Russian strangeness

Marcus Prest,
Åbo Akademi University,

The first time I was aware of something strange in the communication from Russia was when Russian state television presented underwater footage from “the artic sea floor” claiming the video to have been filmed by a Russian sub-expedition – this in an attempt to assert that certain parts of the arctic belong to Russia. A Finnish teenager quickly discovered the footage was extra material from the Titanic DVD, James Cameron’s 1997 blockbuster movie. It was not the act of lying itself, but the clumsiness of the act that felt odd given at least the potential importance of trying to appear credible. The Russian TV-channel refused to comment upon the discovery of the falsification. This was around 2007.

Another time I know I reacted was during the downing of MH17 in 2014, when immediately after the shooting down of the Malaysia Airlines passenger plane Russia claimed the culprit was a Ukrainian SU-25 ground attack plane (which, anyone who knows anything about air combat, knows that cannot reach nor damage a passenger liner at the reported height.) They then supported the claim with a barrage of false statements. This time the disinformation, though obviously silly, was taken seriously enough to be reported as a possible scenario by respectable news agencies. Even people I know who otherwise are critical media consumers were suddenly sure it was a Ukrainian plane and not a Russian surface to air missile that had shot down MH17.

I will give a couple of more examples. One is a weapon camera video of a Russian air attack on ISIS-targets in the beginning of the Syria-campaign. The video, from a camera mounted on the supposedly attacking or targeting airplane, shows a couple of buildings that the weapon sight is pointing at. The bombs or missiles don’t hit the target but explode in a nearby field. According to a Swedish air force officer commenting on the video for a Swedish newspaper, the weapon striking nearest to its intended target misses by at least 50 meters – which is a lot. To the casual eye the explosions look impressive, like the American footage from the Gulf War in 1991, but to anyone actually looking at what is happening in the video it is clear that Russia is not demonstrating an attack that has any precision, even though they claim otherwise.

There are related videos where Russian bombers over Syria make sorties with unguided bombs from considerable heights and from above the clouds, which means the crew cannot identify the target nor be sure civilians are out of the area – the accuracy for such attacks is measured in kilometres, not in meters, and would therefore be called terror bombings in the west (as such attacks were, correctly, called when US Air force committed comparable deeds in Vietnam). These videos were released by official Russian channels. Here the purpose seems to be a show of force, but again, to anyone actually reflecting on what is presented the videos we are seeing is showing a 1960s level of sophistication.

The strangest example is from the American director Oliver Stone´s four part interview film with Vladimir Putin, The Putin Interviews from 2017. The interviews are filmed between 2015-17. In an odd scene in the third episode Putin shows Oliver Stone a video on an iPhone of what appears to be an attack from a helicopter. “Our aviation at work in Syria”, Putin says. People who are familiar with such videos have identified the clip as footage recorded by an American Apache Helicopter attacking Taliban forces in Afghanistan. The video was published on an American website in 2013. The example turns even stranger when one considers there is an added Russian audio track to the video that Putin shows Stone. Worse still, the audio is suspected to be a recording of Ukrainian pilots conducting military operations over Donetsk.

Who is this video aimed at? Is it specially made to impress Oliver Stone and perhaps also his audience? Is Putin aware of what he is showing?

Other fumbles that comes to mind are the strange lying about the poisoning of the Sergei and Yulia Skripal where investigative journalism quickly made laughing stocks of the Russian “protein salesmen” on a holiday trip in Salisbury.

A friend, a professor in the Russian language and literature, who travelled and lived the Soviet Union during the 1970s, explained away this clumsy lying behaviour as a Soviet relic. The lying is aimed at the domestic audience and the base assumption that overrides any remarks is that the state is always right. As this is the ground rule, the narrative presented doesn’t really matter – it is not a question about true or false, it is a question of what the powers-that-be decide is the case.

What worries me is the effect this disinformation has on well-educated non-Russians. Surprisingly many seem to look for alternative narratives to the “western lying” and “naïve western media” when confronted by a story where Russia obviously is the culprit – as if it could be impossible that Russia was acting so blatantly brutal on a world stage. Suddenly conspiracies with byzantine intrigues are considered as serious alternatives to more straightforward factual reporting.

Except his fans few people take Donald Trump on his word, as his lying is simply too chaotic. But when obviously false narratives by Russian state officials are presented, they are for some reason taken seriously by people who otherwise are good at detecting falsehoods in official statements.

I am not trying to deny that “the West” would not be guilty of deceiving, lying and obfuscating the truth on a regular basis – but the standards between Russia and the west appear to be different. One difference is that in the west, the truth has a precise meaning, also on an official level – if you get caught lying you might have to resign and even face court. This difference might be eroding with people like Donald Trump and Boris Johnson in power. One can pray their reigns will be superseded by something better. And that the recent Iranian admittance of responsibility for the downing of the Ukrainian aircraft might make the Kremlin take a new look at its own policy towards the truth – although the latter idea is perhaps a bit too naïve yet to wish for.

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