Kremlin Unleashes Attack Dogs on MH17 Investigation

“Anti-Bellingcat” bloggers have ties to ultra-nationalists and government

The Kremlin media, if nobody else, have been rocked by the report of a group of Russian bloggers calling themselves “anti-Bellingcat” who claim to have disproved some of Bellingcat’s key findings in the MH17 case.

The Bellingcat group of investigative journalists has been one of the leading researchers into the crash of Malaysian Airlines flight MH17. The group has published open-source imagery which appears to identify the weapon which caused the crash as a Buk-M1 missile launcher supplied by the Russian army. It has regularly been attacked by Kremlin-linked officials and media.

On 28 September, an international criminal investigation is due to release its findings into the crash. The Russian bloggers’ report appears timed to undermine the credibility of Bellingcat and its investigative methods ahead of the release.

However, the identity of the authors of this latest blog — as revealed by tabloid Komsomolskaya Pravda (KP) — raises questions about their own credibility.

According to the paper, the key technical expert in the imaginatively-named “anti-Bellingcat” group is Mikhail Malyshevskiy, an advisor to the chief constructor of Russian arms manufacturer Almaz-Antey. Malyshevskiy is also named as the author of a separate document, leaked to Novaya Gazeta, which attacked the conclusions of Bellingcat and the Dutch Safety Board.

While he can be assumed to have expert knowledge, he can hardly be considered independent. Almaz-Antey is a state-owned company created by order of President Vladimir Putin in 2002; the first chairman of its board of directors was Putin’s ally Viktor Ivanov. The current chair is Sergei Chemezov, also director of the state technology corporation “Rostech”. Malyshevskiy is thus answerable to a chain of command that leads straight back to the Kremlin.

His lead co-author is even more questionable. This is Yury Kotenok, identified by KP as the chief editor of website segodnia.ru, which published the bloggers’ document. The site itself is strongly pro-Kremlin and nationalist. According to the website, it was registered with the Russian telecoms regulator, Roskomnadzor, under the ID number ФС77–42904 on 6 December 2010.

A search for this ID number in the Roskomnadzor register confirms that there are two licensees, Yury Petrovich Kotenok and the ROSINFONET agency:

Detail from the Roskomnadzor register showing Yury Petrovich Kotenok as segodnia.ru’s founder.

Rosinfonet is the parent company of the website of the same name. This, too, is a strongly nationalist website, combining praise of Putin with attacks on Ukraine, the United States, NATO and other hate figures of Russian nationalism. A search of the Roskomnadzor register reveals that it was registered under two months after segodnia.ru.

Detail from the Roskomnadzor register showing Rosinfonet’s origins.

It is striking that Rosinfonet chose to launch two strongly nationalist media services within such a short space of time.

Kotenok’s background is more striking still. He is the head of the press department of the Russian Institute of Strategic Studies (RISS), which was founded by Putin as a government think tank and is also, according to the New York Times, linked to Russian foreign intelligence.

But he is not the average think-tanker: his main role appears to be as a propagandist for the separatists in Ukraine. (He is listed as a transmitter of disinformation in the European Union’s regular reviews.) His series of video blogs from Donbass shows him interviewing leaders such as “Strelkov”, “Motorola”, “Ler” and “Botsman”, whom he introduces as “one of the people defending Novorossiya, gun in hand.”

This is not a case of a reputable journalist reporting from both sides of the front. This show, broadcast by segodnia.ru, shows him wearing a T-shirt with the logo of the separatist Donetsk People’s Republic, leaving no doubt as to his allegiance:

Screen shot of the show, with Kotenok wearing a separatist T-shirt.

A separate video of Kotenok posted on the vk.com social network on 6 September shows him standing in front of a flag adopted by the separatists, while accusing Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko of offences ranging from alcoholism to the “genocide” of the people of the Donbass.

Screen shot of Kotenok, as a “military expert”, in front of a flag often used by separatists.

In other words, Kotenok demonstrably has personal ties to, and speaks in defence of, the separatist leaders whose forces were active at the time when MH17 was shot down. He can hardly be viewed as an impartial analyst.

There is also another side to his work. He is listed as a contributing author on the hardline nationalist-Orthodox website rusprav.tv, where his photograph shows him wearing a T-shirt with the image of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. In an interview given to the site on 21 January 2015, he expressed a collage of pro-separatist statements and language, accusing Kiev of violating the then-ceasefire (this at a time when regular Russian units were already on the way to the front line) and firing phosphorus shells at civilians, and calling the Ukrainian side “punishers” and “fascists”.

Portrait of Kotenok in Assad T-shirt from rusprav.tv.

This is not his only hardline nationalist affiliation. He is a former presenter for Den TV, another ultranationalist broadcaster which was conceived at the end of 2011 as a direct and explicit counter to that year’s anti-corruption demonstrations in Russia — although Roskomnadzor only registered it in 2014.

Den’s self-portrait gives a taste of its content: “The Russian nation, taking on itself the role of governing and building, will cooperate openly with other nations to build a united imperial project… Russia will remain a religious country, the Third Rome of all Orthodox (believers).”

Den was founded by Alexander Prokhanov, who is also the chief editor of far-right and conspiracy-laden weekly Zavtra. Zavtra systematically re-broadcasts interviews and footage of Kotenok, both from Den TV and segodnia.ru, on its “Zavtra Live” web-TV channel.

Detail from the Roskomnadzor register showing A.A. Prokhanov as segodnia.ru’s founder.

Recent pieces in the weekly have included articles on the Netherlands reportedly making organ donation compulsory, a suggestion that Hillary Clinton has an advanced and aggressive form of multiple sclerosis, and the apparently sincere headline, “Who doesn’t like the statue of Stalin in Surgut?

Thus, Yury Kotenok, the lead author of the recent attack on Bellingcat, has ties, through his position at RISS, to the Kremlin power structures; he is a leading advocate of the separatists in Ukraine; and he has ties to far-right, ultra-Orthodox and conspiracy-minded movements in Russia.

It is hard to imagine a combination which would make him a less credible commentator on the MH17 crash, or on questions of unbiased reporting.

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