Ordinary Russians back Putin, Kremlin's view of Malaysia Airlines MH17 tragedy

Most Russians look to be backing the Kremlin's view of who shot down Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17, Gabrielle Tetrault-Farber reports from Moscow. That's perhaps no surprise given what the state-controlled media is saying.

State-run media full of conspiracy theories aimed at the West

Russian President Vladimir Putin heads a meeting of Russia's Security Council at the Kremlin on Tuesday. He had been up late the night before with a televised address aimed at the North American prime-time news hour. (RIA Novosti Kremlin / Associated Press)

The international attempts to isolate Russia over the downing of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 in Eastern Ukraine have not sheltered its citizens from the shock and anguish of last week's horrific event.

The reactions of ordinary Russians to the tragedy range from resentment of the West's incrimination of the pro-Russia separatists and Russia itself to feelings of guilt and responsibility.

But in the broad array of reactions, President Vladimir Putin's popularity — his approval rating exceeds 80 per cent, according to recent surveys — and the controlled coverage of the MH17 disaster in state-owned media appear to have led large portions of the Russian population to support the Kremlin's narrative.

"The West has been jumping to conclusions and accusing Russia of all kinds of things without knowing the outcome of the investigation," said Tatyana Kalinina, a receptionist, reflecting the views presented on state-run media.

"The West always blames Russia for everything."

Kalinina's views echoed those of many Muscovites questioned on the street about the MH17 tragedy, and suggest that the slant presented on state media seems to be holding sway with most people here.

"My heart hurts for the innocent people who were killed by the Ukrainian Defence Ministry in this terrible plane crash," said Vartan Olgodan, a 58-year old Muscovite.

"The Ukrainians have the weapon that was used to shoot down the plane, the folks in Eastern Ukraine don't. There is no way they [pro-Russia separatists] could have done it."

Other Muscovites also blamed Ukraine military for the tragedy, saying the downing of the plane was part of the West's grand plan to turn Russia into a scapegoat.

Putin's PR offensive

Putin, too, has been blaming Ukrainian authorities for the incident, arguing that the tragedy could have been avoided if Ukraine had not resumed its military operations against pro-Russian separatists in the country's east.

An unidentified man places flowers outside the Dutch embassy in Moscow on Friday, the day after Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 with 298 people on board, over half of them Dutch, was shot down over Eastern Ukraine. (Reuters)

Earlier this week, following a series of telephone exchanges with Western leaders, a sunken-eyed Putin reacted to the outcry and talk of Russia's complicity on national television in the wee hours of Monday morning.

In what seemed like an amateur video — uncharacteristic of the Kremlin's usually slick media productions — Putin said that the downing of MH17 should not be used to pursue self-interested "political goals."

His seemingly spontaneous intervention seemed designed to show Russians that their president would not let Russia be slandered. And the unlikely hour of the broadcast, landing him on North American prime time news, suggested he was directly addressing the West.

Riding the patriotic wave of Crimea's annexation in March and the hosting of the Sochi Winter Olympics a month earlier, Putin's approval rating soared and currently stands at 83 per cent, according to U.S. pollster Gallup.

In June, the Levada Centre, a Moscow-based independent research organization, found this figure to be as high as 86 per cent. And state-controlled media has been instrumental in keeping Putin's rating up, and dissenting views out.

The media message

Hours following the crash, Russian state-run television networks presented a series of theories that blamed Ukraine and the West for the tragedy, and vindicated the pro-Russian separatists of Eastern Ukraine.

Amid a whirlwind of conspiracy theories, Rossiya 1, a state-owned channel, extensively described the similarities between Putin's presidential plane and the Malaysia Airlines flight, suggesting that Ukrainian forces could have inadvertently shot down the civilian aircraft in a failed attempt to assassinate Putin, who was flying back to Moscow from Brazil at the time.

An armed pro-Russia separatist gestures to reporters at the crash site of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17, near the village of Hrabove (Grabovo) in Donetsk region on Monday. Most Western governments feel it was the rebels who shot down the unarmed passenger plane, presumably not deliberately. (Maxim Zmeyev / Reuters)

But their broadcast failed to mention that Putin has flown nowhere near Ukrainian airspace since the annexation of Crimea.

Channel One, the most watched channel in Russia, quoted an unidentified eyewitness who said she had seen a second plane in the area at the time of the crash, hinting that a Ukrainian fighter jet could have downed the Malaysian passenger jet from the sky.

State-owned networks have also recalled Ukraine's shooting down of a Russian civilian aircraft over the Black Sea in October 2001 during a military exercise, adding fuel to the notion that Ukrainian forces could be behind the death of the 298 civilians.

The Levada Centre has found that 90 per cent of Russians get their news on the situation in Ukraine from state-run channels, and that nearly 70 per cent of the population believe the information presented is either completely or mostly objective.

"In general, it is safe to say that people trust almost everything that is said on television regarding the situation in Ukraine," said Lev Gudkov, the head of the Levada Centre.

"This trust has only increased since February, when a massive propaganda initiative was launched."

Sharing the grief

Despite the state's crackdown on independent media, some Russians have managed to stand out from the majority view.

"I don't know who could have done this," said Nikita Yarovoy, a 23-year public administration student, after laying red camellias in front of the Malaysian Embassy in Moscow.

"Everybody is saying different things. I don't know who I should believe. We just don't know the truth."

Handwritten notes asking for forgiveness have also been laid among the flowers, candles and plush toys that have adorned the pavement outside the Dutch Embassy in Moscow since the crash. "Forgive us," one of the messages read.

Another asked for collective forgiveness for "all the bad people in Russia" among the many good.

"The United States and Europe can think whatever they want about Russia," Yarovoy said. "But Russians are people too."


Gabrielle Tetrault-Farber

Moscow correspondent

Gabrielle Tetrault-Farber is a Canadian journalist who lives in Russia and writes for the English-language Moscow Times.


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