Mutual disbelief

A few months ago, the Joint Investigation Team which is examining the 2014 shooting down of Flight MH17 asked Russia to provide evidence about the origins of the anti-aircraft missile used in the attack. Today the Russian Ministry of Defence did just that, producing documents showing that the missile in question (identified by the serial numbers on the missile fragments) had been produced in Soviet Russia and then transferred to an air defence unit in Ukraine in 1986. The implication was that the missile was Ukrainian, and that therefore Ukraine, not Russia or the rebels of the Donetsk People’s Republic, must have been responsible for downing MH17 (assuming that the rebels didn’t capture the missile from the Ukrainian Army, which can’t actually be ruled out).

The immediate reaction of Western journalists was to scoff at the Russians’ claim. For instance, The Daily Telegraph’s Alec Luhn wrote on Twitter, ‘In short, Russia has cited its own documents to claim the missile that downed MH17 was delivered to Ukraine in 1986 and never left.’ Quite where Russia would have gotten documents on the matter other than from Russia is a question Luhn ignores, but his insinuation is clear: Russian documents can’t be trusted, and so this story isn’t worth further investigation. The Financial Times’s Max Seddon was equally dismissive. ‘How convenient for them to have discovered this now, four years after the fact,’ he wrote on Twitter (where the top of his feed continues to show a Tweet saying that ‘Russia’s team is so bad fans are worried they won’t make it out of the World Cup group stage’!). And the Kyiv Post’s Christopher Miller showed a picture of a giggling journalist, and remarked ‘The face of the person in the crowd at the Russian MOD briefing on MH17 tells you all you need to know about the latest desperate attempt to deflect blame for the disaster.’

Western journalists’ rapid dismissal of the Russian documents contrasts with their equally rapid acceptance of documents purporting to be the passport applications of Salisbury poisoning suspects Aleksandr Petrov and Ruslan Boshirov. I have absolutely no idea whether any of these documents are genuine. For all I know, all or none or some of them might be. What concerns me here is what the journalists’ reactions tell us about their biases, namely that as a matter of course they don’t trust anything coming out of the mouth of Russian officials.

My observations of the Russian media show me that the same is true of Russians, albeit the other way round, i.e. they display an almost total distrust of anything said by Westerners. RT editor Margarita Simonyan, who carried out a recent interview with the Salisbury suspects, expressed the sentiment very clearly on the political talk show 60 Minutes the other day. She didn’t have an opinion as to whether Petrov and Boshirov were telling the truth, she said, but what she did know was that Western intelligence agencies had lied about Iraqi WMD and had published a document which named her 27 times as leading an effort to undermine American democracy, something which was completely untrue. Why she should believe anything the West said, she asked? Reading the Russian press, and watching other TV shows, I get the impression that this attitude is fairly widespread.

There are some good reasons for Westerners not to trust the statements of the Russian government (which has, to say the least, been less than transparent and truthful regarding its involvement in the war in Donbass), as well as for Russians not to trust what’s said in the West (where both politicians and journalists have peddled all sorts of nonsense on matters such as Iraqi WMD, Colonel Gaddhafi giving his troops Viagra in order to commit rape, Russian atrocities in Syria (while ignoring the destruction caused by American bombing), and so on). Western commentary on Russia is often so far removed from reality as to appear deranged. The same, sadly, is often true of Russia commentary on the West. My point, therefore, is not to say that one side or other is right or wrong. Rather, it is that we seem to have reached a situation in Russian-Western relations of almost complete mutual disbelief. The perception that the other side is engaging in propaganda and ‘information war’ leads people to instinctively dismiss what it is saying, even when it is well-grounded in fact. That in turn leads them to adopt extreme positions, thereby rendering themselves even less credible in the eyes of the other side. The result is a vicious circle of escalating distrust.

Is there any way out of this mess? As I’ve said before, I’m not optimistic.

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14 thoughts on “Mutual disbelief”

  1. I am not a Rocket Man, even a little one, but is it reasonable to expect that a solid-fuelled missile that was 28 years old would perform adequately?
    (the news coverage I’ve seen doesn’t say, but let’s assume that the missile was a 9M38M1, as proposed by Novaya Gazeta in 2015 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Malaysia_Airlines_Flight_17#The_%22Ukrainian_Buk%22_version https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Buk_missile_system )
    Certainly there is tremendous variability in the expected life cycle of a solid fuel motor, depending greatly on storage and how it was handled, but knowing what we know of the state of the Ukrainian armed forces I’d assume at least substandard inspections and maintenance after 1990.
    I’ve fired rifle ammunition left over from WW2, but a rocket motor is a different level of complexity and quality control.
    Can any missilemen in the audience chip in?

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    1. First you have to assume that the missile that left the fragment was even used at all and not planted at the scene.

      If the missile fragments are in such good condition that the serial numbers can clearly be seen, and if they don’t show any other damage, you may have more to wonder about than the condition of the missile when it was fired in 2014.

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  2. Another thing that happened right after: Simonyan was interviewed by Kirsty Wark on BBC Radio about the interview, a reprehensible piece of interviewing where, at the end, the already compromised Wark couldn’t help but try to ridicule Simonyan for – exactly – being with RT. Simonyan hung up on her, rightly so. And CBC’s As It Happens, on Friday last, felt it had to rebroadcast the slight.
    The communication divide is beyond salvaging, but over the last 3-4 years since Crimea, the Western politico’s and media shouts have become hysterical repetitive shrieks, putting off an increasing number of their own public. More and more, the ideological preachers and the corresponding hypocrisy is now the West – where previously, in the Cold War, it could have been the communist East. Look at this: a Western democracy is secretive, deceptive and anything but transparent, shows first a scripted letter then a scripted monologue interview with Yulia Skripal and hides/detains Yulia regardless of its own laws. Juxtapose that with Russia, which offers cooperation, allows the suspects to talk freely to the media, and has a government-sponsored network grill the two suspects the way we could only dream the BBC would do its job on the Skripal story – and on the MH17 story.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That’s a good point about the Skripals not being interviewed. Why not?

      The father Sergei Skripal has not been seen.

      He is probably kept hidden as he would not make a credible witness due to the fact that he was a double agent

      Yulia gets more sympathy as she is seen as an innocent party – but she was not interviewed.

      Regarding the two guys accused – the questions I’d like to ask Yulia and Sergei is did you see these guys at any point in the day you were poisoned?
      And does you House have cctv ?

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    1. That’s to the point. I notice that Alastair Crooke is forced to refer to John Gray’s book “Black Mass” to make sense of the US mindset. The latest Russian pronouncements on MH17 present serious problems for the JIT as they will be difficult to ignore- Malaysia, and the families of those killed, will want to know what really happened.

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  3. Edward Said’s book “Covering Isalm. How the Media and the Experts Determine How We See the Rest of Tthe World” could be re-written as “Covering Russia. etc.” – his observations are universal. In the world dominated by English language media, Russia and China have minimal chance of influncing public opinion of the western world. 1.5 bln people may speak Chinese but this is of no consequence to the attitudes of most Europeans and Americans. Prof. S. Cohen once noted that an average Russian possibly knew more about outside world and at least one foreign language unlike his American counterpart. But this does not count. Personally, these days I find more pleasure and information watching / listening to discussions on CGTN than is the case with the BBC or CNN.

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  4. Amen to Patrick’s comment.

    It also highlights a larger issue. By treating Russian and Western distrust of the other as equally justified, you greatly hamper the possibility of finding an eventual solution.

    Particularly since the Ukraine crisis, it seems to me the West is responsible for the overwhelming majority of lies, obfuscations and misrepresentations. Sad to say, over the years I’ve come to trust Russia on foreign policy matters far more than any Western country, including my own.

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    1. “It also highlights a larger issue. By treating Russian and Western distrust of the other as equally justified, you greatly hamper the possibility of finding an eventual solution.”

      ^This.

      Exhibit A

      The New York Post: It’s time to start treating Russia as a rogue regime
      By Post Editorial Board

      “Prepare to add crippling assaults on US diplomats to Vladimir Putin’s long, long list of crimes.

      It now looks like Moscow is behind the series of strange “sonic attacks” starting in November 2016 that left three dozen Americans stationed in Cuba, and possibly others working in China, with concussion-like symptoms — and several suffering permanent ear and/or brain damage.

      The victims reported hearing high-pitched sounds emanating from their homes or hotel rooms, followed by symptoms of nausea, hearing loss, headaches, dizziness, etc. The New York Times recently reported that US investigators now think the weapon was microwaves beamed at the diplomats’ residences.

      And NBC News cites multiple government sources saying that a long and ongoing investigation by US intelligence agencies has amassed evidence (including intercepted communications) that Russia was behind the attacks.

      […]

      This is a rogue regime. New sanctions and expelling more of Putin’s diplomats won’t be enough: It’s time to start expelling Russia from Interpol and any other international body whose members are supposed to respect the rule of law.”

      2 days later, from the Reuters:

      “NBC News reported earlier this week that U.S. officials believe the health problems may have been caused by sophisticated electromagnetic weapons.

      NBC, citing administration officials and congressional aides, said the U.S. military had been trying to reverse-engineer the type of weapons suspected of causing the damage. The FBI and intelligence agencies declined to comment on the NBC report.

      Nauert said the State Department has made no determination about who or what caused the health attacks.

      Exhibit B.

      The Guardian: Sweden searches for suspected Russian submarine off Stockholm (19 Oct 2014)

      “Sweden’s military has spent three days scouring the waters off Stockholm for what has so far been officially described only as “foreign underwater activity”. However, intelligence briefings to local newspapers suggest a Russian submarine might have had mechanical problems while on a secret mission in the region.

      In scenes reminiscent of the 1970s and 80s – when neutral Sweden regularly hunted for Soviet spy submarines in the Baltic Sea around the capital – 200 service personnel were mobilised along with helicopters, minesweepers and an anti-submarine corvette fitted with stealth-type anti-radar masking.

      The operation began late on Friday following what Sweden’s armed forces said was a reliable tipoff about something in the Stockholm archipelago, which has 30,000 islands and rocky outcrops around which a submarine could lurk. The officer leading the operation declined to give more details, saying only that there had been no armed contact.

      “We still consider the information we received as very trustworthy,” Captain Jonas Wikström told reporters. “I, as head of operations, have therefore decided to increase the number of units in the area.”

      The Svenska Dagbladet newspaper said it was believed the intruder was a Russian submarine or mini-submarine that may have been damaged. It said the operation was launched on Friday after a sighting of a “human-made object” in the waters. The day before, Swedish intelligence operators intercepted a radio conversation in Russian on a frequency usually reserved for emergencies, the paper said.

      Another signal was intercepted on Friday night, but this time the content was encrypted. However, the report said, Swedish intelligence was able to pinpoint the locations of the participants. One was in the waters off Stockholm, while the other could be traced to Kaliningrad, the port that is the home of Russia’s Baltic Sea fleet.

      The military sources would not confirm that a Russian craft was in distress, the Svenska Dagbladet reported, but it added that Russia does have mini-submarines based at Kaliningrad.

      Defence analysts cited in other reports speculated that a submarine might have been replacing old spy equipment or monitoring a Swedish naval exercise.”

      Business Insider: Sweden Confirms It Launched A Second Hunt For A Suspected Russian Submarine In October (15 Jan 2015)

      But then – boom! ‘Submarine’ in Sweden was only civilian boat (13 April 2015)

      “On October 31st 2014, retired naval officer Sven Olof Kviman snapped a picture of what looked like a 20-30 metre long, black submarine in waters just outside Lidingö in Stockholm. The incident has remained unconfirmed, but has been classed by the military as a “potential” submarine.

      But Rear Admiral Anders Grenstad has now told Swedish newspapers that the Armed Forces reported to the Swedish government last Wednesday that the suspected underwater vessel was in fact only a civilian “working boat”.

      “The analysis has shown that the photograph taken in Stockholm’s inner archipelago was of a smaller boat,” Grenstad told Dagens Nyheter on Monday.

      According to Grenstad, the picture instead showed the boat “Time Bandit”, a 10.5 metre long, white plastic boat. But the boatman using the vessel on October 31st claimed the Swedish military had not been in contact with him.

      “The navy hasn’t spoken to me. My boat is visible in the picture – but not where the Armed Forces say it is, but further away,” he told Dagens Nyheter.

      And Kviman, who participated in Sweden’s Cold War submarine hunts in the 1980s and 90s, remains convinced of what he saw.

      The Economist: In 2014 a Russian submarine penetrated the Stockholm archipelago, departing without being found. (21 Sep 2017)

      Doesn’t matter if true or not. “Highly Likely”, my arse… The truth is – the Western Media had always been a lying whore. The glamour that made the general public take her for the Virtuous Maid is dissipating only now.

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  5. Professor Robinson

    Sorry to ask this but have you only just noticed how the media treat Russia?

    As soon as you mention Alec Luhn, Max Seddon .I was waiting for the next sentence to include Like Harding.

    These people are not journalists – they are paid propagandists. In the Uk the media is full of such people telling you what to think.

    Why do you read them first of all ?

    The bbc is the chief propagandist the collude the government of the day.

    As for Margarita Simiyanov – what has she said that wasn’t true? in your own article.

    The media treat Russia with contempt.
    So why shouldn’t Russia return the sentiment?

    Remember the uniform western response to Babchenko fake murder? That alone tells you what the media is like

    With MH17 they don’t want to give up their anti Russian propaganda weapon to find out the truth.

    The Dutch and the Australian governments show that they really don’t care about their citizens who died. Or the families by investigating to find the truth. Having Ukraine on the investigative team showed the political nature of the whole JIT investigation.

    Same with the Skripals nonsense. Lies from beginning a

    -the actual poison it was not weapons grade nerve agent – it sounded good though when Theresa May made her accusations 24 hours after the alleged poisoning

    How the the poisoning was done putting it on a door handle as two people close the door together,
    and accusing two people and trying them in the court of public opinion.

    But you believed the story from the start professor. You had no doubts ask yourself why

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  6. “Rather, it is that we seem to have reached a situation in Russian-Western relations of almost complete mutual disbelief.”

    That is how it appears to many, who are probably ready to believe that based on their jaded lack of positive expectations. However, there are channels of sane commentary on the activities of Putin (as well as the deceptions of the American media) offered by clear and convincing experts — like Stephen F. Cohen, who writes a regular column in The Nation, and makes regular radio appearances offering his enlightened and informed contradictions which discredit the official ideological nonsense offered as truth. As someone who is twice emeritus professor of Russian history, his sense-making is commanding. For those unfamiliar, look him up; he appears regularly on the John Batchelor Show.

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  7. I agree with Ingolf’s comment.

    Prof Robinson is adopting the typical “impartial” position of not judging between two opposing notions. This ‘cop-out’ is quite inappropriate in the present context.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Professor, I was shocked, SHOCKED and dismayed that you, a person who chose Russian conservatism as a topic of your scientific (I hope) inquiry, and who had been quoting from it’s various representatives had been, so far, negligent in mentioning another luminary. Let me meliorate that a little bit, because the part quoted has direct relation to the sad question, you are asking at the end of your post:

    “Since the Fall of mankind, lies have settled in the world, in human words, in deeds, in relationships and institutions. But never, it seems, the Father of Lies has invented such a plexus of lies of every kind, as in our troubled times, when so many people hear false talk about the truth from everywhere. As the forms of public life become more complicated, new false attitudes and whole institutions arise, permeated with lies. At every step you meet a magnificent building, on the front of which it is written: “The truth resides here”. You enter and you see nothing except lies. You leave, and when you try to talk about lies, which your soul was indignant about, people are indignant and tell you to believe and preach that this truth is beyond any doubt.

    So we are told to believe that the voice of magazines and newspapers, or the so-called press, is an expression of public opinion… Alas! This is a great lie, and the press is one of the most deceitful institutions of our time.

    Who will argue against the power of opinion that people have about a person or institution? That’s a human nature, that every one of us, no matter what he says, no matter what he does, looks back at how it seems and what the people think about it. There was not and there is no man who could consider himself free from the action of this force.

    This force in our time takes an organized form and is called a public opinion. It’s organ and representative is considered to be the press. And truly, the significance of the press is enormous and is the most characteristic feature of our time, more characteristic than all the amazing discoveries and inventions in the field of technology. There is no government, no law, no custom that could withstand the destructive effect of the press in the state, when all its newspaper sheets day after day for years repeat and spread the mass of the same idea directed against one or another institution.

    What gives the press such power? It’s not the interest in news, messages and information, with which these sheets are filled, but a well-known tendency of the journal, that political or philosophical thought expressed in articles, in the selection and arrangement of news and rumors, and in covering the facts and rumors that are picked up. The press places itself in the position of a judging observer of daily events; it discusses not only actions and human words, but even experiences unspoken thoughts, intentions and assumptions, arbitrarily brands them or praises them, stirs up some, threatens others, puts them to shame, and puts others to the point of ecstasy and an example of imitation. In the name of public opinion, it gives out awards to one, while for the other it prepares a penalty similar to medieval excommunication…”
    – K.P. Pobedonostsev, “The Press”

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