When regular watchers of the news from the self-proclaimed “Donetsk People’s Republic” saw the latest dispatch on 17 July from Col. Igor Strelkov, the self-appointed “Defense Minister” of the DPR, they realized that the pro-Russian separatists didn’t know yet what had happened.
Donetsk commander Strelkov, longtime Russian agent, claimed credit today for shooting plane he thought was Ukrainian pic.twitter.com/L4tuxLOmj9
— Anne Applebaum (@anneapplebaum) July 17, 2014
Here is a translation by The Interpreter of the dispatch as it originally appeared at Svodki Strelkova Igora Ivanovicha, or “Igor Ivanovich Strelkov’s Dispatches”, a community at the popular Russian social networking site VKontakte:
“17.07.2014 17:50 (Moscow Time) Report from the militia.
‘In the area of Torez, we have just shot down an AN-26 airplane, it is scattered about somewhere by the Progress coal mine.
We warned them – don’t fly ‘in our sky.’
Here is a video confirmation of the latest ‘bird drop.’
The bird fell beyond the slag heap, it did not damage the residential sector.
Civilians were not hurt.
There is also information about a second downed airplane, apparently an SU.'”
As we reported 17 July, this post that originally appeared on the “Strelkov’s Dispatches” VKontakte group showed that the pro-Russian separatists were boasting about having downed yet another Ukrainian airplane — or maybe even two — just as they had done on 14 July with a powerful anti-aircraft system in Krasnodon.
As this apparent admission of the downing of the plane seemed to be a smoking gun in the tragedy of the Malaysian airline, it has come under much scrutiny as possibly a “fake” or just a blog post of an unofficial Strelkov fan group that might be prone to erroneous postings.
From our long observation of this Vkontakte group and other Strelkov-related pages, we would have to say this is not the case – this group’s publications have long been cited by regional media and the same talking points as the dispatch were also used by Russian state media and Ukrainian media from other separatist sources .
First, the VKontakte group isn’t just a random fan group; it’s an established group of supporters now numbering more than 137,000 followers which has been publishing “Strelkov Dispatches” for weeks, many of which have tracked events corroborated by other sources or which are consistent with the separatists’ narrative as Strelkov himself says on camera in video addresses or at news conferences uploaded to YouTube.
Second, the DPR, whatever its internal differences or “rag-tag” image is a militant cadre organization in the Soviet style with vertical command, tight internal “party discipline” and control of its news and statements. Strelkov is widely reported to be an officer in the GRU, or Russian military intelligence, and recently admitted to having served in the Federal Security Service (FSB) as well. The self-declared prime minister, Aleksandr Boroday, a Muscovite and political consultant long active in ultranationalists causes, is also said to be an FSB officer. He pays close attention to the messaging of the group and has developing increasingly sophisticated methods of news broadcasting with flashy graphics, music, and maps to convey the separatists’ narrative and interests. It would not be possible for such a large social media group to be formed and persist for this long if it didn’t have Boroday’s approval and if it wasn’t consistently “on message” with Strelkov and other leaders.
The 17 July message on the purported “Ukrainian plane” downing wasn’t removed hastily — it remained in view for hours while hundreds of others copied it on Vkontakte, Facebook, Twitter and LiveJournal “as is” — and then others began to discuss the implications of the seeming admission.
But more importantly, mainstream Russian state news agencies and topical discussion sites either used the dispatch “as is,” or — what is especially important for corroboration — didn’t use the VK post at all but had similar stories based on other separatist sources. These are still visible online or in Google cache. We’ve gathered some examples:
1). Vzglyad.ru, one of the top pro-government Russian newspapers, reported the story of the “downed transport plane” on 17 July at 18:18, first citing an eye-witness:
“‘At about 16:00 local time an AN-26 was flying over the city. We saw how a missile flew at it, an explosion was heard, and the plane fell to the earth, leaving behind black smoke. Some pieces showered from the sky,’ RIA Novosti reported, and a video with the scene was also uploaded in confirmation of the agency’s sources.”
The eye-witness said the plane fell in the area of the Progress mine, away from residential apartments — which was exactly the information in “Strelkov’s Dispatches”.
Vzglyad added that the separatists had set up anti-aircraft weapons at the Saur-Mogila mound in Snezhnoye and on 14 July had downed two SU-25 planes in this area. Kiev confirmed one loss and said that one of the Ukrainian SU-25 was downed by a Russian war plane. Then Vzglyad added this piece of news, not removed since, a very important detail which constitutes admission by the separatists that they had a Buk to use 14 July:
“Ukrainian military claim that the losses were caused by actions by Russia. The militia refuted this information, correcting that they had shot down the plane from a ZRK ‘9K37M1’ (better known as a Buk).”
This article appeared as the separatists were scrubbing their tweets bragging about possession of the Buk — and it hasn’t been removed.
The Vzglyad article makes it clear that they’ve used the separatists as sources and have accepted the story that the plane which was downed on 17 July was another AN-26. They don’t quote Strelkov word for word — but used the exact same talking points.
Other news outlets just ran the dispatches “as is” and have not removed them.
2) Forbes.ua ran the “Strelkov Dispatch” on 17 July at 18:56, quoting it exactly, including the infamous line “We warned you not to fly in ‘our sky’ and also running a screenshot and a picture of Strelkov. This page remained online as of this writing, and demonstrates how the dispatch was used as reliably coming from him — the story was posted before the news of the Malaysian airliner was known, and is not a discussion of the dispatch as an admission of responsibility, as other, later uses of the post were.
3) A Belarusian news portal belport.by also ran a word-for-word version of the dispatch from Forbes.ua, noting that it was 16:50 Kiev time, although the dispatch itself gives the time as “17:50 Msk” for Moscow time, which is the time the separatists run on.
4) ITAR-TASS also joined in the publishing of the separatists’ first version of the news of the downed plane on 17 July at 19:04 — and this piece still remains on line as of this writing.
“Militia of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR) in the area of the city of Torez have shot down a military transport AN-26 plane of the Ukrainian Air Force. Eye-witnesses report this from the place of the incident.
According to their information, the plane was shot down by a missile, after which it lost altitude, crashed to the ground and burned up.”
So ITAR-TASS used the eye-witnesses’ report, and trusted their story that it was separatists who had done the shooting down of the plane on 17 July. ITAR-TASS then reiterated the report of how separatists had also downed two other planes on 14 July.
5) Topwar.ru a popular military news and discussion site, used the VK dispatch and the eye-witness report but added further speculation – before the news of the Malaysian plane broke:
Under the headline “Ukrainian Air Force AN-26 Shot Down Near Torez; Militia Announce Downed SU,” they quoted it in full as a “confirmation” of the 17 July downing — before they had the news of the Malaysian flight — and also mentioned the second plane and posted the video. They did not remove this news item later and it was still online to date.
6) In its first post on the subject, pravda-tv.ru put the time as 17:37 Moscow and had this “report from the militia”
“In the Snezhny district an AN-26 was just shot down, and it is scattered somewhere behind the Progress coal mine.”
Its second report was then time-stamped 17:50 Moscow, and contained word-for-word the “Strelkov Dispatch” without any reference to the VKontakte group (referring only to “the militia”) — with an added smiley symbol next to the phrase “We warned you – don’t fly in ‘our sky'”.
Neither report was removed, although later updates mention the separatists’ denial and the Malaysian Boeing.
So with a bit of Google forensics of news stories still preserved as they were reported at the time, we can see that:
a) the “Strelkov Dispatches” VKontakte group is trusted and used regularly by a variety of state and independent media and was used for this story;
b) other separatist sources cited by the Russian state media had the same version of the “Ukrainian transport plane” story talking points as the “Strelkov Dispatches” and they were used as sources without any reference to VK;
c) the eye-witnesses who reported the downing also made the presumption that separatists downed the airplane — and this was also assumed by the writers of the Russian state news stories.
The issue isn’t whether “Strelkov Dispatches” are used — they are, all the time, by Russian state media, i.e. regnum.ru two days before the downing of the Malaysian plane.
And as we see, stories based on reprints or talking points of the dispatches remain on top news sites — and of course are copied on many blogs.
Nor was it the case that the Vkontakte group was alone among separatist outlets “off message” on the plane having to make corrections later — or still to make them.
Other outlets for news of the separatist battles also ran the story without reference to the VKontakte group. Russkaya Vesna (Russian Spring) was one such site, which reported the following on 17 July at 18:32:
“Today in the area of Torez (DPR) a Ukrainian Air Force plane crashed.
There is a version according to which an AN-26 was shot down over Torez. But it is possible this was a fighter plane as there is information from eye-witnesses that it managed to release several missiles before falling.
The plane fell beyond the slag heap and the residential sector was not damaged; in one of the videos, the impression is created that it was falling on a residential block.”
So this source used the same talking points as “Strelkov’s Dispatch” regarding the slag heap and the lack of damage to civilian buildings, but without reference to him as such. This story remains online, although subsequent posts tell the story of the Malaysian airliner.
Soon, Russian news sites began to ask the question of whether Strelkov had been mistaken — and they didn’t need prompting from Ukrainian news sites to do so; novosti-n.ru was one of a number of such sites with a headline Strelkov Mixed up the Boeing with the AN-26? on July 17 at 19:33.
Strelkov watchers argue over what is the most “authentic” and “official” of various websites purporting to represent him. As he himself has claimed not to run any individual social media sites himself, this opens up the question of how pro-separatist news sites are representing separatist statements. At one time the colonel was said to post his thoughts on a blog called Edinoross (United Russian); a blog called Summer 56 was also said to be used for his posts, and he has posted on various forums as well. Recently a site icorpus.ru is claimed to be his “official” site – and it has a slightly different clone, ikorpus.ru which also has dispatches that appear to be Strelkov’s, some of which are in whole or in part the same as in the Vkontakte.com group.The ikorpus.ru site has been denounced by others as “inauthentic.”
In our experience, unless Strelkov is speaking on camera in real-time with journalists present or with internal time-stamping and geolocation, it’s hard to accept completely any “dispatch” coming under his name in print on a web site. Yet in general, the posts from “Strelkov’s Dispatches” have been accurate at least in terms of relaying the news and notions of the separatists. When the messaging does seem to be going astray from Moscow’s ultranationalist supporters, as it did with a riotous few days when Strelkov was being denounced and blamed for retreating from Slavyansk, Aleksandr Boroday quickly appears in live press conferences and social media posts to set the separatist record straight.
The “Strelkov Dispatches” Vkontakte group has now published this convoluted explanation for why they removed the post about the downed plane:
From the Administration of the Community
Information about the downing of the plane was taken from a forum where local residents and militia have discussions. At the moment of the publication, all users thought that the latest AN-26 of the Kiev Nazis was shot down, and the post about the downing, duplicated by us, was already going around many anti-Maidan communities. Igor Ivanovich Strelkov did not confirm the information about the destruction of the plane. We will remind you that in our community, reports from I.I. Strelkov are published with a special banner “STRELKOV REPORTS”. All other reports we gather from open sorces and also from the journalist of militiamen and eye-witnesses of events. STRELKOV HIMSELF WRITES ONLY ON ONE SINGLE FORUM, and we also only duplicate his reports here, ALWAYS accompanying them with a SPECIAL BANNER. If there is no banner, then the report is NOT from Strelkov, but from open sources (either from militia, or from eye-witnesses or from journalists).
Meanwhile, ikorpus.ru denounced the original VKontakte post as a “plant” by Ukrainians and denied that separatists had ever seen a Buk — forgetting that by this time, multiple Russian news sites had already mentioned their previous boasts of having them. They fumed that Ukrainian sites “planted” the story of the “Ukrainian plane” in advance before the plane downing. But in fact the story came out about the same time — and they can’t explain why Russian news outlets used it — or the same talking points from various separatist sources.