An expert's guide to Putin's propaganda playbook

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Story highlights

  • Mark Galeotti: Expect brazen Russian propaganda after report on Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 downing
  • Disinformation campaign likely to continue until it becomes something for historians to argue over, he says

Mark Galeotti is a senior research fellow at the Institute of International Relations Prague and an expert on Russian foreign and security affairs. Formerly professor of global affairs at New York University, he is now principal director of Mayak Intelligence. The opinions in this article belong to the author.

(CNN)The Russian disinformation machine will kick into overdrive now that Dutch prosecutors have delivered their report on Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, shot down over eastern Ukraine in July 2014.

The report's findings were clear: A Russian missile supplied by the Russian military and fired from territory held by Russia's local proxies downed the plane, killing all 298 people aboard. In response, going from Vladimir Putin's playbook, we can expect a furious, relentless, inventive and brazen propaganda campaign that will probably continue indefinitely, hoping to bury the truth in a mudslide of conspiracy theory, denial and rumor.

Is the truth out there?

The aim is not to prove any specific alternative theory, so much as to create the illusion of uncertainty.
Every arm of the Russian state is called on to play its part -- and they have been preparing for this report's release for some time.
Almaz-Antey, the corporation that built the fateful Buk missile, released a report this month claiming the missile must have been fired from an area held by Ukrainian government troops. It was gleefully picked up by official state media.
Meanwhile, Russian trolls took aim at Bellingcat, the citizen journalist group doing much to gather evidence of Moscow's involvement in open sources. It was accused of being a Russophobic propaganda outfit, of peddling fakes, and an organization calling itself "anti-Bellingcat" surfaced that turned out to be partly run by an official from the Russian Institute for Strategic Studies, a think tank close to Moscow's Foreign Intelligence Service.
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Instead, Russia's enthusiastic propagandists came up with all kinds of theories -- from the faintly plausible to the gruesomely bizarre.
The plane was shot down by a Ukrainian jet (even though the aircraft could not have fired a missile to that altitude) or because it was mistaken for Putin's presidential plane, or even that it was already full of corpses, or silicon dummies.
None of these stand up to scrutiny, but that's not the point. The aim is to pander to those naturally skeptical of the so-called mainstream media and to generate enough confusion and uncertainty that people begin to despair of ever really knowing the truth.

A five-step plan

This is, after all, the playbook we've seen the Kremlin adopt in crisis after crisis -- from the occupation of Crimea to the Olympic doping scandal: deny, counter-attack, confuse, equate, repeat.
First, flatly deny everything, regardless of how conclusive the evidence looks. Those soldiers taking over Crimea aren't Russians, for all they sport the latest Russian kit!
Counter-attack: Question others' motives, evidence and interpretation. Proclaim that this is an anti-Russian smear, a provocation. (If nothing else, this goes down well at home.) Angry about the bombing of civilians in Aleppo? You must support ISIS!
Try to confuse the issue as much as possible. Throw out as many rival theories and explanations as possible, however ludicrous. The United States blew up the Aleppo aid convoy as a provocation! Someone will believe anything, and truths can be lost in the blizzard of lies.
Fourth, as a fallback, claim that even if the allegations are true (though of course they're not), everyone else does it, too -- especially the Americans. Everyone's athletes dope, but only Russians are victimized!
Finally, keep on doing this. It is a firm conviction of the Kremlin, not without some justice, that the West is an attention-deficit disorder society that can be outraged by something today yet forget it tomorrow when some new crisis or scandal catches its attention.
Barring some peace deal over Ukraine's occupied Donbas region, at which point Moscow could conceivably hand over some scapegoats as part of a deal, the disinformation campaign will continue as long as needed until it becomes something for the historians to argue over.
The trouble is that Putin's Russia has one paradoxical advantage: Opinions about it in the West are already pretty fixed. When most governments and experts don't believe you, what incentive do you have not to continue to lie, spin and stonewall? There is a strange freedom in already being considered one step short of a pariah regime.