Ukraine: The Digital Fog of War

Malaysian Airlines was brought down over Eastern Ukraine. Initial social media accounts, allegedly thought to be linked to rebel leader Igor Strelkov, claimed responsibility for shooting down the aircraft—serving to further obscure the raging information warfare surrounding Ukraine

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At approximately 14:15 EEST (local time in Eastern Ukraine), Malaysia Airlines issued a statement stating that it had received notification from Ukrainian air traffic authorities reporting a loss of contact with MH 17. The flight had departed Amsterdam at approximately 12:15 EEST bound for Kuala Lumpur and was flying near the Tamak waypoint flight-path approximately 30-50 kilometers from the Ukraine-Russia border. The Boeing 777-200ER, reportedly carrying 295 people (280 passengers and 15 crew), was reportedly flying at an altitude of 10,000-11,000 metres over the town of Snizhne, Ukraine when the air traffic authorities lost contact. Shortly after the plane lost contact, images began surfacing on social media showing the wreckage of an airliner in the region. Additionally, a VK page allegedly linked with the Donbass People’s Militia commander Igor Strelkov (real name Igor Girkin, whom the UK suspects of working for Russia’s Main Intelligence Directorate (GRU)), posted a message claiming responsibility for shooting down a plane in the area.

The Ukrainian Administration quickly responded with President Petro Poroshenko calling the event a “terrorist act”. Anton Gerashenko, an advisor to Ukraine’s Interior Minister stated on his Facebook page that the plane was brought down with a “Buk” (SA- 17) surface-to-air missile system that has a maximum range of 22,000 metres. Associated Press sources have also claimed that a Buk weapons system was spotted in the area prior to the attack.

Cyberspace has been an area of intense activity in the war in Ukraine.

The location of the downed aircraft led suspicion to be pinned immediately on the separatist movement, in particular its leader Igor Strelkov. A VK page allegedly linked to Strelkov took credit for shooting down a plane in the region, stating that ‘We warned you – don’t fly in our sky.’ However, this was quickly removed and replaced with another message denying responsibility. The site has since gone to great lengths to distance itself from Strelkov.

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Screenshots of Igor Strelkov’s VK page

Even more confusing is the existence of two web sites, both claiming direct links to Strelkov: iCorpus.ru and iKorpus.ru. Analysts believe, but cannot confirm, that iKorpus.ru is directly related to Strelkov. The other site appears to be a mirror of the first, with each site posting slightly different content. iKorpus rejected the information from the VK site and stated that Strelkov and the DPM has had nothing to do with the destruction of the plane. However, iCorpus stated that Strelkov has made no comment as of yet on the status of the plane.

To add to the confusion, the official YouTube channel of the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) published a recording, noting that “SBU intercepted the terrorists’ conversations: [Igor] Bezler (“Bes”) reports to his curator, a colonel of [Russia’s Main Intelligence Directorate] GRU [Vasily] Geranin, on the civil airplane that the militants had just shot down.” The series of phone conversations, allegedly between several pro-Russian fighters, identified by their names and nicknames, indicates that a group of Cossacks at the Chernukhino village roadblock near Donetsk shot down the plane—at the time, unaware of its civil nature. The authenticity of the recording has not been independently confirmed.

The conflicting information, from seemingly similar sources, is a sign of the instability and confusion that is emanating from Eastern Ukraine at the moment. As more and more information is added, it becomes increasingly difficult to determine what is legitimate and what is false.

Four Planes in Three Days

This is the fourth plane lost over the Eastern Provinces of Ukraine in the past three days. All three were Ukrainian planes and each was brought down by missile fire. In two cases, Ukrainian politicians have blamed Russian forces for directly shooting down the planes, while in one case insurgents confirmed they shot down the plane.

On Monday, July 14, a Ukrainian military transport Antonov-26 was shot down by a missile over the village of Davydo-Mykilske, east of Luhansk. On Wednesday, July 16, a Ukrainian Sukhoi-25 fighter jet was shot down by an air-to-air system from a Russian plane. The same day, Pro-Russian insurgents also claimed to have shot down a second Sukhoi-25 fighter jet, a claim the Ukrainian Defence Ministry later confirmed.

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