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‘Why Did MH17 Crash?’: Blame Attribution, Television News and Public Opinion in Southeastern Ukraine, Crimea and the De Facto States of Abkhazia, South Ossetia and Transnistria


Abstract and Figures

Shock events are often pivotal moments in geopolitics and objects of intense disagreement among conflicting parties. This paper examines the downing of a Malaysia Airlines passenger jet over eastern Ukraine in July 2014 and the divergent blame storylines produced on Russian and Ukrainian television about the event. It then examines results of a question asking why MH17 crashed in a simultaneous survey conducted in December 2014 in six oblasts in Southeastern Ukraine, Crimea, and the de facto states of Abkhazia, South Ossetia and Transnistria. An analysis of the surveys shows that blame attribution was driven more by television viewing habits than by any other factor.
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“Why Did MH17 Crash?”
Blame Attribution, Television News and Public Opinion in Southeastern Ukraine, Crimea
and the De Facto States of Abkhazia, South Ossetia, and Transnistria
Gerard Toal (Gearóid Ó Tuathail)
School of Public and International Affairs
Virginia Tech, National Capital Region
Alexandria, VA 22314
John O’Loughlin
Institute of Behavioral Science
University of Colorado-Boulder
Boulder, CO 80309
Shock events are often pivotal moment in geopolitics, and objects of intense disagreement
among conflicting parties. This paper examines the downing of a Malaysia Airlines passenger jet
over eastern Ukraine in July 2014 and the divergent blame storylines produced on Russian and
Ukrainian television about the event. It then examines results of a question asking why did
MH17 crash in a simultaneous survey conducted in December 2014 in six oblasts in
Southeastern Ukraine, Crimea, and the de facto states of Abkhazia, South Ossetia, and
Transnistria. Analysis of the surveys shows that blame attribution was driven more by television
viewing habits than any other factor.
This research was supported by a RAPID [grant 14-1442646] from the US National Science
Foundation for the project “Attitudes and Beliefs in the Russian-Supported ‘de facto’ States and
in South-east Ukraine in the Wake of the Crimean Annexation.” The authors wish to thank
Natalia Kharchenko and Volodymyr Paniotto of the Kiev International Institute of Sociology
(KIIS), and Alexei Grazdankin of the Levada Center, for their cooperation in the refinement of
the survey questionnaire and their subsequent supervision and professional administration of the
survey in multiple locations in late 2014. Thanks also to Gela Merabishvili for research and
translation work on the television news reports. Finally, the comments of two anonymous
reviewers for Geopolitics helped refine and sharpen our argument.
On 17 July 2014 Malaysia Airlines (MH) Flight 17 was en route from Amsterdam to Kuala
Lumpur when it was shot from the skies over eastern Ukraine. Two hundred and eighty three
passengers and a crew of fifteen were killed. Travelers from ten countries died, including one
hundred and ninety-three from the Netherlands. Below the plane’s flight path a war between
Russian-backed separatist rebels and Ukrainian government forces was in its fourth month.
Rebel forces challenging Kiev’s control over its territory, including its skies, were losing ground.
Days earlier their military formations had shot down a Ukrainian Air Force An-26 (14 July) and
a Ukrainian Su-25M1 (16 July). In a comprehensive final report on the cause of the downing of
MH17 in October 2015, the Dutch Safety Board, the group leading a technical investigation of
the crash, found that the plane had been downed by a 9N314M warhead on a 9M38 missile
launched by a Buk surface-to-air system.1 Determining who launched the Buk missile was not
within the remit of the Dutch Safety Board but was within that of a Dutch led Joint Investigating
Committee (JIC). In late September 2016 they released a preliminary report based on extensive
forensic analysis, audio intersections and over a hundred interviews with eyewitnesses and other
informants. This concluded that flight MH17 was shot down by a 9M38 missile, launched by a
Buk from farmland in the vicinity of Pervomaiskiy.2 At that time, the area was controlled by pro-
Russian separatist fighters. The JIC investigation demonstrated that the Buk had been transported
from the Russian Federation and subsequently, having destroyed MH17, was taken back to the
Russian Federation.3 The Russian government maintains that no Buk ever crossed into Ukraine
from Russia. Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova described the JIC
findings as “biased and politically motivated.”4
Before knowledge that a civilian passenger jet and not a Ukrainian military aircraft had
been destroyed, a social media account associated with the Russian military adventurer Igor
Girkin (nom de guerre Strelkov, or ‘shooter’) proclaimed that rebels had shot down a Ukrainian
An-26 near Torez, along with the declaration: “We warned them - don’t fly ‘in our sky.’”5 As
soon as it became evident that a commercial passenger aircraft was destroyed, MH17 became the
object of an intense struggle over blame attribution – the projection of blame causality onto
certain actors and not others - between the warring parties in Ukraine, their regional allies, and
the international community. (Strelkov’s post was soon deleted). The violent death of so many
civilians from different countries over a war zone rendered what was supposed to be a local
kinetic event in a military struggle into a worldwide media spectacle. Pictures and stories of the
tragedy filled news programs and newspapers for the following week, and periodically thereafter
as victim remains were recovered and the Dutch investigations got under way. Western-based
free-lance social media investigators like Bellingcat drove much of the initial forensic
investigation of the event. (Much of the ‘digital labor’ used by units like Bellingcat is unpaid).6
On multiple media fronts, the conflicting parties vied to organize, control and channel the affect
generated by the horrific incident. Central to this effort was the organization and framing of
MH17 within ready-made blame attribution and victimization narratives, narratives that defined
and gave meaning to the broader struggles over Ukraine.7
Narrative is the social practice of producing relatively coherent accounts of events, actors
and motivations. Framing is the culturally shaped cognitive practice of classifying and
particularizing that is vital to the creation of narratives.8 This paper examines the contrasting
blame attribution storylines that quickly congealed on Russian and Ukrainian television in the
wake of the MH17 tragedy, and what survey respondents in Russia, contested regions of Ukraine
(Crimea and six of eight contested oblasts in southeast Ukraine, hereafter SE6), and Russian-
supported de facto states in its near abroad subsequently believed about why MH17 crashed. The
emergence of clearly divergent blame attribution storylines, and their persistence, allows us to
examine the degree to which television viewing habits, interacting with other socio-
demographic, locational and political factors, accounts for variations in people’s beliefs about
MH17. Shocking and horrific events occur regularly in the course of violent conflicts. Like the
genocidal killings around Srebrenica in July 1995, the MH17 tragedy is an instance of how
conflicting parties and their state sponsors, with the television media under their control, produce
self-protective bubbles of belief about shock events that reproduces geopolitical antagonism,
regardless of forensic facts.9 In the era of digital media ascendancy, where geo-locational data
are more abundant than ever, truth is still a casualty of war but its death in controlled info-
spheres is now more closely observed.10
This paper is composed of three parts. Part one briefly discusses shock events in
international affairs and the research questions they present. Part two is an examination of the
emergence of blame attribution storylines in the week that followed news of the downing of
MH17. Analyzing news coverage of MH17 by the most watched television stations in Russia and
Ukraine, the paper documents how the downing of MH17 was initially presented to the public in
both countries and to allied territories abroad. Part three of the paper then examines the degree to
which these contrasting storylines of blame resonated with varying publics. Drawing upon
results from simultaneous surveys in SE6, Crimea, Abkhazia, Transnistria and South Ossetia in
December 2014 organized by the authors, the paper examines the relative support that different
blame options received from respondents.
World politics has always been marked by shock events that have distinctive geographies
and materialities. The meaning of these events is never manifestly clear and often fiercely
contested. Nevertheless, shocking events have historically created windows of opportunity for
transformational political action and change. With the advent of television as the predominant
source of international news for most publics, this contest is a multi-media struggle of conjoined
sounds, images and narratives.11 Shock events have many different forms. They can be singular
instances of killing that slowly come to light (e.g. Srebrenica), violent revolutions (the
denouement of Euromaidan), or surprising state power plays (the annexation of Crimea).
Terrorist attacks are a distinctive genre of shock events, distinct from catastrophic natural events
and accidents, in that they are planned and purposeful. Shocking events like the Oklahoma City
bombing in 1995, the Moscow apartment bombings of August 1999, the September 2011 attacks,
the Beslan school siege of 2004, and the Mumbai terrorist assaults of November 2008 are
examples of how catastrophic forms of terrorism become global media events, spectacles of
violence with capacities to trigger affective storms of shock, anger and sympathy.12 They also
create well known opportunities for the consolidation of power by those in positions of
authority.13 Horror has its uses.14
Airplane crashes are a genre that defy easy characterization for they can be accidents or
purposeful cases of terrorism (as with 9/11 or the downing of Pan Am flight 103 in November
1988 by the Libyan government). The crash of TWA flight 800, a passenger aircraft that
exploded on 17 July 1996 after takeoff from New York, was initially considered a terrorist attack
until an investigation determined that a fuel tank short circuit was most likely to blame. In some
cases, the destruction of passenger airlines can be considered purposeful military actions but
there are also tragic cases of mistaken identity (e.g. the downing of Korean Airlines 007 by a
Soviet Su-15 in 1 September 1983 or the destruction of Iran Air Flight 655 by the USS
Vincennes on 3 July 1988).15
In considering disputes over the meaning of shock events we need to consider at least six
salient features of such incidents. Here, due to space limitations, we can merely note each
briefly. We see evidence of all six in television coverage of MH17.
1. Affective Images
Shock events are, by definition, affective spectacles where images play a key role in
triggering and inducing affective contagion.16 Affective contagion has the capacity to widen
existing political cleavages, deepen political polarization and accelerate the eclipse of politics by
war. Television news programs face choices about what to show and what not to show of the
event. Protocols and editorial decisions, for example, about whether to show the bodies of human
victims vary. Shocking images can so radicalize viewers that evidence-based discussion of
events next to impossible. Context and non-proximate causality are easily forgotten. As visual
storytelling, television production can link different events across time and space through visual
montage. It can also produce animated and virtual reality visual reconstructions of events, thus
powerfully shaping interpretation and blame attribution.
2. Availability, Analogy and Assimilation
Shock events are dislocations in the routine reproduction of discourse in geopolitical
cultures. They can create an opening for questioning prevailing truths.17 But they can also
stimulate a renewed commitment to dominant discourses and strengthen epistemic closure to
inconvenient facts. How shock events are analogized to other events in the past and how
hegemonic narratives adjust to accommodate and represent shock events are important questions.
Key mechanism here are what psychologists term ‘availability bias,’ the presence and supply of
similar instances from the past and the operation of familiar modes of representation and
narration, and ‘confirmation bias,’ the selective collection of evidence to bolster pre-existing
beliefs.18 These allow dislocating events to be assimilated back into prevailing regimes of truth
or ‘common sense.’19
3. Authority and Expertise
The role of figures represented as authorities in determining the meaning of shock events
is considerable. Administrative and expert status, projecting legitimacy, is crucial. In
authoritarian societies, the leader of a country is the chief storyline setter. State-funded media
tend to follow the lead of the country’s power center. If power centers are plural and the media
less beholden to the state or private actors, there is likely to be greater scope for divergence
between the official government narrative on shock events and media representations. Experts
have a different type of authority, one grounded in technical knowledge, subject-matter mastery,
cultural capital and a presumption of objectivity. Comportment, dress, titles and background
imagery convey this to television viewers. Becoming successful in Russian television
production, for example, requires adekvatnost (‘correct instincts’), what critics see as self-
censorship.20 Whom are deemed expert and whom are enabled to speak authoritatively in that
role in public, especially on television, is a process that is conditioned not only by cultural and
social factors but also by editorial decision-making. Who is entrusted to decide and direct what
the public sees is shaped by power structure and cultural habitus.21 What is presented as
authoritative and objective, however, may be viewed by suspicion by certain socio-demographic
groups for whom ‘mainstream media’ are part of a conspiracy to hide ‘the truth.’
4. Blame Attribution and Agnotology
Blame attribution can take many forms. It can be a direct and concentrated attribution of
an event to a singular actor. But it can also be a much more indirect process where attribution is
not concentrated on a singular target but diffused among a series of alternatives. The first form
generates a clear story, or counter-story (an alternative account), about the event. In the second
process, however, the effect is to generate a counter-story that muddies attribution. Instead of
clarity, there is confusion and uncertainty. Many different actors and means could have downed
MH17. The picture is unclear and we may never know who is responsible for what. Critics of
Russian communication strategies argue that Russia’s goal is not to create self-serving
alternative narratives but to create sufficient confusion and uncertainty about narratives that
blame Russia.22 This form of attribution drifts towards agnotology, namely the social and
political production of ignorance. Used to describe corporate campaigns to deny causality and
create confusion (e.g. on tobacco and global warming), this concept has similarities to what is
known as disinformation (dezinformatsiia) in (counter)intelligence work.23
5. Conspiracy Theories
A conspiracy theory is a style of interpretative heuristics the explain events and practices
by reference to the machinations of powerful actors who conceal their role to dupe regular
people.24 This style of reasoning is ostensibly populist but is easily appropriated by powerful
actors. In societies characterized by high levels of distrust of or contempt for official institutions,
conspiracy theories can be vehicles for that distrust and discontent. The disruptive impact of the
internet on traditional media, and the rise of personalized expressive social media has created an
unregulated and open communications ecosystem for conspiracy theories to spread and flourish.
Indeed, considerable research in psychology suggests that human cognition processes are
‘biased’ towards cognitively miserly thinking; conspiracy theories are thus attractive and
appealing, especially in times of turmoil and crisis.
Conspiracy theories flourish when professional standards of journalism are compromised,
and trust in traditional authority is low. Politicians as well as state and oligarch controlled media
can be conspiracy theory propagators if it serves identified interests.25 As a widely-recognized
mode and style of reasoning, conspiracy theory needs to be treated as a category of practice
rather than a scholarly concept. The frame itself is part of the discursive struggle of blame
attribution and avoidance.
6. Materialities of Shock Events
Shock events, as noted, have their own materialities and contingencies as events.
Catastrophic events have structural, proximate and physical causes, as well as multidimensional
material impacts and ruins. Weapon systems have physical characteristics, material capabilities
and visual signatures. These pose distinctive technoscientific challenges to investigators and
those seeking to control the meaning of these events. In the course of investigations, certain
material objects and traces may take on iconic status, and may act in ways that defy the meanings
being imposed upon them by the contesting parties. Bow-tie-shaped fragments unique to the
Buk-M1’s 9N314M warhead made its identification possible: hundreds of fragments were
lodged in the bodies of the aircraft’s pilot and first officer. A side skirt mark along with a poorly
obscured unit designation number (32) helped Bellingcat researchers provided ‘fingerprint’
identification of the precise Buk vehicle that shot down MH17. Research needs to be sensitive to
the challenges of the technoscientific process of identifying and measuring the materialities of
shock events, from the forensics of crash investigation to the recovery and painstaking
identification of human remains.26
MH17 was a global media event that was front page news worldwide in the week that
followed. We provide an illustration of the narrative framing that developed in the first week of
the event by contrasting the MH17 coverage by the two most popular channels in Russia and
Ukraine. According to television ratings for 2014, Perviy Kanal (First Channel) in Russia and
Inter in Ukraine were the most watched channels in each country.27 Neither channel is free of
controversy or accusations of bias. The Russian government controls the board of directors of
Perviy Kanal and the station is widely seen as a vehicle for the communications agenda of the
Kremlin. Perviy Kanal is the successor to Russian Public Television, and more broadly to well-
known Soviet television programs, most notably Central Television’s authoritative evening news
program Vremya (Time), first broadcast in 1968.28
The controversial Ukrainian oligarch Dmytro Firtash has a controlling stake in Inter
television (it is also partially owned ironically by Perviy Kanal).29 While it presents a Ukrainian
perspective, Ukrainian language activists consider it insufficiently Ukrainian because of its
reliance on Russian language programming (its news programs are also in Russian). In
September 2016 the offices of the station were firebombed and subsequent blockaded by
Ukrainian militia activists. They accused it of pursuing a “pro-Russia” agenda.30
We concentrated on the evening news broadcasts of each channel, available in an archive
of broadcasts on each channel’s website. We have divided the week of broadcasts into two
categories, the first 100 hours of the event (four days) which are dominated by the materiality of
the crash and its victims, and the second half of the week which featured the presentation of an
official Russian counter-story at a Moscow press conference on 21 July. A week after the crash
two rival storylines on MH17 were well established within Russian and Ukrainian geopolitical
cultures. MH17 is a centrally contested event within the Ukraine crisis, an object of intensive
information war on multiple media platforms.31 This paper is no more than an introduction to the
opening rounds of that war and it effects in various locations.
The First 100 Hours: Perviy Kanal’s Vremya.
MH17’s last contact with air traffic control 13:19:56 UTC.32 Radar images show the
aircraft rapidly losing altitude at 16:20 local time in Ukraine (17:20 Moscow time). News of the
crash was first reported in two brief segments on Perviy Kanal’s 19:00 hour program Vechernie
Novosti (Evening News).33 The 21:00 television news program Vremya on Perviy Kanal was the
first with sustained coverage of MH17. The broadcast began with distant local amateur video and
photographs of the wreckage.34 Correspondent Alexandr Evstigneev, reporting by phone,
presented an on-the-ground account of what happened according to local separatists. They
claimed that a Ukrainian Su-25 fighter jet shot down the passenger aircraft and that they
subsequently shot the SU-25 down.35 A news analysis segment immediately after by Maxim
Semin presented a series of “facts” for interpreting the event.36 In a home office interview, Oleg
Smirnov, head of civil aviation commission at the Russian Federal Service for Supervision in the
Sphere of Transport (Rostransnadzor) in the Ministry of Transport, declared that the rebels in
eastern Ukraine only have mobile shoulder-held ground-to-air missiles (so-called MANPADS
which are effective up to 5,000 meters). He claimed they do not have weapon systems capable of
destroying a passenger jet at higher altitudes. Semin then cited an ITAR-TASS report that the
Ukrainian military moved Soviet produced “Bukanti-aircraft missile systems into the Donetsk
region prior to the downing. Further, Russia’s Ministry of Defense indicated that no Russian
warplanes were flying near the border of Ukraine. Semin’s report reminded viewers that the
Ukrainian military shot down a Russian Tu-154 airliner in October 2001, with the loss of all 78
lives on board. Ukraine initially denied its military was responsible. Footage of former President
Kuchma from 2001 reacting to the accident as well as video of the wreckage and subsequent
investigation accompanied Semin's commentary. Despite initial denials, Semin explained, the
Ukrainian authorities were later forced to admit that their missile had indeed destroyed the plane,
and that they were at fault. The first close-up video footage of a wreckage site, featuring still
smoldering fires, wreckage, human body parts and scattered personal effects, was shown
The information indirectly inferring that Ukraine was responsible for the downing of
MH17 was repeated by other correspondents and experts over the subsequent hours and days.
Further claims about the poor training and expertise of Ukrainian military were made.37 To this
indictment using selective and misleading facts was added a speculative conspiracy theory.38
Over footage of the smoldering remains of the aircraft, the presenter announced that the
presidential airplane of the Russian president Vladimir Putin, not MH17, may have been the
“real target”. Citing an Interfax source in the Russian Federal Transportation Agency, the
broadcast declared that both planes crossed flight paths near Warsaw, had similar contours and
coloring, and, from a remote distance, were virtually identical, according to Interfax.
The following night’s broadcast featured some on-the-ground eyewitness stories as well
as interviews with local separatists who claimed that a Ukraine jet had downed the aircraft.39 It
also reported on the statement by Russian President Putin which, after expressing his
condolences to the victims, noted that “this tragedy would not have occurred if there were peace
in that country [Ukraine], or in any case, if hostilities had not resumed in southeast Ukraine.
Putin then directly allocated blame to Ukraine by virtue of the location of the accident: “And
certainly, the government over whose territory it occurred is responsible for this terrible
tragedy.”40 A range of experts appeared on the evening news show and detailed threatening
statements, military deployments and possible explanations (poor training, confusion, aging
missile stocks) for why Ukraine shot down MH17.41 The broadcast also amplified the blame
attribution made by Russia’s Ambassador Vitaly Churkin before the United Nations Security
Council.42 A section of Churkin’s speech featured him rhetorically asking why Ukrainian air
traffic controllers directed the aircraft into a war zone. He declared that “ensuring the security of
civilian aviation in a State’s airspace is that State’s responsibility. The State over whose territory
a flight is planned must provide the information necessary to ensure the safety of aviation.” In a
section not shown he also complained about artillery and mortar shelling by the Ukrainian
military into Russia: “We consider those provocations acts of aggression on the part of Ukraine
against Russian citizens and against its sovereign territory. We place all blame on the Kiev
authorities and call for the Ukrainian side to take decisive measures to prevent such incidents in
The broadcast of sections of statements made by Russian government officials was
featured alongside a series of background reports that sought to contextualize the event. In an
eight-minute video segment correspondent Pavel Pchelkin asked who benefits from the crash of
MH17.44 The segment is a montage of conspiracy theorizing that begins from the premise that
there is a nefarious purpose behind the downing of the aircraft: “While the perpetrators of the
tragedy are not yet known, and the investigation has not yet begun, seemingly unrelated events in
different parts of the world in the past and the present are lining up in a picture that can explain
much.”45 The downing “happened just as the EU summit began in Brussels to decide the fate of
sanctions against Russia. And suddenly a plane of Malaysia airlines crashes near Donetsk. The
smoke coming out of the crashed airplane had not yet died down when President Poroshenko
confidently stated: this is a terrorist act.” The segment features excerpts from an interview with
Mikhail Delyagin, director of the Institute for the Problems of Globalization. He declared:
It's clear that this is a great way to blame everything on the rebel militia. They shot down
passenger airplane at an altitude of 6.5 kilometers. That's great. It means you [the rebels]
have this technology [Buk], and now we'll blame all on you, and at the same time, on
Russia. Therefore, I think, it is a pure provocation by the Ukrainian Nazi junta. But the
real masterminds are Americans, because, I’m sorry, but Poroshenko, or Kolomoisky
aren’t clever enough for this.46
Before the EU summit, it is alleged, the majority of EU states were against tough economic
sanctions, especially in the energy sector, since these were painful for Europe. The United States,
however, sought to break apart Europe from Russian energy supplies. Mere symbolic sanctions
against Russia did not serve “the plans of the American strategists, who are behind all the actions
of Kiev after the February coup.” Thus, as another featured expert (Konstantin Simonov Director
General of the National Energy Security Foundation) explained:
It is certain that, what happened in Ukraine is an attempt to separate Russia from Europe.
In fact, the U.S. plan is to prevent a union between Europe and Russia, and instead, make
Europe depend exclusively on the United States. The energy sector is the most important
part of our relations with Europe. If this link is cut, then of course, we will have
difficulties in other directions as well.47
This rupture had not happened, however, while rebel forces were proving difficult for Kiev to
eliminate. Strategists in Kiev and Washington, thus, “urgently needed a propaganda
breakthrough that could radically change the situation.” The downing of MH17, however
according to Simonov, allowed the Americans to say to the Europeans that Russia was a terrible
country and that the Donetsk Republic was like a branch of the evil empire. The narrator
Pchelkin explained: “The further the story develops, the more the experts suspect that the special
services are behind the tragedy, and clearly not the Ukrainian special services. This is the
signature of a slightly different country. It's an American signature.” This claim was then
consolidated by a video montage of Cuban missile crisis images and document quotation which
suggested that the US sought to create a very similar catastrophe as a pretext to invade Cuba.
That Putin was returning from a BRICS summit that very day was seen as significant. According
to Pchelkin, their refusal to use the dollar as a reserve currency was a catastrophe for that
currency. Washington, Pchelkin concluded, cannot accept Russia’s growing role in the world, its
energy deals with Iraqi Kurdistan and Argentina. Russia was now a serious global player and “all
the evidence suggests that Washington is ready for the most radical measures to discredit
This conspiratorial mode of reasoning was a feature of similar reports on Perviy Kanal in
the days following the disaster. The Ukrainian government was condemned for its desire to
immediately pronounce separatist rebels guilty of the downing. Deputy Defense Minister
Anatoly Antonov stressed that “political attempts to play on the tragedy, to immediately identify
the perpetratorswere incorrect.48 He listed ten questions that the Ukrainian military had to
answer, questions that insinuated that the government in Kiev was hiding information to serve its
interests. A long video report (12:43) on 20 July asked viewers the ‘who benefits?’ question
again (implicitly cueing conspiratorial reasoning), with eyewitness testimony and video framed
by the assertion that experts were sure it was a premeditated provocation because Ukraine
needed to discredit the rebels.49 It was “no coincidence” that Poroshenko subsequently called on
the world to consider the Donetsk and Luhansk republics as terrorist organizations. The report
reviewed claims made by Ukraine about the incident and presented arguments that (supposedly)
refuted these claims: released rebel recordings claiming MH17 were doctored voice files; former
miners and now rebels were incapable of operating such advanced weapons as the Buk; neither a
Buk system nor any other Russian military equipment crossed the state border into Ukraine,
according to a statement by the Russian Defense Ministry. This report featured a cut-out style
animation of a jet being tracked (vector wave graphics) and then attacked (red dot vector
graphics) by two Ukrainian Buk weapon systems. Vremya viewers, in other words, were shown
Ukrainian missiles destroying MH17.50
In another long video segment (8:22) that same night entitled “Conspiracy Theory – who
tries to use the pain of others for their own purposes” correspondent Pavel Krasnov argued
Kiev’s quick judgement on the MH17 disaster and “confident tone leads to suspicion.”51 "This
indicates that they shot it down and as they realized that they shot it down, now they are trying to
get out of this situation quickly," explained a test pilot (Ruben Yesayan) interviewed for the
segment. Re-using video clips of interviews with Simonov and Delyagin, Krasnov explained that
“the script of this game was written a long time ago, and according to it, Russia was obliged to
get involved in the Ukrainian conflict, giving the West an excuse to show her a red card.” In US
politics “they know all too well how to organize provocations with the benefit for themselves.”
Colin Powell’s “white powder tube” forgery at the United Nations (justifying US intervention in
Iraq), the Gulf of Tonkin incident, the effort to blame Cuba for attacking a passenger airline,
even the late nineteenth century blaming of an explosion on the US ship Maine on the Spanish:
all are examples of US provocations to launch wars. "116 years ago, the Americans began their
expansion into the world with provocation, killed 250 of their citizens and fought under the call
of “Remember the Maine," explained Delyagin. The West remembers the shooting down of the
South Korean Boeing in 1983 but not the Ukrainians shooting down the Siberia Air jet in 2001.
Now “the catastrophe has repeated, and Ukraine, apparently, will again deny its involvement,
even if there is undeniable evidence.”
In these reports we see examples of the six themes identified above. The shock of MH17
is quickly assimilated into pre-existing blame narratives through a series of strategies. Capacity
and intent are projected onto Ukraine. The 2001 analogy points to Ukrainian culpability. A series
of “experts” present “facts” that steer blame away from Russia and the Donbas separatists. An
anti-American bias, longstanding from Soviet times, is mobilized as available heuristic to locate
MH17 within a rich history of US foreign policy provocation and perfidy. These strategies
reinforce the general Russian government line on the Ukrainian conflict: it is all the fault of
Ukrainian nationalists and their American backers.
The First 100 Hours: Inter’s Podrobnosti
Inter has an hour-long evening news program called Podrobnosti (Details) at 20:00. Its
broadcast of 17 July began with phone reports from correspondents.52 The initial visual signature
of the downing was an amateur eyewitness video of a plume of black smoke in the distance. The
broadcast noted Girkin’s social media boast of downing an An-26 and also cited social media
posts by residents of the Torez area noting the movement of military vehicles, including a Buk
missile system, through the area.53 An aviation expert (Sergey Plotnitsky) interviewed declared
that a Buk system could have brought down the aircraft as could have an air-to-air missile. Later
in the broadcast the program reported President Poroshenko’s statement at a Ukrainian National
Security Council meeting: "This is not an accident, not a catastrophe, but an act of terrorism." At
the end of the broadcast, the program displayed a social media photograph of a Buk moving
through what it identified as the town of Snezhnoe. The anchor declared that, according to the
US television station CNN, Washington had irrefutable evidence that the missile that shot down
the Boeing was fired from the territory of Russian Federation.
The following night’s broadcast featured considerable visual footage of the wreckage of
the airplane, and of grieving relatives in the Netherlands and elsewhere.54 Human body parts
were blurred in the footage but this blurring and the scattered personal effects of the victims were
visual signatures of the loss of life involved. Some of the footage was shown in silence. The
broadcast focused on audio recording released by the Ukrainian Secret Service (SBU) of rebel
leaders, described as “terrorists” in all broadcasts, discussing the transfer of the Buk. It featured a
short segment on “absurd Russian propaganda,” the attempt to fake a social media entry by one
of the passengers confirming that Ukrainian fighters are next to the Boeing.55 Reports from
various world capitals highlighted the international reaction amongst politicians to the tragedy.
Inter’s correspondent in Amsterdam noted the resignation of a US journalist Sarah Firth from RT
(the Kremlin’s English language broadcaster) in protest against editorial directions on how to
cover MH17 (“the truth is more important”). In a report on German Chancellor Angela Merkel,
the correspondent was openly critical of her conciliatory policy towards Russia.56 A report from
Washington highlighted the condemnation of the rebel groups by UNSC ambassadors from
France and the United States.57 A report from Moscow began with the anchor asking Inter’s
Moscow correspondent Dmitry Elovsky if “all Russians believe the official propaganda?” The
report filmed Moscovites placing flowers at the Dutch Embassy to express their horror at the
event and sympathies for the dead. Among them was Putin-critic and historian Andrei Zubov
who expressed great embarrassment at what was happening in Ukraine. Another figure
interviewed was the Russian writer Viktor Shenderovich who commented on how the MH17
tragedy had “spawned monstrous and senseless lies. Russia continues to be in a tailspin, in denial
of reality.”58
Subsequent evening broadcasts chronicled the considerable international condemnation
of Vladimir Putin in the European and US press. The London correspondent showed the blunt
headlines in the British tabloid press about the tragedy, such as the Daily Mail’s headline “Putin
Killed My Son.” A report highlighted the Russian propaganda effort to divert blame for the
tragedy onto Ukraine even to the extent of changing the responsible party from self-proclaimed
Donetsk People’s Republic “terrorist” to the “Ukrainian military” on the event’s Wikipedia web
page. Correspondents noted the strong statements of condemnation from various prominent
politicians (new British Defense Minister Michael Fallon, US Senator John McCain). Reports
chronicled the alleged effort of rebel leaders to collect the plane’s black boxes to give them to
Moscow not the OSCE. Accusations that rebels were restricting access to the crash site and
manipulating evidence were also broadcast.
Russia’s Public Relations Offensive on MH17
On 21 July the Russian Ministry of Defense held a press conference on MH17 for the
international media in its new operations theater. There were two presentations at the press
conference. The first was by the head of the Main Operations Directorate of the Russian Armed
Forces General Staff Andrei Kartapolov.59 His presentation was an elaboration on the already
existing information strategy of the Russian military on MH17, namely to present so-called
objective data and to pose interrogating questions of the Ukrainian military, inferring its guilt in
the process. Ukraine, he asserted, had three or four air defense battalions, equipped with Buk
surface-to-air missile systems, in the area on the day of the crash. “What was the purpose of
deploying such a large set of air defense systems near Donetsk?” Kartapolov presented a series
of images that inferred that Ukraine was the responsible for downing MH17. One was an image
of MH17 within the range of the nearby Ukrainian Buk systems. Another was a collection of
black and white satellite photos showing Ukrainian air defense systems and a battery of Buk
missiles in the vicinity. The final two images show the same location with the Buk missiles
deployed on the day of the crash, and then an empty field some days later. A chart of Ukrainian
radar activity designed to show its intensity on 17 July was also presented. All of this
‘circumstantial evidence’ was designed to bolster the claim, which Kartapolov does not state
directly, that a Ukrainian Buk surface-to-air missile shot down MH17.
Kartapolov then built a similar circumstantial case for a second theory of Ukrainian guilt,
namely that MH17 was downed by a Ukrainian Su-25 jet. He stated Russia’s monitoring system
registered the presence of a Ukrainian jet, “probably a Su-25, climbing and approaching the
Malaysia passenger aircraft.” Kartapolov asked rhetorically: “What was a military aircraft doing
on a route intended for civilian planes?” To corroborate this inference of Ukrainian guilt
Kartapolov turned the presentation over to the head of the Main Staff of the Russian Air Force
Lt. Gen. Igor Makushev who presented a four-minute flight monitoring video taken by the
Russian air traffic control center in Rostov. The video showed MH17 descent but also a new
“airborne object” that appears at the spot of the aircraft’s destruction (this is highlighted with a
cursor in the unfolding video images). Air traffic control requested information on the object but
was unable to get any reading on its parameters, “most likely due to the fact that the aircraft was
not equipped with a secondary radar transponder which is typical of military aircraft.” Makushev
then explained that this aircraft subsequently hovered over the MH17 crash site (this, in actuality,
was a widely-scattered series of sites). Ukraine claimed none of its military aircraft were in that
area at the time of the crash. “As you can see,” Makushev concluded, “that is not true.”
Kartapolov ended the press conference by challenging the US to release the data it
claimed proves that the rebels shot down MH17. “The information we have presented here is
based on reliable and objective data from various technical systems. The same cannot be said for
the unsubstantiated accusations against Russia.” Russia, he stated definitively, “has never
provided the militia with Buk surface-to-air missiles.”
The press conference was covered extensively on Vremya that night and subsequent
nights. An initial video segment weaved together the technospeak of the Ministry of Defense
officials with a ground level witness (Tatyana) who asserted she saw two planes that day. “There
were three explosions, three claps. We thought they are bombing us. Then one plane fell, burned,
and the second went to the side, to Dnepropetrovsk."60 One interviewed expert, Sergey Grinyaev,
General Director of the Center of Strategic Studies and Forecasts, speculatively blended the two
theories inferring Ukraine’s guilt into one. The Malaysia plane was shadowed by fighter jets and
after the Buk system had unsuccessfully fired at it, “the fighter jets destroyed the already
damaged plane so that the script would go according to the original plan.” In a follow-up
segment the next evening, the press conference was described as providing “clear” and
“irrefutable evidence” linking Ukraine to the MH17 tragedy.61 Various experts explained that
Ukraine’s non-closure of the air space indicated they knew the separatists did not have any Buk
systems, that it is possible to disguise a launch site (Ukraine could then blame the rebels for the
missile they launched), and that either of the two Russian theories of the downing were strong
possibilities. A seven minute plus video segment by correspondent Mikhail Akinchenko
concluded: “Summarizing all the facts, some experts believe that the Malaysia plane was
sentenced. Military aircraft in the air and "Buk" on the ground only duplicated each other.” Yet
juxtaposed to this blame allocation by experts was a declaration of non-judgement: “So far, one
can only speculate about the details of the tragedy, so it's too early to draw unambiguous
The Russian Ministry of Defense press conference was ignored on Inter’s Podrobnosti on
21 July. Yet, strangely, many salient images from the press conference appeared for 42 seconds
as background to a standup report by the Moscow correspondent (Dmitry Elovsky) on Putin’s
midnight address the night before.63 The broadcast was dominated by international reaction to
the MH17 tragedy. The Berlin correspondent’s report was on German newspaper reporting on
the possibility of sanctions.64 International correspondents reported statements by President
Obama who declared that it was time for Russia to take responsibility for the tragedy and by
British Prime Minister Cameron that “the whole world is watching Putin.”65
The following evening (22 July) a short segment (1:34) on Podrobnosti briefly addressed
one Russian theory about MH17.66 In it the program anchor declared that even Russian experts
rejected the Kremlin’s version of the aircraft’s destruction. The evidence was an interview clip
taken from RBC TV (Russia’s only 24 hour business channel) in which an aviation expert
(Vadim Lukashevich) pronounced the claim that a Su-25 could shoot down a plane at an altitude
of 11,000 meters. Like the “generals with many stars” during the Soviet Union justifying the
downing of Korean Air 007 in 1983, Lukashevich declared that “they have their explanations but
the truth will eventually come out.” The anchor then reported that Russian pilot-hero Sergey
Nefedov (pictured with a medal) termed the Defense Ministry’s version complete nonsense
designed for internal Russian consumption only.67 In this way, Russian “experts” were used to
refute Russia’s MH17 storyline.
Subsequent Podrobnosti reports on the following evenings chronicled the material effort
to remove human remains from the crash site as well as international diplomacy at the United
Nations and elsewhere.68 An audio recording in which Vostok battalion leader Alexander
Khodakovsky admited that separatists received and returned a Buk missile system was the
subject of a brief video segment a week after the crash.69 No feature segment, however, directly
deconstructed the two Russian theories on MH17. These were ignored or dismissed as
propaganda and lies. Instead the statements of Western leaders, and the Western press, were used
to affirm and amplify the Ukrainian government’s position.
Table 1 about here
Perviy Kanal
Whose is to Blame?
Ukrainian military forces
Russian government
Pro-Russian separatists
Initial Salient Facts
Rebels only have MANPADS.
Ukraine moved BUK to area.
Russian jets not flying in area.
Girkin’s social media posting,
subsequently deleted.
Initial Privileged
Source on the Event
Rebel sources indicating Ukrainian Su-
25 shot it down.
CNN reporting photograph of
BUK in rebel area.
Initial Conspiracy
Real target Putin’s plane
Analogous Event
Accidental downing of a Tu-154 in
October 2001
Soviet Air Force downing of
Korean Air in 1983
Russian MoD Theory
Either SU-25 shot it down or Ukrainian
controlled BUK.
‘Russian propaganda’
Controlling Force
United States
Putin; the Kremlin
Geopolitical Meaning
US wants to block Russia’s growth and
power in international affairs.
Russia wants to ruin Ukraine
Table 1: Contrasts in blame allocation according to Perviy Kanal and Inter
Table 1 summarizes the different blame allocation narratives presented by Perviy Kanal
and Inter in the week following the MH17 tragedy. In these news reports we can trace how the
event and its images come to be enveloped by analogies and storylines that assimilated it into
pre-existing common sense. On Russian television MH17 is another example of Ukraine trying
to shirk its international responsibility (like with Siberia Airlines in October 2001). Political
authority figures and chosen television “experts” suggest that the United States was behind
events, using provocations to further its geopolitical interests. Conspiracy and agnotology go
together in the Ministry of Defense press conference. To Inter the MH17 downing was another
example of its victimization at the hands of Russia and its terrorist proxies in the Donbas. Both
Western and Russian authority figures and “experts” attest to their culpability. The materiality of
the MH17 downing – video footage, social media images, black boxes, destroyed fuselage, dead
bodies, secret recordings and various investigations – has extended its life as an event into the
present day. It remains an ongoing subject of contestation between Russia, Ukraine and the
international community.
Given the fact that Ukrainian and Russian television consistently broadcast powerfully
divergent storylines on what caused the downing of MH17 throughout 2014, it is worth
examining what impact this ‘information war’ had on the attitudes of ordinary residents in parts
of Ukraine, Crimea and de facto state territories directly supported by the Russian state. How
important were television viewing habits in shaping how people explained why MH17 crashed?
What role did socio-demographic factors, like nationality, education, gender and income, or
other factors like political orientation, political trust and location have in shape people’s
understanding of MH17?
In the last weeks of July 2014, the independent Russian polling agency Levada Center
asked respondents in the six largest Russian cities about MH17. The polling firm methodology
followed their usual random sampling strategy but more than one response could be given to the
question (though only a small number of interviewees chose this option). Levada asked: "Have
you heard about the July 17 crash of the Malaysia plane in the sky over Ukraine and, if so, why,
in your opinion, did this plane crash occur?70 Note that the word phrasing is not a direct
question about who is to blame. Instead it posed a question about causality that may or may not
involve the allocation of blame to particular actors. That most responses translate into blaming
particular actors is itself an important finding. More than 4 in 5 respondents explained the crash
by blaming the Ukrainian military (46% to an anti-aircraft missile of the Ukrainian army and
36% to a Ukrainian air force plane). Only small numbers attributed it to the Donbas militia
(3%), a terrorist attack (2%), an accident on board (1%), pilot error (1%), and the Russian
military (1%). Other diverse explanations were provided by 6% of the sample while 16%
indicated that they could not give a reason for the loss of the plane.71 Denis Volkov of Levada
Center noted that 94% of Russians get their news from television and that this has created a
different reality where "there are different theories, different history, different images, which
equate the Ukrainian forces with fascists."72 These Levada ratios are displayed in Figure 1 for
comparison to our results for the other 5 sites.73
Figure 1 about here
Five months after the Levada poll, we asked the same question on MH17 in five other regions -
in six oblasts of Southeastern Ukraine (hereafter SE6), in Crimea and in the three Russian-
backed 'de facto' states of Abkhazia, South Ossetia and Transnistria. The question was one of
about 125 questions asked in a wide-ranging study of the impact of the Maidan protests, the
Crimean annexation and the Donbas war. A suite of socio-demographic and ideological
questions enables cross tabulation of the answers.74 The MH17 explanation question allows us to
probe the relative impact of television habits on causal attribution while at the same time
considering the effects of socio-demographic and ideological predictive factors. Most
importantly, the simultaneous administration of the same survey questionnaires in the five sites
in late December 2014 allows us to estimate the differential effects of television station access,
post-Soviet experiences and local contextual politics. The MH17 catastrophe was a catalyzing
event in widening the divergences between the post-Maidan Ukrainian government and its
Western supporters, on one side, and the Putin government and its attendant regimes in Crimea
and the de facto republics, on the other.
The Eurasian de facto states are the products of separatist wars of the early 1990s
entangled with the collapse of Soviet power. In the post-Soviet independent states of Georgia
Russians Abkhaz Armenians Georgians Ossetians Russians> UkrainiansMoldovans Others Russians Ukrainians Russians Ukrainians Tatars Russia
Abkhazia South>Ossetia Transnistria 6>Ukraine>oblasts Crimea July'14
Ukrainian>miltary/airforce Donbas>Militias> Russian>military Accident Terrorist>act Not>heard> Dk/refuse
and Moldova, anti-government forces in the small autonomous regions of Abkhazia, South
Ossetia and Transnistria eventually prevailed with the backing of Russia. (We do not consider
Nagorny Karabakh here). Russia has recognized Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent
states while public opinion in Transnistria is favorable towards annexation to Russia. In all three
de facto states, the vast majority of residents want Russian troop currently stationed there to
remain permanently or until the situation 'stabilizes.'75 All three are strongly dependent on Russia
for economic aid and direct subsidies of their state functions.
Survey Design and Predictors
We survey contested regions that include Russian-supported de facto states, the annexed
Crimean republic and the Ukrainian territory adjacent to the active war zone oblasts in the
Donbas. The timing of the survey was crucial as events on the ground were shifting quickly and
diplomatic negotiations were underway regarding a ceasefire for the war in the Donbas. This
timing requirement meant that the survey be conducted at the same time in all sites as potentially
new shock events could lead to different responses if the survey was delayed in one or more
regions. The site of sporadic violent clashes and struggles over the removal of Soviet-era
memorials earlier in 2014, the region of SE6 Ukraine was nominally contested but peaceful. At
the time of the survey, there was no organized violence or intimidation against civilians in the
surveyed regions (risk to survey respondents was thus negligible). The University of Colorado
Institutional Review Board (IRB) approved the interview protocol and survey instrument. While
the benefits to respondents are obviously small the overall project provided a diversity of local
perspectives on the causes and dynamics of possible conflicts, the intersection between local and
international geopolitical aspirations, and the prospects of reconciliation between opposing views
on the future of the different regions.
The simultaneous survey was managed by KIIS (Kiev International Institute of
Sociology) for SE6 Ukraine and by the Levada Center (Moscow) for Crimea, Abkhazia, South
Ossetia and Transnistria. Coordination between the two polling companies and sharing of the
questionnaire while following the well-designed sampling procedures allowed the completion of
the surveys in the last two weeks of December 2014. Respondents in SE6 Ukraine were offered a
choice of either Ukrainian or Russian and elsewhere were in Russian. All interviews were in-
person, door-step format by local interviewers, and followed standard interview ethical protocols
(explanation of the research, anonymized responses, right of refusal, etc). The total number of
respondents was 4833 (SE6 Ukraine 2033, Abkhazia 800, Tranistria and Crimea 750 each, and
South Ossetia 500) with the response rate varying from 41% in SE6 Ukraine to just over 75% in
Crimea. With an average time of completion of 52 minutes, the survey contained 127 individual
questions organized into three sections: demography (29 questions), a geo/politics section (80
questions), and region specific section (about 8 questions). The margins of error in the
respective samples range from 2.5% to 4.5%.
Our selection of predictors was based on four expectations of how respondents would
answer the question about the MH17 crash. Our general approach as indicated by the emphasis
on the respective TV broadcasts is to understand how television habits influence blame
attribution by respondents. To highlight this factor, we need to control for other possible
explanations, which are included as predictors in the model though we do not give them
substantive attention. First, we considered socio-demographic backgrounds and included 8
predictors in the model from this category. Self-defined nationality as Russian and Ukrainian
were both included since these two groups are most directly involved in the private and public
discussion about the fate of MH17. We expect educational status to be related to interest in and
information about the event so we included both low educational status (less than high school)
and high educational status (university degree or higher) in the model. We also considered age
to be a key element - age 35 and under is the post-Soviet generation while age 65 and over are
typically pensioners who spent most of their lives in Soviet times and for many of whom the
post-Soviet period has been a time of economic difficulty. We included gender as a control
variable since other work has shown men take stronger stands on positions regarding conflict and
perceived external aggression.76 We include an income effect using the category "we can only
afford food" and worse as the measure of low income. Typically, individuals in this latter
category are generally less interested in geopolitical and public affairs and more concerned about
daily material needs.
A second set of predictors measures political and ideological orientations. Two variables
directly concern interest in international politics (we use "not interested" as our measure) and
self-placement on a 10-point ideological scale from far-left to far-right (we use "left of center"
with a score of 1-4 as our measure). In related work on the Caucasus and de facto states, we have
seen that attachment to the self-identified ethnic group is an important indicator of a range of
opinions about other groups and accordingly we include it here ("Very proud" is our measure on
a "very proud" to "not at all proud" scale as all groups show high level of ethnic pride). Since
Vladimir Putin is the face of Russian foreign policy, we add an indicator of support for his
policies as a key predictor ("Yes" to the question that asked if the respondent trusted the
President of Russia, Vladimir Putin).
We consider attitudes about the ongoing conflict over borders and sovereignty in Ukraine
and earlier conflicts in the de facto states as important elements informing a view about the fate
of MH17. In an April 2014 survey in 8 oblasts in Southeastern Ukraine, including the war zones
of Luhansk and Donetsk oblasts, Kiev International Institute of Sociology had asked respondents
if they were willing to resist invaders. In their sample, 21% were "willing to put armed
resistance" to any Russian troops entering Ukraine.77 We repeated this question and use a "yes"
answer as an indication of strong patriotic beliefs. While the survey settings are in multiple
countries, all of them are potentially future war zones dues to unsettled borders, and territorial
preferences and claims. We add an interactive term of Ukrainians and "willingness to fight" to
account for the particular war circumstances in Ukraine at the time of the survey.
A third set of predictors revolved around post-Soviet material circumstances. Has the end
of the Soviet Union helped or hurt respondents and what is the balance between material and
political preferences? As in many of our previous studies, the well-used question about the
Soviet legacy ("was the end of the Soviet Union a right or a wrong step?") underlies many other
beliefs about the past twenty-five years of economic and political dislocations.78 We expect those
who believe that the end of the Soviet Union was correct to be more favorably disposed to
current territorial arrangements and we also add a variable specifically asking about future
economic prospects ("Will you live better in two years time?") to measure economic optimism.
A third measure in this category of explanations asks respondents to evaluate material interests
against territorial arrangements. It asked respondents to agree or disagree with the statement that
"It does not matter in which country I live as long as I have a good salary and pension". Our
variable "good salary" indicates those who agree or strongly agree with this sentiment.
Our fourth category of predictors is most closely connected to the main argument of the
paper about the divergent conspiratorial nature of the explanations for the crash of MH17. It
comprises five measures of television watching habits. We identify respondents who watch
more than 20 hours of television per week, those who trust television news and those for whom
television is their main information source. We also identify those who watch television from
Russia broadcasters. Finally, we added an interactive term of Ukrainians and "trust television
news" to identify those Ukrainians who would be most likely to accept the explanation coming
from the Poroshenko government. Lastly, we add a dummy variable - residence in SE6 Ukraine
- to characterize respondents who do not live in the Russian information space, that is, Russian
controlled (Crimea) or Russian dominated (de facto states) sites.
Summary Statistics
Our question repeated Levada Center’s July 2014 question so answers are directly comparable
across the regions of interest. The comparative percentages are displayed in Figure 1. The main
comparison is blame attributed to Ukrainian forces versus those to the Donbas militants and its
Russian supporters and the multiple categories are collapsed into 7 major options for display.
Because there are big differences between the nationalities, the ratios are displayed for the main
groups in each location. On the graphs, the SE6 Ukraine sample (both Russians and Ukrainians),
Georgians in Abkhazia and Tatars in Crimea are the exceptions since elsewhere a plurality
(Armenians in Abkhazia) or majorities of the respective nationalities place the blame on
Ukrainian forces for the aircraft downing. Values most similar to the over-whelming blame
attributed to Ukrainian forces by urban Russians in Levada’s July 2014 survey are seen in
Transnistria (all three groups), Russians in Abkhazia, Ossetians and among Russians in Crimea.
Exceptionally, Georgians in Abkhazia (20%) and Ukrainians in the SE6 part of the country (just
over 30%) attribute significant blame to Russian forces. Only in SE6 Ukraine (both
nationalities) and 'others' in Transnistria (a mixed group) show more than 10% to the Donbas
It could be argued that asking “why was MH17 destroyed” is a potentially sensitive
political question, one with a manifest ‘politically correct’ answer. Whether this was the case or
not is difficult to determine. What we can say is that, in keeping with our findings on other
potentially sensitive questions in these Black Sea-Caucasus locations, groups who feel
marginalized or alienated in their regional settings show high ratios of 'don't know' answers out
of an abundance of caution. The extreme ratios - over one-fifth of Georgian respondents in
Abkhazia, Russians in SE6 Ukraine (over 40%), Ukrainians in SE6 Ukraine (30%), and one-third
of Tatars in Crimea - are higher than the one-fifth ratio in Russia. It is also possible that many of
the respondents of Russian nationality that generally support the Kremlin position believed that it
was Russian forces or Donbas militants who shot down the plane but decided against revealing
their opinion to interviewers because it did not affirm their usual geopolitical preferences.79
By pooling the 5 samples, we can gain insights into the factors that led people to come to
their decision about who was to blame for the downing of MH17. By including a predictor in the
model that defined the residence of respondents as either in SE6 Ukraine or not, we can see the
importance of the contextual factor that has been argued by geographers as an element that can
influence respondents' attitudes.80 We drop respondents who refused to answer the question
about MH17; we also drop respondents whose personal characteristics are not available since
they either refused to answer a specific question or provided a 'don't know' response. These
‘missing cases’ result in 3339 respondents in the statistical models.
Model of Blame Attribution for the Crash of MH17: The Role of Television
We have summarized the dramatically contrasting blame attributions put out by Russian
and Ukrainian broadcasters in the aftermath of the shooting down of MH17. In the statistical
modeling, we keep the focus on the role of television by highlighting its contribution to the
reasons respondents gave for the destruction of the plane. We chose multinomial logit as our
preferred modeling approach since it allows examination of circumstances with more than two
discrete outcomes. In these cases, the choice of a comparator is important for interpretation of
the coefficients. We collapse the number of blame options to five by creating the comparator
from combining the two more neutral options - "it was an accident" and "it was the result of a
terrorist act." Respondents who chose these options are not specifically opting for Russian,
Ukrainian or Donbas militant forces but neither do they avoid the ascription of blame by
choosing the 'don't know’ option. In the multinomial logit modeling, we present the four
comparisons - Ukrainian forces (air force, army or volunteer groups), Russian forces, Donbas
militants and the "don't knows" to the accident/terrorist act comparator.
We present a graphical display of the results in Figures 2-5 rather than the coefficients for
the 26 variables. We convert the values from the multinominal logistic regression into average
marginal effects for clarity of display and identification of the significant factors in predicting the
choice of blame attribution. Marginal effects are calculated from predictions of the model that
was fit for each of the 26 predictors by averaging their values and integrating over the remaining
variables. Average marginal effects can be interpreted as the probability for a unit change in the
variable of interest holding the other variables constant. Standard errors are represented by the
vertical lines and when the 95% error estimates cross the zero line, the predictor in that model is
not significant. All of the modeling was completed by the 'mlogit' command in STATA 14.
The interpretation of the average marginal effects is straight forward. For example, in
Figure 2, the average marginal effect for the "trust Putin" predictor is .196 with a small standard
error estimate. It is highly significant and indicates that those who trust Putin are 19.6% more
likely to blame Ukrainian forces for shooting down MH17 compared to those who do not trust
Putin, holding other variables constant.
Figure 2 about here
We consider the demographic variables as controls in this analysis and do not devote
much attention to their coefficients. Few of these variables show any significant relationship with
any of the four blame attributions. It should be noted that there are significant numbers of
Russians and Ukrainians in Transnistria and Crimea, as well as in SE6 Ukraine. Russians might
be expected to have different interpretations about the cause of the MH17 crash because of
differential exposure to local television stations, as well as broadcasts emanating from Moscow.
But there is insignificant variation among these sub-populations by study site. On the four
;9-,+<-. =+,<) 5+:.&66-7(' .64,. >,-/) 7(4,'. 46.?:+*-.45.@A,+)5)+5.B4,7-'
graphs of the average marginal effects, the relative positions of the estimates for both Russians
and Ukrainians are very similar.
For blame attribution to Ukrainian forces, two predictors with opposite effects stand out
on Figure 2. Significant more blame (19.6%) is attached to Ukrainian forces by those who trust
Vladimir Putin while significant less blame (23.3%) is directed to these forces by residents in
SE6 Ukraine (compared to those who live in other survey sites). Given the debate about the
causes of the MH17 plane crash and the key role that Putin played in its immediate aftermath,
these values are expected. In all but the last model, that for the 'don't know' blame category,
residency in SE6 Ukraine is highly significant (i.e. living within a Ukrainian state information
sphere). That survey site is generally closest to the location of the MH17 disaster in Donetsk
oblast, certainly in perceptual space as part of Ukraine on whose territory the plane came down;
the television and other media in Ukraine gave a great deal of attention to this event and the
ongoing war in the Donbas on the border of our SE6 survey site oblasts (Kharkiv, Odesa,
Mykolaiv, Zaporizhzhia, Kherson and Dnipro). The effect of this locational factor is visible in
all of the blame attributions (Ukrainian, Donbas or Russian forces), after controlling for the
individual personal characteristics of the respondents. Two small but significant negative effects
(for those who watch more than 20 hours of television per week at 1.7% and for Ukrainians who
trust TV news at 4%) show less ascription to Ukrainian forces and two small significant positive
effects (for those who would forcibly oppose an invader by force at 3.9% and for those who trust
TV news at 5.2%) are also visible in Figure 2.
At the time of the surveys in December 2014, neither the Dutch Safety Board nor the
Joint Investigative Committee had released reports on their findings. Yet circumstantial evidence
was growing that suggested that a Buk surface-to-air missile system transported from Russia to
territory controlled by the Donbas separatists was the culprit in downing MH17.81 The Donbas
militants did not receive much attention in our surveys, except amongst the respondents in SE6
Ukraine (Figure 1). The multinomial logit model for this blame attribution indicates five
significant predictors but the effects are small as seen in Figure 3. Residents in SE6 Ukraine
show a 6.5% greater positive blame for the Donbas militants and those who believe that the end
of the Soviet Union was a right step (a group concentrated in the SE6 Ukrainian sample) show a
positive effect of 3%. In contrast, those who trust TV news (minus 3.1%), those who watch
Russian television stations (minus 4.7%) and those who are 'very proud' of their nationality at
minus 3.5% also show significant effects. The relative lack of significant effects for this model is
not surprising since the public debate over the plight of MH17 had focused on either Russian or
Ukrainian guilt and divisive lines did not develop as readily among the populations of our survey
sites about the Donbas militants.
Figure 3 about here
Blame on Russian forces achieved a high rate at 31% among those who self-identify their
nationality as Ukrainian in SE6 Ukraine. Elsewhere, the ratio was only sizable at 22% among
Georgians in Abkhazia. The results of the first model for Ukrainian forces are mirrored in
Figure 4 with the values (minus 15.1%) of the respondents who trust Putin and those who live in
SE6 Ukraine (at plus 16.5%) the reverse of the model of Ukrainian blame in Figure 2. Other
negative values are seen for those whose trust TV news (minus 7.8%), those who watch Russian
TV stations (minus 3.7%) and those who say that they are not interested in politics (minus 4.5%).
Ukrainians who trust TV news are 5.2% more likely to blame Russian forces and similar positive
values are seen for optimists (those who expect to live better in 2 years) at 2.7% and for those
who think that the end of the Soviet Union was a right step at 8.5%. On this blame option, the
divides among the survey sample is as clear as it was for the Ukrainian forces, though now the
values are reversed.
Figure 4 about here
The final model was not expected to yield much clarity on political, nationality, TV
watching and ideological divides since a 'don't know' answer could have many different
provenances. In the results displayed on Figure 5, those of both Russian and Ukrainian
nationality show a greater likelihood of picking a 'don't know' answer than other groups, a
function of their probable reluctance to attribute blame in their respective locales of tension (for
Russians in SE6 Ukraine and for Ukrainians in Transnistria and Crimea). Those who watch
Russian television stations are more likely to give a 'don't know' answer at 6%, perhaps as a
response to the accumulating information about the causes of the crash at the time of the survey
which was increasingly pointing the finger of blame on Russian-backed forces. This cumulating
evidence contradicts their generally pro-Kremlin positions and a 'don't know' answer is one way
to resolve this asymmetry. Less likely to give a 'don't know' answer were those who thought the
end of the Soviet Union was a right step (minus 8.7%) and those who were willing to fight
invaders at minus 6.1%.
Figure 5 about here
Our analysis of the surveys shows that blame attribution was driven more by television
habits than any other factor. Of course, habits are ingrained and now dictated increasingly by
access to broadcasts from across the border as Ukraine and Russia try to constrain information to
certain reliable sources that stick to the government line. Residents in the region (the Black Sea
area more broadly) are increasingly living in 'different worlds' despite the shared provenances of
their territories in the former Soviet Union and their traditional inter-nationality, language and
economic ties.
The downing of MH17 was a pivotal event in the Ukraine crisis of 2014, a moment
where its violence become worldwide news. A wave of revulsion in the West provided popular
impetus for the imposition of new sanctions on Russian individuals and entities by the European
Union and the United States in July 2014. MH17 is an event that continues to haunt Russia’s
foreign policy and the separatists it supports in Ukraine. In January 2017, the Ukrainian
government filed a case against the Russian government in the International Court of Justice for
the illegal annexation of Crimea and for its financing of acts of terrorism on the territory of
Ukraine. Among the acts enumerated is the downing of MH17. Preliminary hearings on the case
began in March 2017 and it is not likely to be decided for years.82 In July 2017, just before the
third anniversary of the MH17 downing, the Dutch Foreign Ministry declared that suspects in
that downing will be tried in a Dutch court. The evidence gathered by the JIC on the downing of
MH17 can be used to prosecute those responsible but it must stand up in court.
MH17 is one among a series of shock events – Euromaidan, the annexation of Crimea,
the Odesa tragedy -- that are at the fulcrum of a multimedia ‘information war’ between Russia
and its allies, on one side, and Ukraine, the European Union and the US, on the other.83 That
discursive struggle is characterized by many of the mechanisms we have examined here –
affective imagery, the promotion of ‘partisan truths,’ the politicization of authority and expertise,
agnotology and disinformation, othering through conspiracy theory mongering – and it has
produced a self-affirming bubble of understanding that is insulated from inconvenient material
facts. In this paper, we have shown how ordinary residents in a set of study sites across the Black
Sea region appear to be guided in their understanding of major geopolitical events, like the
destruction of MH17, by the televisual info-sphere within which they live. Data analysis also
suggests that people tend to follow the narratives of the political leaderships they trust. The high
'don't know' ratios seen in some locations are likely a combination of genuine confusion about
the reasons for the plane's destruction (itself a created condition), tactical avoidance of a
politicized topic, and decisions by some to not affirm blame narratives contrary to the
respondents general (geo)political orientation.
Given their significance in international affairs, scholars need to pay more attention to
shock events in conflicts, the storylines disseminated by politically controlled television
networks to manage the meaning of these events, and the reception these storylines receive by
different audiences. This is particularly important given the manifest fragmentation of traditional
media and politics in many Western states, which some commentators have linked to the
influence of ‘filter bubbles’ – information flows shaped by algorithms using past preferences --
and a ‘post-truth’ politics driving the BREXIT and Trump campaigns of 2016. ‘Post-truth’
geopolitics is not, unfortunately, a Russian monopoly. It is a pernicious feature of our
contemporary geopolitical condition.
... Conspiratorial thinking is consistent with the ways that people imagine the machinations of global actors in relation to identity, security, and borders (Jones 2012). Geopolitical culture is not often linked to the motivated reasoning as a force that might shape people's receptiveness to certain conspiracy theories, yet it can have similar effects to partisanship by providing an affective basis for opinion formation (Hale, Shevel, and Onuch 2018;Toal and O'Loughlin 2018). ...
... It may be the case that people are following elite cues, but it could also be the reverse-that elites are echoing public sentiment. Furthermore, people are likely to self-select into consumption of certain media or information networks, complicating the task of attributing attitudes to exposure to particular messages (Szostek 2017;Toal and O'Loughlin 2018). Several studies have recently used survey experiments to overcome these challenges. ...
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Conspiracy theories are playing an increasingly prominent role worldwide in both political rhetoric and popular belief. Previous research has emphasized the individual-level factors behind conspiracy belief but paid less attention to the role of elite framing, while focusing mostly on domestic political contexts. This study assesses the relative weight of official conspiracy claims and motivated biases in producing conspiracy beliefs, in two countries where identities other than partisanship are salient: Georgia and Kazakhstan. I report the results of a survey experiment that depicts a possible conspiracy and varies the content of official claims and relevant contextual details. The results show that motivated reasoning stemming from state-level geopolitical identities is strongly associated with higher conspiracy belief, whereas official claims have little effect on people’s perceptions of conspiracy. Respondents who exhibit higher conspiracy ideation are more likely to perceive a conspiracy but do not weight motivated biases or official claims differently from people with lower conspiratorial predispositions. The findings indicate the importance of (geopolitical) identities in shaping conspiracy beliefs and highlight some of the constraints facing elites who seek to benefit from the use of conspiracy claims.
... The most pressing problem is Russian propaganda on the territory of Transnistria. As the data shows, even before the invasion of Ukraine began, most of the Transnistrian population wanted the de facto state to become part of Russia (Toal and O'Loughlin 2018). This survey showed that the majority of the population backed the Kremlin at a time when the fighting was only in eastern Ukraine. ...
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Russia’s invasion of neighbouring Ukraine in February 2022 has largely shaken Europe’s existing security architecture. The neighbouring Republic of Moldova, home to a Russian military contingent, has also expressed concerns about its security. These soldiers are stationed in Transnistria, a de facto state on Moldovan territory. Based on the field research conducted, the present article aims to clarify how the Kremlin exploits the internal vulnerabilities of Moldova in creating hybrid threats in this country in the context of the current conflict in Ukraine and how the Moldovan government copes with them while facing the new security situation. The authors conclude that despite the Moldovan government’s efforts to limit Russian hybrid operations on its territory, the Kremlin has effectively destabilised Moldova, except for its energy dependence on Russia. In this regard, the Moldovan government is succeeding in taking the necessary steps towards greater energy independence from Russia.
... The methodology of the empirical part of the article is based on critical discourse analysis (CDA). News programmes broadcast after the following four turning points of the Euromaidan, the Annexation of Crimea and the war in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions are analysed: (1) the programme from 26 January 2014 -the weekly news programme following the killings of the first Euromaidan protesters in the centre of Kyiv; 3 (2) the programme from 2 March 2014 -the weekly news programme after Russian forces took the Ukrainian Crimean Peninsula under 'effective control'; 4 (3) the programme from 13 April 2014 -the weekly news programme following the seizure of Sloviansk and Kramatorsk by Russian and Russia-backed forces; 5 (4) the programme from 20 July 2014 -the weekly news programme following the downing of Flight MH-17 by the Russian Buk missile system (Toal & O'Loughlin 2018). The CDA showed that in the case of each of the analysed programmes, Russian state-controlled TV channels applied a politically-motivated strategy of agenda-setting and framing: they silenced events that might show Russia (and its allies) in a bad light or assign Russia some responsibility or blame for the events happening in Ukraine; they turned relatively minor topics strengthening the regime-friendly framing of the covered events into 'top stories'; they framed Ukrainian actors as those causing the crisis situations even in the situations when Russia's actions against Ukraine qualified as a violation of international law; they turned information about the alleged threats coming from Ukrainian actors into one of the most salient elements of the news coverage; they portrayed Ukrainian actors as Nazis; they heavily relied on discretionary historical references in order to contextualise the covered events in a way fruitful for Russian regime. ...
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The central role of mass communication in the construction of crises, threats and enemies was acknowledged decades ago. In those cases when media reporting about crises, threats and enemies is studied, it is predominately done based on the media content from Western liberal democracies. The article broadens the usual framework of research on this topic by empirically studying the securitisation and enmification campaign performed by TV channels of an autocracy through the lens of agenda-setting and framing theories. In other words, this article helps understand how the Russian regime securitises political issues and constructs enemies. In particular, eight weekly news programmes by Russian state-controlled Channel One Russia and RT (former Russia Today) covering the period of the Euromaidan, Annexation of Crimea and the war in Donbas are studied in order to address the question of how the channels’ strategies of setting their agendas and framing the covered events contributed to the construction of a Nazi enemy that has to be fought.
... When it comes to Russia, Szostek (2017) finds that birthplace, personal ties, and religious habits predict willingness to embrace Russian narratives about the Ukraine war. Peisakhin and Rozenas (2018) demonstrate that Russian television is persuasive only to viewers with preexisting pro-Russian orientations, and Toal and O'Loughlin (2018) find that beliefs about the Malaysian Airline crash over Ukraine in 2014 are associated with television-viewing habits and region of residence. ...
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As conspiracy theories have become a popular form of political discourse worldwide, states have promoted conspiratorial ideas to advance their foreign policy goals. Yet, despite recent attention to the spread of propaganda abroad, scholars have not addressed whether and how conspiracy theories spread across borders. This study assesses this question in the post-Soviet region, by examining the relationship between exposure to Russian state propaganda and belief in conspiracy theories in two countries that border the Russian Federation. Analyzing data from an original survey of Georgia and Kazakhstan indicates that exposure to Russian propaganda through television, social media, or websites has minimal effects on respondents’ endorsement of conspiracy theories. Respondents in Kazakhstan, and especially ethnic Russians, are likely to endorse pro-Russian conspiracy claims that are frequently propagated, owing to preexisting affinities. Yet the most consistent predictor of conspiracy beliefs is alienation from the political system, which occurs independent of foreign media consumption. The findings cast doubt on the ability of states to shape the attitudes of citizens abroad through the media and shine light on the domestic political factors underlying belief in conspiracy theories.
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Throughout 2020, the People's Republic of China (PRC) stated that the United States (US) manipulated the electronic identity code of its military aircraft (transponder code) over the South China Sea by using the identity of a civilian aircraft to carry out reconnaissance missions. The discussion of the incidents has faded in the past two years, even being regarded by some observers as a 'common' practice having been used since the Cold War era by the US. These incidents have never been heard to reappear in the South China Sea situation. However, the escalation of reconnaissance practices heated up again after a PRC's high altitude balloon was shot down by a US fighter jet over the US's territorial sea on February 4, 2023. The US had claimed that the aircraft was on a spy mission. This incident could be a starting point for the US to resume the practices throughout 2020 by imprisoning civilian aircraft in the South China Sea or even on the PRC's mainland because this practice is considered 'common' on the US side. By using the international legal research method, in which international legal sources are juxtaposed with the current context in the field, this article concludes that the practice of manipulating civil transponder codes cannot be justified as a 'common' practice because it is endangered the civil aviation and contrary to the Chicago Convention 1944.
In this fully revised and updated in-depth analysis of the war in Ukraine, Paul D'Anieri explores the dynamics within Ukraine, between Ukraine and Russia, and between Russia and the West that emerged with the collapse of the Soviet Union and eventually resulted in Russia's invasion in 2022. Proceeding chronologically, this book shows how Ukraine's separation from Russia in 1991, at the time called a 'civilized divorce,' led to Europe's most violent conflict since WWII. It argues the conflict came about because of three underlying factors-the security dilemma, the impact of democratization on geopolitics, and the incompatible goals of a post-Cold War Europe. Rather than a peaceful situation that was squandered, D'Anieri argues that these were deep-seated pre-existing disagreements that could not be bridged, with concerning implications for the prospects of resolution of the Ukraine conflict.
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This paper examines the media systems in the “Donetsk People’s Republic” and the “Luhansk People’s Republic,” both unrecognized states. After a conflict outbreak in 2014, the media landscape in the unrecognized republics acquired the features of an authoritarian media system. Employing qualitative methods (primary source analysis and in-depth interviews), the research explores a combination of instruments that pushed media into an authoritarian mode that entailed declarations of loyalty, severe vertical subordination, predominantly state ownership, and the designation of a military subdivision at the information frontline. Other decisive factors that allowed an authoritarian media system to be instated are the loyalty of the pre-existing media landscape to local authorities and oligarch media owners, the political isolation of the unrecognized republics, and the strong influence of the Russian information space.
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In the spring of 2014, some anti-Maidan protestors in southeast Ukraine, in alliance with activists from Russia, agitated for the creation of a large separatist entity on Ukrainian territory. These efforts sought to revive a historic region called Novorossiya (“New Russia”) on the northern shores of the Black Sea that was created by Russian imperial colonizers. In public remarks, Vladimir Putin cited Novorossiya as a historic and contemporary home of a two-part interest group, ethnic Russian and Russian-speaking Ukrainians, supposedly under threat in Ukraine. Anti-Maidan agitation in Ukraine gave way to outright secession in April 2014, as armed rebel groups established the Donetsk People’s Republic and Luhans’k People’s Republic on parts of the eponymous Ukrainian oblasts. Rebel leaders aspired to create a renewed Novorossiya that incorporated all of eastern and southern Ukraine from Kharkiv to Odesa oblasts. To examine the level of support for this secessionist imaginary in the targeted oblasts, our large scientific poll in December 2014 revealed the Novorossiya project had minority support, between 20 and 25% of the population. About half of the sample believed that the concept of Novorossiya was a “historical myth” and that its resuscitation and promotion was the result of “Russian political technologies.” Analysis of the responses by socio-demographic categories indicated that for ethnic Russians, residents of the oblasts of Kharkiv and Odesa, for older and poorer residents, and especially for those who retain a nostalgic positive opinion about the Soviet Union, the motivations and aims of the Novorossiya project had significant support.
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This article examines questions of censorship, self-censorship and conformism on Russia's federal television networks during Putin's third presidential term. It challenges the idea that the political views and images broadcast by federal television are imposed coercively upon reporters, presenters and anchors. Based on an analysis of interviews with famous media personalities as well as rank-and-file reporters, this article argues that media governance in contemporary Russia does not need to resort to coercive methods, or the exertion of self-censorship among its staff, to support government views. Quite the contrary: reporters enjoy relatively large leeway to develop their creativity, which is crucial for state-aligned television networks to keep audience ratings up. Those pundits, anchors and reporters who are involved in the direct promotion of Kremlin positions usually have consciously and deliberately chosen to do so. The more famous they are, the more they partake in the production of political discourses.
Global Powers of Horror examines contemporary regimes of horror, into horror’s intricacies, and into their deployment on and through human bodies and body parts. To track horror’s work, what horror decomposes and, perhaps, recomposes, Debrix goes beyond the idea of the integrality and integrity of the human body and it brings the focus on parts, pieces, or fragments of bodies and lives. Looking at horror’s production of bodily fragments, both against and beyond humanity, the book is also about horror’s own attempt at re-forming or re-creating matter, from the perspective of post-human, non-human, and inhuman fragmentation. Through several contemporary instances of dismantling of human bodies and pulverization of body parts, this book makes several interrelated theoretical contributions. It works with contemporary post-(geo)political figures of horror-faces of concentration camp dwellers, body parts of victims of terror attacks, the outcome of suicide bombings, graphic reports of beheadings, re-compositions of melted and mingled remnants of non-human and human matter after 9/11-to challenge regimes of terror and security that seek to forcefully and ideologically reaffirm a biopolitics and thanatopolitics of human life in order to anchor today’s often devastating deployments of the metaphysics of substance. Critically enabling one to see how security and terror form a (geo)political continuum of violent mobilization, utilization, and often destruction of human and non-human bodies and lives, this book will be of interest to graduates and scholars of bio politics, international relations and security studies.
In Material Politics, author Andrew Barry reveals that as we are beginning to attend to the importance of materials in political life, materials has become increasingly bound up with the production of information about their performance, origins, and impact. Presents an original theoretical approach to political geography by revealing the paradoxical relationship between materials and politics. Explores how political disputes have come to revolve not around objects in isolation, but objects that are entangled in ever growing quantities of information about their performance, origins, and impact. Studies the example of the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil pipeline - a fascinating experiment in transparency and corporate social responsibility - and its wide-spread negative political impact. Capitalizes on the growing interdisciplinary interest, especially within geography and social theory, about the critical role of material artefacts in political life.
In December 2013, David Satter became the first American journalist to be expelled from Russia since the Cold War. The Moscow Times said it was not surprising he was expelled, "it was surprising it took so long." Satter is known in Russia for having written that the apartment bombings in 1999, which were blamed on Chechens and brought Putin to power, were actually carried out by the Russian FSB security police. In this book, Satter tells the story of the apartment bombings and how Boris Yeltsin presided over the criminalization of Russia, why Vladimir Putin was chosen as his successor, and how Putin has suppressed all opposition while retaining the appearance of a pluralist state. As the threat represented by Russia becomes increasingly clear, Satter’s description of where Russia is and how it got there will be of vital interest to anyone concerned about the dangers facing the world today.
To what extent are citizens of the United States affected by and entangled in the issue of national security? In more ways than one could ever imagine is Joseph Masco’s answer to this question in his new book, which examines the creation and promotion of a national security state in the United States in the second half of the twentieth century. He uses a comparative lens to examine the War on Terror of the contemporary moment in relation to the Cold War. Instead of a list of similarities and differences, Masco’s robust and historically rigorous comparison yields a deep understanding of the evolution of U.S. hegemony in the long postwar era and into the twenty-first century. He not only traces the origins of the counterterrorist security apparatus to the nuclear revolution of the Cold War era, but also elucidates the character of the counterterrorist state as a repetition with variation from the countercommunist state. And in Masco’s study, the variations are just as significant as the repetitions, as he persistently and persuasively draws readers’ attention to the remarkable expansion of state influence in pushing the idea of preemptive war on its citizens and the changed temporality of war in the perennial military readiness of the War on Terror. While each chapter reveals fascinating information and analyses on various dimensions of national security—some more obvious, like the public campaigns on the nuclear threat or the state codification and guarding of sensitive information (in this case, “sensitive but unclassified” information) in chapters one and three, and some less obvious like climate change in chapter two—the most instructive element of the book is its consistent illustration of what Masco calls “national security affect” (9) and its various forms. His attention to how national security in the second half of the twentieth century turns on the state’s ability to educate its citizen-subjects on the appropriate feelings of terror, shock, and pain and to mobilize such feelings in accordance with the state objectives of security illuminates the cultural work of affect in a democratic society that is given to, as Masco calls it, governance through terror (21). His formalist awareness results in coherent and perceptive discussions about a wide range of rhetorics of national security, including what he calls “biosecurity noir,” his term for the scripts of official efforts to predict and preempt biosecurity threats. In its emphasis on affect, Masco’s discussion of feelings as “a new national project” (17) in the post–1945 national security state calls to mind Adam Smith’s The Theory of Moral Sentiments. If the latter can be read as the affective interpellation of the bourgeois subject, Masco’s discussion of national security affect queries “the techniques of emotional management” (26) for a new kind of militarized liberal democratic subject in the continuum of the national security state from the Cold War to the War on Terror. His project is, as he claims, “ultimately a consideration of American self-fashioning through terror” (42) in this period. In the field of Cold War studies, Masco’s book can be read alongside works that compare contemporary U.S. military interventions in the Middle East to Cold War-era interventions in Asia, such as Lloyd Gardner and Marilyn Young’s edited volume, Iraq and the Lessons of Vietnam, or studies on the culture of contemporary U.S. militarism, such as Andrew Bacevich’s The New American Militarism. These works prompt readers to reexamine the very definition of “post-Cold War” and to view the Cold War era and the post-Cold War era not as discrete historical periods, but as intermeshed systems that continuously call for a critical scrutiny of U.S. military hegemony. Additionally, Masco’s study connects the discourse of policies with the experiences of the people these policies influence. Micro-effects of macro-level decisions can be seen throughout Masco’s study. As the anthropologist Heonik Kwon outlines in The Other Cold War, Cold War Studies is increasingly tuning into the everyday experiences of people who have been affected by the balance of terror. From this perspective, Masco’s study seems to be a good example of what the effects...
In the aftermath of the 1992-1995 Bosnian war, the discovery of unmarked mass graves revealed Europe's worst atrocity since World War II: the genocide in the UN "safe area" of Srebrenica. To Know Where He Lies provides a powerful account of the innovative genetic technology developed to identify the eight thousand Bosnian Muslim (Bosniak) men and boys found in those graves and elsewhere, demonstrating how memory, imagination, and science come together to recover identities lost to genocide. Sarah E. Wagner explores technology's import across several areas of postwar Bosnian society-for families of the missing, the Srebrenica community, the Bosnian political leadership (including Serb and Muslim), and international aims of social repair-probing the meaning of absence itself.