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Putin’s spin doctors turn to cover-up playbook after Prigozhin’s death

Within minutes of Yevgeny Prigozhin’s private jet crashing to earth, Russian spin doctors were turning to the familiar task of waving away allegations of murder.

“The West is removing the man who began to establish order in Africa,” read one comment traced to an organised “troll farm“.

A suggestion of “careless handling of ammunition” was leaked to Russian military-adjacent outlet Mash. Questions circulated about whether this was even the Wagner leader’s plane.

For veteran Russia watchers, this was déjà vu. Aric Toler of investigative outlet Bellingcat drew parallels with the 2014 MH17 plane crash, which his organisation helped to prove was shot down by Russian separatists.

GRABOVO, UKRAINE - JULY 17: Debris from Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 is shown smouldering in a field July 17, 2014 in Grabovo, Ukraine near the Russian border. Flight 17, on its way from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur and carrying 295 passengers and crew, is believed to have been shot down by a surface-to-air missile, according to U.S. intelligence officials and Ukrainian authorities quoted in published reports. The area is under control of pro-Russian militias. (Photo by Pierre Crom/Getty Images)
Debris from Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 smoulders in a field in eastern Ukraine (Photo: Getty)

Russian officials and outriders advanced several competing explanations for that crash, which killed 298 civilians, including that it was downed by a Ukrainian jet, or a terror attack, or that the entire incident had been staged with corpses planted at the site.

The method was dubbed the “firehose of falsehood” model, sowing doubt and confusion through contradictory explanations, later adapted by Donald Trump’s former adviser Steve Bannon into “flooding the zone with shit”.

MH17 was not an isolated case. “Sometimes it seems as if running a good cover-up is the main job of the Kremlin,” said then Prime Minister Boris Johnson in the aftermath of the Salisbury case in 2018, accusing Russia of having “invented 29 separate theories” to explain the poisonings.

Among them were claims that the Russian emigrants were poisoned by the British government, that they were suffering from food poisoning, and that they were never poisoned at all.

When Russian dissident Alexei Navalny was almost killed by a dose of the lethal nerve agent Novichok in 2020, Russian authorities disputed the findings from the laboratory.

The apparent assassination of Prigozhin marks a change of approach, suggests Anton Barbashin, editorial director of Russian political analysis journal Riddle.

“This type of elimination of enemies is a first since Stalin’s time,” he told i. “This was done in a way that everyone knows who did it among people that follow news… Putin is not hiding it, otherwise they would have killed him in Africa or with poison and not with nine other people.”

This murder contained a message to any potential rivals to think again, the analyst suggests, but notes that there is a quite different approach with the domestic public “to downplay the importance, and limit coverage”.

Specialist officers pictured in March securing a forensic tent over the bench on which the Skripals were found. (Photo by Matt Cardy/Getty Images)
Specialist officers secure a forensic tent in Salisbury during the investigation into the poisoning of the Skripals (Photo: Getty)

Visible traces of Prigozhin are being rapidly erased. The sign outside Wagner’s headquarters was taken down on Friday, following the group’s advertising and recruitment posters. Russia’s Channel One devoted 40 seconds to the crash on the night it occurred as the 14th item of its primetime bulletin.

The Kremlin has condemned suggestions of its responsibility as a “complete lie”, but without advancing any alternative explanation for the crash.

Russian propagandists are likely to have a mixture of methods in their response, says Dr Thomas Colley, a propaganda specialist and senior lecturer in Defence and International Affairs at the Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst.

“They will want to avoid drawing attention to Prigozhin as much as they can,” he told i, noting that discussion of the Wagner mutiny in June swiftly vanished from state media.

“Russia might also play the game of multiple narratives to sow a bit of uncertainty,” he added, suggesting this could be achieved via sympathisers abroad.

“They don’t need to start a lot of that themselves. American right-wing media and various websites will be speculating about who shot down Prigozhin’s plane and blaming the CIA or whoever.”

Simultaneously downplaying the incident while providing various outlandish explanations for it is geared towards the same goal.

“The core message is that Putin is untouchable and Russia is united,” said Dr Colley.

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