By Thomas Colley:
In a recent edition of Strife journal, I wrote an article about the lost art of propaganda in the context of conflict in Yugoslavia and Ukraine. The essential argument was that propaganda methods seen by Western strategic communicators as archaic remain relevant and useful in the modern conflict environment. Western strategic communications doctrine has emphasised the need to be first with the truth in order to minimise damaging counter-claims. Yet the tragic downing of yet another Malaysian airlines plane, this time over Eastern Ukraine, demonstrates that lying and censorship are potentially invaluable and remain strategically useful in contemporary conflict.
Someone is lying about shooting down MH-17. Russia, the Ukrainian rebels and the Ukrainian government all deny it; but one of them did it. Writing this post only hours after the event was announced in Britain, it does not seem prudent to join the conspiracy theorists and armchair strategists in filling the void of what happened until the truth is out – if it ever will be. Early media coverage in the West seems to imply likely pro-Russian rebel responsibility; Russian media the opposite. In any case, most audiences will have probably made up their minds who did it from their own common sense, predictable interpretations of the conflict, regardless of the early evidence.
That lying is immoral is beyond question. This author neither advocates it, nor wishes to distract from the indescribable tragedy inflicted upon those on MH-17 and their families. The perpetrators should be brought to swift justice, though as is often the case in war, it is highly uncertain whether they will be.
From a moral point of view, lying is almost unequivocally wrong. From a strategic point of view though, there is much to gain from doing so. Strenuous denial and then accusation of the other side has been the immediate response from the protagonists, both those telling the truth and the liar(s) amongst them. This is not unexpected, since it seems reasonable to assume, or at least hope, that shooting down a civilian passenger plane was unintentional. Still, there are few benefits from admitting the truth, however hard it should be for the individual perpetrators to live with.
The result of the lying and mutual accusations is confusion, obfuscation and doubt. And for fairly obvious reasons, there are likely to be few or no eyewitnesses, and those that exist can easily be discredited by their opponents. Satellite imagery might shed light on what happened, but can easily be countered with claims of forgery, misinterpretation, or simply just censored. After all, how many members of the public can interpret such data, even if they had access to it? Furthermore, given the slew of data used to track MH-370 unsuccessfully earlier in the year, attempts to use such data to prove who was at fault and justify action against them may not be as persuasive as expected.
Then there is the question of who each side is trying to convince. If for example a Western power discovers cast iron proof that Ukrainian separatists were responsible, this would be denied by them and most likely by Russia. What is to stop Russia from presenting evidence to the contrary? Western publics will probably believe their governments over Russia, but Russians and Russian sympathisers in Ukraine will likely believe their governments. The strategic gains from not being held definitively responsible appear far greater than the risk of sanctions if found out. Even if those responsible are found out, they can still deny it and be believed by many.
There is also no guarantee that citizens will even believe their own governments. This was demonstrated by the chemical weapons attack in Syria in 2013. When the British government attempted to use the attacks to justify intervention against the Assad government forces, plenty of British citizens, wary of a repeat of the WMD deception of Iraq in 2003, were sceptical of their own government’s claims that Assad was responsible. There is no guarantee that they would be more trusting now were this tragedy used as justification for stronger action or military support – even though several Brits were among the casualties.
One can only hope that this horrific incident will have positive benefits in galvanising the international community to act to end the conflict, preventing further atrocities, deliberate or otherwise. A more idealistic hope is that this event could once again galvanise states and their publics into accepting a more active role in maintaining international peace and security, rather than shying away while so many places burn. Much will be revealed in the coming days. Pledges, threats, promises and tributes will be made. But within the rhetoric, do not expect an admission of guilt – the strategic benefits of hiding the truth are too great. As a consequence, these human lives, which by either negligence or ill-fortune were unfortunate enough to be crossing the wrong airspace at the wrong time, may not receive the justice they deserve.
Thomas Colley is a PhD student in War Studies at King’s College London. His research interests include propaganda, strategic communication and public attitudes to the use of military force. You can follow Thomas on Twitter @ThomasColley.