The crash of Metrojet Flight 9268 in Egypt on October 31, which killed all 224 people on board, was more than the worst aviation disaster in the country’s history. Once it became clear that the cause of the crash was probably terrorism, it also became a messaging nightmare for the Kremlin’s propaganda machine.
Since Russia’s Syria campaign began, Kremlin officials and the state media have been framing it as a painless war that was boosting Moscow’s international prestige. All patriotic citizens needed to do was sit back and enjoy the grainy footage of terrorists being obliterated by Russia’s shiny new military machine.
The deaths of hundreds of Russian civilians threatened to change that, especially after the Islamic State claimed responsibility and the evidence that a bomb—and not technical failure—destroyed the aircraft mounted. Suddenly the Syria campaign wasn’t cost-free anymore. So parts of Russian state media did what came naturally: They blamed the West.
Sputnik got the ball rolling with a piece on November 6 claiming that “British officials have made an unseemly leap to speculate on a terrorist plot in the Russian airliner crash over Sinai last weekend.”
The story concluded: “The confidence by which these assessments of terror methodology are being made raises an even more troubling, darker question: Was it really terrorists, or was it British MI6 agents palming the deed off as terrorists?”
On the same day, the conspiracy website WhatDoesItMean.com published an article claiming that Russia had captured two “CIA assets who are believed to have masterminded the downing of Flight 9268.”
And then came Dmitry Kiselyov. On his flagship news show Vesti Nedeli on Russian state television, the bombastic pundit suggested on November 8 that it was suspicious that after two years of U.S. air strikes against Islamic State, no American passenger planes have been targeted. And yet a Russian civilian aircraft was downed just 40 days into Russia’s military campaign in Syria.
Kiselyov went on to suggest that the United States and its allies cut a deal with Islamic State “not to touch the civilian aircraft of the Western Coalition.” He added that “dividing terrorists into good ones and bad ones is standard practice for the West. If the terrorist is targeting Russia, he’s a good terrorist and even a supporter of democracy.”
Writing on his blog, Anton Shekhovtvov, a senior fellow at the Legatum Institute and a research associate at the Kiev-based Institute for Euro-Atlantic Cooperation, noted that “this version may seem absurd to everyone who is not prone to conspiracy theories, but it is also extremely dangerous. It means that, indeed, the consolidation of Putin’s criminal regime at home is far more important for the Kremlin than the international cooperation, and that Moscow is ready to escalate its war on the West.”
The Kremlin could have used the downing of Flight 9268 to repair its relations with the West, Shekhovtvov noted. Its leaders could have made the argument that: “The Russians are fighting the war on international terrorism, and Russia and the West are in this together, hence Russia is no longer a pariah state, so do lift the sanctions and accept us to the club of the global powers.” But loud voices within Russian state media have chosen another route.
“The Kremlin keeps on instilling anti-Western hatred into the Russian society by feeding it with conspiracy theories, and this hatred may lead to psychological acceptance of [an] even more aggressive approach towards the West,” Shekhovtvov wrote. “As Voltaire wrote, ‘those who can make you believe absurdities, can make you commit atrocities.’”
If state propaganda blames the tragedy of Metrojet 9268 on the West, the results might be good for Putin at home. But that will do little to change the dynamic that Moscow has set in motion with its Syria campaign.
“The Kremlin’s propaganda channels feted the air strikes against Syrian rebels as a sign that the country was once again a geopolitical force to be reckoned with,” veteran Kremlin-watcher Edward Lucas, author of The New Cold War, wrote in The Telegraph.
“But the reckoning may be a bloody one. Russia is now firmly (and probably irrevocably) positioned as an enemy of conservative and radical Sunni Muslims.”
This post appears courtesy of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.