BERLIN – Margarita Simonyan, editor-in-chief of Russia’s overseas propaganda channel, RT, had a telling reaction to Iran’s admission that its Revolutionary Guards Corps had accidentally shot down a Ukrainian civilian airliner last week.
“There are two schools of thought on how a big country that demands respect should behave if it messes up catastrophically,” Simonyan wrote in a Twitter thread. She went on:
“Some think the country must deny, deny, deny, never admit anything and never apologize for anything. Otherwise it’ll just get strangled and ‘it’ll only get worse.’ And simply because go to hell. Most decision-makers in most powerful countries I know, including our own, belong to this school of thought. The other school of thought holds up Iran as an example. Purely as a human, I’m with the latter school. In my book, Iran manned up. Will things only get worse for it because of that, we’ll see. When people wake up on the other side of the ocean.”
Simonyan’s tweets reveal an internal debate within the Russian establishment on the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 over eastern Ukraine in 2014. The European Union and the U.S. have blamed, and sanctioned, Russia for the death of the 298 passengers and crew. An international investigation established that the plane was shot down with a missile obtained by separatist fighters in the region from the Russian military, but Russia has repeatedly denied this, coming up with one alternative version of the incident after another. There’s no doubt as to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s favorite “school of thought.”
The RT editor is wrong, though. The “deny, deny, deny” strategy employed by Russia in the MH17 case is an exception rather than a general rule. What Iran did is far more typical. Countries that shot down passenger airliners usually admitted it sooner rather than later. And, yes, in most cases they had to bear the consequences. It’s not clear how denying can avert ultimate responsibility, either.
When a Soviet fighter jet brought down a Korean airliner in the Russian Far East in September 1983, denialists led by Defense Minister Dmitry Ustinov briefly won the upper hand in the ruling Politburo, though a Foreign Ministry official called on the Soviet leaders to admit everything, apologize and pay out compensation. But less than a week later, the Soviet Union admitted shooting down the plane; it kept insisting that the decision was justified, because the airliner had veered off course deep into the Soviet airspace, and the Russian Air Force got the idea that it was on a spy mission for the U.S.
In 1990, the last Soviet president, Mikhail Gorbachev, apologized to South Korea, but the consequences of the incident weren’t limited to a worsening of the already chilly Soviet-Korean and Soviet-U.S. relations. The jumpiness of the Soviet air force commanders spoke volumes to its enemies about the Soviet leadership’s fear of losing the arms race. To Gorbachev, in 1983 an up-and-coming leader, the incident was one of many signals that a detente was unavoidable. Part of the Soviet superpower’s self-confidence died with the 269 people on board Korean Air Lines Flight 007.
In 1988, when missiles launched from the American cruiser Vincennes brought down Iran Air Flight 655 with 290 people on board, it didn’t take the United States long to admit what happened, but it insisted that Iran shared the blame. In a speech to the United Nations Security Council, then-Vice President George H.W. Bush shifted the blame.
“There are three ways for Iran to avoid future tragedies,” Bush said. “Keep airliners away from combat, stop attacking innocent ships. Or better still, the best way is peace.”
The U.S. never accepted legal responsibility for shooting down the plane, but in 1996, it did agree to pay $61.8 million in compensation to the victims’ families.
Yet that wasn’t the extent of the consequences. The 1988 tragedy is still held up by Iranian propaganda as an example of aggressive U.S. behavior. It’s one of the hard-to-live down episodes that have contributed to Iran’s enduring hostility toward the U.S.
Outside Iran, as well, the U.S. came off as trigger-happy and insensitive — just one of many strikes against its trustworthiness in much of the Middle East.
Smaller countries whose militaries made similar costly errors in the past didn’t try to “deny, deny, deny,” either. Bulgaria admitted downing an Israeli airliner in 1955 and paid compensation to families. Israel did the same in the case of a Libyan plane its fighters brought down over Sinai in 1973.
In 2001, Ukraine wouldn’t admit accidentally shooting down a Siberian Airlines flight during an anti-aircraft exercise for about a week, but then President Leonid Kuchma dropped the pointless effort and fired the defense minister. Ukraine paid out more than $15 million in compensation, but the incident solidified its reputation for military ineptitude, which doubtless was a factor in Putin’s 2014 decision to attack the country.
So, precedent called for Iran to admit downing Ukrainian Airlines Flight 752; something like that was impossible to cover up for long even in a less technologically advanced world. And yet the history of Russian denials in the MH17 case led the Russian propaganda machine to expect similar behavior from the Islamic Republic, and official media and pro-Kremlin social media commentators spent last week trying to sow doubt about what happened to the airliner.
On Jan. 10, the day before Iran made its admission and the day after Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said publicly that evidence indicated the plane had been shot down, the propaganda agency RIA Novosti ran an interview with a “military expert” who said that any Iranian role in the plane crash could be “ruled out.” The daily Moskovsky Komsomolets had another supposed expert speculate that the U.S. may have shot down the airliner. And the daily Komsomolskaya Pravda’s expert said that Trudeau was no expert and so couldn’t be trusted.
Iran’s decision to take the blame wrong-footed the propagandists, drawing the unusually revealing reaction from Simonyan, but also got independent commentators in Russia overly excited about the example Iran presented for the Russian leadership. “It’s possible that Iran’s acceptance of responsibility for the Ukrainian Boeing’s crash means the end of the post-truth era,” wrote Kirill Martynov, politics editor of the hard-hitting weekly Novaya Gazeta.
The Kremlin, however, isn’t denying Russia’s role in bringing down the Malaysian airliner because it’s any more “post-truth” than the Iranian leadership. It’s doing so, as Simonyan put it, “because go to hell.” The denials say, “What are you going to do about this?” more than they obscure the truth.
If you start apologizing, the logic goes, you’re never going to stop: Your enemies will see you as weak and exploit your weakness. Admitting that Russia sent the missile launcher to eastern Ukraine would be tantamount to an official confirmation that the Russian military is actively aiding the pro-Moscow rebels in the region. But, even worse, it would mean admitting that the Russian military isn’t particularly competent and the weapons systems Russia has been peddling throughout the world allow for horrible errors like the downing of MH17.
What’s going on in Iran following its leaders’ abject apologies will only strengthen Putin’s determination to keep up the denials. Protesters in Tehran and other cities have been stressing the incompetence issue, a message Kremlin strategists will be convinced comes to the demonstrators directly from Washington because the U.S. Department of State has put it out in a tweet.
Protesters mocking the Russian military’s bungling? That’s not a reaction Putin would want to set off by admitting what’s long been proved by journalists and official investigators. The in-your-face nature of the Russian denials is a challenge to the West, a show of force that many Russians see as such even if they have an inkling of what actually happened.
Few countries can afford to take this path, simply because they don’t have Russia’s nuclear shield. Iran certainly can’t afford it.
Putin, however, is overplaying his hand. Even his Soviet predecessors’ bluster had its limits; that’s why they tried to justify their murderous errors rather than deny them for years. Russia eventually will have to admit its part in the MH17 tragedy. One can try to put off taking the consequences, but one can’t wish them away.
Russian writer Leonid Bershidsky is Bloomberg Opinion’s Europe columnist.