An armed separatist guards in front of wagons containing the remains of victims from the downed Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17, at a railway station in the eastern Ukrainian town of Torez on July 21, 2014. Photo: Getty
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If you lived in Russia, this is what you’d believe about the crash of MH17

The Kremlin’s propaganda pushing support for the separatists in eastern Ukraine has been so effective that the Russian people have a completely different understanding of the downing of MH17 – and even Putin may be unable to hold back the jingoism.

Did you know Malaysia Air Flight 17 was full of corpses when it took off from Amsterdam? Did you know that, for some darkly inexplicable reason, on 17 July, MH17 moved off the standard flight path that it had taken every time before, and moved north, toward rebel-held areas outside Donetsk? Or that the dispatchers summoned the plane lower just before the crash? Or that the plane had been recently reinsured? Or that the Ukrainian army has air defence systems in the area? Or that it was the result of the Ukrainian military mistaking MH17 for Putin’s presidential plane, which looks strangely similar?

Did you know that the crash of MH17 was all part of an American conspiracy to provoke a big war with Russia?

Well, it’s all true - at least if you live in Russia, because this is the Malaysia Airlines crash story that you’d be seeing.

As the crisis surrounding the plane crash deepens and as calls for Vladimir Putin to act grow louder, it’s worth noting that they’re not really getting through to Putin’s subjects. The picture of the catastrophe that the Russian people are seeing on their television screens is very different from that on screens in much of the rest of the world, and the discrepancy does not bode well for a sane resolution to this stand-off. 

Western media has been vacillating for days between calling Putin a murderer and peppering their coverage with allegedlys, telling the heart-rending tales of the victims, scrounging for anonymous leaks to link the Russians to the downed jet, and punditising about exit ramps.

But in Russia, television - most of it owned or controlled by the Kremlin - is trying to muddy the water with various experts who insist that there is no way that an SA-11 missile system could possibly have downed a plane flying that high. And, mind you, this is not part of a larger debate of could they, or couldn’t they; this is all of Russian television and state-friendly papers pushing one line: the pro-Russian separatists we’ve been supporting all these months couldn’t have done this. Watching some of these Russian newscasts, one comes away with the impression of a desperate defence attorney scrounging for experts and angles, or a bad kid caught red-handed by the principal, trying to twist his way out of a situation in which he has no chance.

And that’s when they’re not simply peddling conspiracy theories, which have become a kind of symbiotic feedback loop between state TV and the most inventive corners of the Internet. The best of the bunch is, of course, an elaborate one: MH17 is actually MH370, that Malaysia Airlines flight that disappeared into the Indian Ocean. According to this theory, the plane didn’t disappear at all, “it was taken to an American military base, Diego-Garcia”:

Then it was taken to Holland. On the necessary day and hour, it flew out, bound for Malaysia, but inside were not live people, but corpses. The plane was flown not by real pilots; it was on autopilot. Or take-off (a complicated procedure) was executed by live pilots, who then ejected on parachutes. Then the plane flew automatically. In the necessary spot, it was blown up, without even using a surface-to-air missile. Instead the plane was packed with a bomb, just like the CIA did on 9/11.

The theory also notes that the passports of victims at the crash site all look brand new even though there was an explosion and a fire. “That is, the passports were tossed in [after the crash].” And, most damningly, all the victims’ Facebook pages were created in one day and the media is not showing any of the victims’ families, just the crash site. Though this is not true of Western media, Russian television has not featured any of this. “There’s very little talk about the human cost of this catastrophe,” says independent television analyst Arina Borodina, formerly of the prominent Russian daily Kommersant. “Instead we’re seeing these unbelievable versions. For example, that someone had actually been hunting for the president or that some of the locals saw parachutists coming down from a height of 30,000 feet.”

But though it may look unconvincing to us in the West, that is because we have seen and read other things that contradict it. The Russian media space has become so uniform and independent voices so cowed and marginalised that there is no counterweight and, when there’s no counterweight, if you repeat a thing often enough, it becomes the truth.

This isn’t an innocent you-say-tomato moment; this is a very problematic development. The result of all this Russian coverage is that Russians’ understanding of what happened is as follows. At best, the crash is an unfortunate accident on the part of the Ukrainian military that the West is trying to pin on Russia, which had nothing to do with it; at worst, it is all part of a nefarious conspiracy to drag Russia into an apocalyptic war with the West. So whereas the West sees the crash as a game-changer, the Russians do not see why a black swan event has to change anything or they want to resist what they see is a provocation. To them, after a few days of watching Russian television, it’s not at all clear what happened nor that their government is somehow responsible for this tragedy. And the more we insist on it, the less likely the Russians are to agree. 

Floriana Fossato, a longtime scholar of Russian media, says that this, coupled with the media’s conscious use of the Soviet language of crisis - “traitors,” “fascists,” “fifth columns” - quickly brings to the surface the psychological demons of a society massively traumatised by the 20th century, traumas that society has never adequately addressed. The result, she says, is a kind of collective PTSD-meets-Stockholm Syndrome

In Russians' view, “Americans have recreated the situation where they have excuse for intervention,” Fossato says. “No one admits that they are afraid, but they are. They are panicked. And they are right in being afraid because they know what happened, and they know there must be an answer to what is going on. And so they lock onto Putin for protection. This is why they don’t turn to Putin and ask him to do something.”

But in addition to the Russian public not clamoring for decisive action from Putin, there is a far more serious problem. As David Remnick noted in his column on the crash of MH17, Putin has become prisoner to his own propaganda machine, much as he’s become prisoner of the rebels he thought were doing his geopolitical dirty work in Ukraine.

After Putin’s ascent, media became the flexible element that could be readjusted for any twist or turn of the political rudder. “Today, it’s the opposite,” says Gleb Pavlovsky, a political consultant who helped Putin win his first election and was a Kremlin advisor for years afterwards. “It’s almost impossible to turn the rudder of the picture that’s formed on television because it would mean losing the audience they formed in this year” of sword-brandishing and imperialistic conquest.

This audience is now fired up and brandishing its own swords, and the propaganda apparatus, much like the rebels in eastern Ukraine, has rolled on an on, fed by inertia and paranoia, reproducing and magnifying itself with each newscast. The sensationalised newscasts are now neck-and-neck, ratings-wise, with the sitcoms. “It keeps people in a traumatised state,” Pavlovsky says. “It’s notable in media metrics, and in conversations with people. They lose their sanity, they become paranoid and aggressive.”

This has had a noticeable impact on the ruling class, Pavlovsky says, which has to watch this stuff in order to stay au courant. And they become less sane as a result, too, which limits their ability to adequately assess a situation such as this and devise a good way out of it.

“It’s noticeable that the Kremlin is much more tempered than Russian TV but can’t change it,” Pavlovsky says. “It’s fallen into a trap, so it's now trying to function within the strictures of this picture.” He cites the example of the PR contortions the Kremlin had to use just to announce that it would not send troops into eastern Ukraine. “In this seemingly controlled media, any rational political arguments of the state have to be hidden and packaged in idiotic, jingoistic rhetoric,” Pavlovsky says. 

None of this looks very good for the West, which is clearly hoping that MH17 is the thing that will bring Putin to his senses and get him to agree to some kind of off-ramp, or, at least, a de-escalation. But that’s hard to do if neither your public nor your political class see it as a game-changer or as anything that should force Russia to end this game.

“Of course it gets in Putin’s way. He has to be the hero of this TV material, he’s not free from it anymore,” says Pavlovsky. “I have a feeling not very comfortable right now.”

This article originally appeared on the New Republic.

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Qatar is determined to stand up to its Gulf neighbours – but at what price?

The tensions date back to the maverick rule of Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani.

For much of the two decades plus since Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani deposed his father to become emir of Qatar, the tiny gas-rich emirate’s foreign policy has been built around two guiding principles: differentiating itself from its Gulf neighbours, particularly the regional Arab hegemon Saudi Arabia, and insulating itself from Saudi influence. Over the past two months, Hamad’s strategy has been put to the test. From a Qatari perspective it has paid off. But at what cost?

When Hamad became emir in 1995, he instantly ruffled feathers. He walked out of a meeting of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) because, he believed, Saudi Arabia had jumped the queue to take on the council’s rotating presidency. Hamad also spurned the offer of mediation from the then-President of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan al-Nahyan. This further angered his neighbours, who began making public overtures towards Khalifa, the deposed emir, who was soon in Abu Dhabi and promising a swift return to power in Doha. In 1996, Hamad accused Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the UAE of sponsoring a coup attempt against Hamad, bringing GCC relations to a then-all-time low.

Read more: How to end the stand off in the Gulf

The spat was ultimately resolved, as were a series of border and territory disputes between Qatar, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, but mistrust of Hamad - and vice versa - has lingered ever since. As crown prince, Hamad and his key ally Hamad bin Jassim al-Thani had pushed for Qatar to throw off what they saw as the yoke of Saudi dominance in the Gulf, in part by developing the country’s huge gas reserves and exporting liquefied gas on ships, rather than through pipelines that ran through neighbouring states. Doing so freed Qatar from the influence of the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries, the Saudi-dominated oil cartel which sets oil output levels and tries to set oil market prices, but does not have a say on gas production. It also helped the country avoid entering into a mooted GCC-wide gas network that would have seen its neighbours control transport links or dictate the – likely low - price for its main natural resource.

Qatar has since become the richest per-capita country in the world. Hamad invested the windfall in soft power, building the Al Jazeera media network and spending freely in developing and conflict-afflicted countries. By developing its gas resources in joint venture with Western firms including the US’s Exxon Mobil and France’s Total, it has created important relationships with senior officials in those countries. Its decision to house a major US military base – the Al Udeid facility is the largest American base in the Middle East, and is crucial to US military efforts in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan – Qatar has made itself an important partner to a major Western power. Turkey, a regional ally, has also built a military base in Qatar.

Hamad and Hamad bin Jassem also worked to place themselves as mediators in a range of conflicts in Sudan, Somalia and Yemen and beyond, and as a base for exiled dissidents. They sold Qatar as a promoter of dialogue and tolerance, although there is an open question as to whether this attitude extends to Qatar itself. The country, much like its neighbours, is still an absolute monarchy in which there is little in the way of real free speech or space for dissent. Qatar’s critics, meanwhile, argue that its claims to promote human rights and free speech really boil down to an attempt to empower the Muslim Brotherhood. Doha funded Muslim Brotherhood-linked groups during and after the Arab Spring uprisings of 2011, while Al Jazeera cheerleaded protest movements, much to the chagrin of Qatar's neighbours. They see the group as a powerful threat to their dynastic rule and argue that the Brotherhood is a “gateway drug” to jihadism. In 2013,  after Western allies became concerned that Qatar had inadvertently funded jihadist groups in Libya and Syria, Hamad was forced to step down in favour of his son Tamim. Soon, Tamim came under pressure from Qatar’s neighbours to rein in his father’s maverick policies.

Today, Qatar has a high degree of economic independence from its neighbours and powerful friends abroad. Officials in Doha reckon that this should be enough to stave off the advances of the “Quad” of countries – Bahrain, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the UAE - that have been trying to isolate the emirate since June. They have been doing this by cutting off diplomatic and trade ties, and labelling Qatar a state sponsor of terror groups. For the Quad, the aim is to end what it sees as Qatar’s disruptive presence in the region. For officials in Doha, it is an attempt to impinge on the country’s sovereignty and turn Qatar into a vassal state. So far, the strategies put in place by Hamad to insure Qatar from regional pressure have paid off. But how long can this last?

Qatar’s Western allies are also Saudi Arabia and the UAE’s. Thus far, they have been paralysed by indecision over the standoff, and after failed mediation attempts have decided to leave the task of resolving what they see as a “family affair” to the Emir of Kuwait, Sabah al-Sabah. As long as the Quad limits itself to economic and diplomatic attacks, they are unlikely to pick a side. It is by no means clear they would side with Doha in a pinch (President Trump, in defiance of the US foreign policy establishment, has made his feelings clear on the issue). Although accusations that Qatar sponsors extremists are no more true than similar charges made against Saudi Arabia or Kuwait – sympathetic local populations and lax banking regulations tend to be the major issue – few Western politicians want to be seen backing an ally, that in turn many diplomats see as backing multiple horses.

Meanwhile, although Qatar is a rich country, the standoff is hurting its economy. Reuters reports that there are concerns that the country’s massive $300bn in foreign assets might not be as liquid as many assume. This means that although it has plenty of money abroad, it could face a cash crunch if the crisis rolls on.

Qatar might not like its neighbours, but it can’t simply cut itself off from the Gulf and float on to a new location. At some point, there will need to be a resolution. But with the Quad seemingly happy with the current status quo, and Hamad’s insurance policies paying off, a solution looks some way off.