A Russian state propagandist is casting blame on Ukraine for the recent plane crash near Tehran — echoing the disinformation that emerged after the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 in 2014.
Ukraine International Airlines Flight 752 crashed shortly after takeoff on Wednesday. All 176 people on board, including a large contingent of Canadians and Iranians, were killed.
The comments comparing this crash to Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 came from Alexander Malkevich, the chair of the Commission of the Public Chamber of the Russian Federation for the development of media, and the former head of US-focused propaganda site called USA Really.
A Russian-language article from the Federal News Agency reported that Malkevich said, “This is the second time Ukraine is placing civilian planes in military conflict.”
This was a reference to the downing of MH17 over Ukraine almost six years ago, which set off a wave of disinformation and international investigations.
FAN’s recent coverage about events in Iran and Iraq floated additional baseless theories, claiming the US was responsible for the plane crash, and that the US was hiding casualties from Iran’s recent missile strikes on army bases in Iraq.
“Any chance that Russia gets they’re going to try to discredit the United States, and try to discredit Ukraine,” said Nina Jankowicz, a disinformation fellow at the Wilson Center and the author of the upcoming book How to Lose the Information War. “ I don’t think it’s surprising Malkevich is saying this.”
Malkevich is a familiar figure to US authorities. In 2018, he attempted to organize a rally outside the White House to promote the website USA Really, an English-language site he ran for FAN. At one point, FAN was based out of the same location in St. Petersburg as the Internet Research Agency, the infamous troll factory indicted for attempting to influence US elections.
Malkevich’s interview and FAN’s other coverage show how Russia is quick to fill any post-disaster information vacuum with confusion, conspiracies, and propaganda, according to Jankowicz. She said it echoes the Russian government’s history of sowing disinformation and denying responsibility for the MH17 disaster and the Skripal poisoning.
“They’re always going to be spinning and coming up with crazy stuff,” she said. “I’m certain Sputnik and RT will be spinning these narratives soon — and other narratives, as well. It’s more of the same.”
In the interview with FAN, which was sanctioned by the US for its role in spreading disinformation about the 2016 and 2018 elections, Malkevich also denied Russia was responsible for the shooting down of MH17. Both Dutch authorities and independent investigators concluded Russia was responsible and that the plane was hit by a Russian missile after compiling incriminating radio transmissions and phone calls by Russian soldiers.
Still, Malkevich claimed he had obtained information that would “show something different.”
In the case of the more recent crash involving the Ukrainian airliner, initial reporting and statements from Iranian authorities pointed to an issue with the plane. But on Thursday, US media reported that intelligence sources had concluded the plane was shot down, and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau confirmed that conclusion in public comments. Trudeau cited “intelligence from multiple sources, including our allies and our own intelligence.” He also said the shooting down of the plane “may have been accidental,” echoing US President Donald Trump, who said "somebody could have made a mistake."
The Iranian government has denied those claims. It has also refused to let outside investigators examine the evidence and has not shared the aircraft’s black boxes.
The Ukrainian president, meanwhile, cautioned against speculation and made a plea for evidence.
The dueling narratives about the cause of the plane crash are yet another example of the rumors and falsehoods that have spread about the US’s killing of Iranian military general Qassem Soleimani, Iran’s retaliation, and the plane crash. When news of the crash first spread, many people shared unverified and out of context photos, feeding speculation and conflicting theories.
USA Really is still online. A previous version of this story incorrectly said it was defunct.