In my previous investigations on Ukrainian topics I have come across a number of actual SBU documents ranging 2012 through 2014; none of them have contained this unforgettable Soviet vestige.
Fourth, and most sloppily, the alleged documents are ostensibly addressed to the “Department of Military Counter-intelligence” (DVKR).
The Department of Military Counter Intelligence (DVKR) did exist within the SBU, indeed. In the brief period between 2003 and 2005, that is. The brainchild of the then SBU chief Gen. Igor Smeshko, the Military CI unit was supposed to be transferred from SBU to the Defense Ministry, as a measure against consolidating inordinate intelligence firepower in one agency. After Smeshko was terminated in 2005, his successor Turchinov liquidated DVKR, and military intelligence reverted to being a sub-unit within SBU’s Counter-intelligence department. Thus, as of the time of the alleged provenance of the “SBU documents”, the abbreviation DVKR had been out of use – and statutory existence – for nearly a decade.
It is beyond doubt that the SBU document “leak” was an active dump of forged documents. The meticulous adherence to the traditional echo chamber pathway implies that it was not an amateur, but a state-sponsored active operation. This is further corroborated by the activation of state-owned media in the propagation of the narrative.
The real question is linked to the choice of timing. What tactical or strategic goals does Russia pursue in dumping this easily debunkable false narrative at a time when there is no tangible procedural event on the MH17 investigation horizon.
One possible answer is that the Kremlin is itself concerned with the lack of news on what is happening beneath the lid of the JIT investigation, access to which Russia has not received despite shrill attempts. Short of Signit and hacks, Russia has had to glean information about the investigation status from the occasional JIT reactions to Russian statements, such as this recent rebuttal of Russia’s claims that it provided complete and verifiable radar data to the JIT. It might well be that the Kremlin was simply stirring the pot to see what color the smoke coming from under the lid would be.
Alternatively, this may be a less sophisticated, routine disinformation implant, simply targeting to dilute the public’s trust in the ongoing investigation, or to provide fodder to the “multiple truths” narrative pushed by Russia since 2014.
It is unlikely we will find out the direct motives for this active measure. What it does provide us with, however, is a verifiable list of participants of the echo chamber. Given the apparent implausibility of the underlying scoop legend – and the glaring defects upon closer review of the content – one could assume that the only parties that would willingly pick this story and give it exposure in a definitive, uncritical context – are in fact accessories – paid or not – of the active measure architect.