The Sinai crash; the fog of war

William Echols


Having written Sinai Plane Crash Could Cast Dark Shadow on Kremlin, I played off of an idea that media portrayals of Russian military action within Syria had become the next great reality show.

Subsequently, what could be conceptualized as blowback, the alleged downing of the Metrojet Airbus A32, is not part of the script.  Now, a few points are in order. First, I categorically reject any implication that Russia deserved this attack.  Nothing I write is intended to be conceptualized as an ‘I told you so’.  Beyond philosophical arguments on the legitimized right of violence (state vs. non-state actors), the death of civilians through terrorism or errant bombs is an unmitigated wrong.

Perhaps one can differentiate morally between targeting civilians and the wholly dehumanizing notion of ‘collateral damage’.  Intention does matter. But death is death.

Ultimately, the use of military force by nature entails morally reprehensible action. That political and military leaders are forced (or merely choose) to engage in a certain utilitarianism regarding human life is by its very nature unsettling.

The rubric laid out by the School of Salamanca’s specific brand of just war theory, especially regarding moral limits to action, reads like common sense.  And yet we are so often senseless.

Even the best conducted war is a dance with the devil.  It’s human killing humans, often over how their imagined meanings clash in the ether with each other.  At it’s heart, it’s madness.


We first go astray when we forget it’s madness, when we think there can be something just or honorable about factions of humanity organizing en masse to kill each other.  Even when we are merely there to defend the weak and powerless from ethnic cleansing, we should not lose sight of the insanity of it all.  It’s the only thing that may keep us sane.

One should never forget that even just causes have their dangers.  To battle some form of evil incarnate — a death cult in a desert, or perhaps in the mountains — with foreign gods in his heart and the Tower of Babel on his tongue, can give us a sense of being too comfortable in our action.  We can allow the presumed or actual pathology of another’s ideas, to strip them of their humanity, to revel in good vs. bad binaries.

Our righteousness cannot allow us to create a hierarchy of human life; a pretext to whitewash one’s own sins.

Maybe righteousness means stopping the rape and slaughter of women; the beheading of infidels,  the burning of pilots.  Maybe it simply means your right to another man’s land. Maybe it means both. But when we don’t do body counts, we may find ourselves unknowingly wrapped up in a blanket of death; the fog of war impenetrably black.


During an interview with Andrei Babitsky, the veritable Chechen angel of Death Shamil Basayev had these haunting words to say following the Beslan tragedy:

“Officially, over 40,000 of our children have been killed and tens of thousands mutilated. Is anyone saying anything about that?…Responsibility is with the whole Russian nation, which through its silent approval gives a ‘yes’ [gives its consent].”

Basayev’s siren song of retributive justice is a familiar one; his appeal to collective punishment seductive.  Through complacency, do we not all, on some level, give our tacit consent when we are silent in the face of government crimes?  Is it not merely convenient for governments to cynically follow Augustine’s own just war dictum, that states are the only legitimate initiators of wide-scale force?

When they kill our children but conceptualize it as something else other than murder, who says we cannot do the same thing?  And, after all, did not the US bomb Afghanistan for the same reason; did not Russia initiate the Second Chechen War the spill blood for blood spilt?  They will all suffer for the sins of the prodigal son, even, as was possibly the case in Chechnya, it wasn’t even his sins.


Of course, this appeal to abstraction is intended to divorce intent from action.  A police officer attempting to shoot a gunman on a college campus and accidentally killing a student is not morally equivalent to the gunmen himself targeting students. But sadly, many states have been wiling to use indiscriminate violence in war. Sometimes indiscriminate violence is a tactic.  The leveling of Grozny was policy, not collateral damage.  But that does not justify a free fall into the darkness.

If non-state actors use violence to resist oppressive states, by abandoning any belief in the sanctity of life, they de facto delegitimize their causes.  Merely appealing to tribalism: ‘we value our lives more than yours lives’, will not stop the descent into madness. Any cause should necessarily be humanitarian.  To abandon humanity is to abandon any cause to fight. Because if violence is not, as paradoxically as it seems, used to stop aggression against human life, it is simply being used as a tool to support an ultimately far less valuable abstraction (religious, political or otherwise.) No abstraction trumps human life.

A man carries a wounded girl who survived what activists say was an air strike by forces loyal to Syrian President Assad in Aleppo's al-Ansari al-Sharqi neighborhood

You cannot compartmentalize human life within a stratified sense of value based on cultural and intellectual considerations.  That so many revolutions have resulted in even more repressive regimes replacing the ones they were fighting against is a testament to the notion that creating a hierarchy of life is a failed strategy.  You will ultimately throw out the baby with the bathwater.

So no, Russia did not deserve this any more than the US deserved 9/11 or the UK deserved 7/7. But in Russia, the West and beyond, when we willfully buy into nationalistic orgies of violence, sanitized of the consequences of war through slick editing and feel good media-product packaging, we are abandoning our own humanity.  Even in just wars, we cannot separate our actions, even righteous actions, from their consequences. Being right is not a panacea against guilt or shame.  Any attempt to insulate ourselves form that reality is laying the foundations for future wars. And their will be wars. But there should never be any illusion of the full scope of what we are embarking on, even in the best of circumstances. Otherwise, far more ignoble action will find fertile breeding grounds.

That is a hard circle to square.  Maybe there has never been a truly just war; maybe we have to live with just-enough. And just enough is harder to come by than you think.

The regime of Bashar Al-Assad has been indiscriminately dropping barrel bombs on civilians for years. Russia is now using military force to prop up his regime. And now 224 are dead, at least 25 of them children. An eye for an eye? No. A blind man in the desert blocking out the light. And then the cold sets in…


One year on: Can Russians ever accept Moscow helped shoot down MH-17?

William Echols

One year after the downing of Flight MH17 over Eastern Ukraine, all the evidence points towards Russian-backed proxies (if not Russian soldiers) being responsible for the tragedy which left 298 people dead. The question is, even in the presence of a smoking gun, are Russians even capable of admitting that it was Moscow which pulled the trigger?

Just weeks after tragedy struck over the village of Hrabove on July 17, 2014, a Russian friend of mine — a bright-hearted, always smiling 30-year-old who works at one of the big four accountancy firms and has visited dozens of countries — sincerely asked me if corpses from MH370 had been packed onto MH17 before it was shot down (she never named a culprit.) Coming at a time when 82 percent of Russians squarely blamed Ukrainian forces for downing the plane, after Russia had set its propaganda frequency to full-on psychosis, it shouldn’t have been such a surprise. But it was.


From my experience, she is one of the most open, non-defensive people I have ever encountered in my life. By and large apolitical, internet savvy, a real seasoned traveler and art trend follower — in short, a real child of the Northern Capital — my friend didn’t strike me as the type of person to be susceptible to such crude conspiracies. But she was, a reality which forced me to revaluate a lot of things about what Russia had become following the annexation of Crimea and secret war in Ukraine. If this madness had seeped into her brain as well, I wondered, what about the choirs of men drinking themselves to death under my balcony on any given summer night, intermittently arguing and singing in the key of a mass seal clubbing? What did they think? That answer of course, was clearly apparent.

One year on, all of the theories both directly or indirectly floated by the Russian government, from the truly insane to the more plausible, have fallen apart under the weight of their own contradictions and falsified evidence.


Meanwhile, sources close to Dutch accident investigators claim the yet-to-be published report on the incident will conclude that Russian proxies operating in East Ukraine shot down the plane. Other journalists have meticulously reconstructed all the available evidence to come to a similar conclusion. The only serious question remaining is just what role Russian troops played in the incident, and by extension, the level of culpability falling at Moscow’s feet. It is no surprise that Russian President Vladimir Putin has rejected calls for a UN-backed criminal tribunal to get to the bottom of the MH-17 downing, calling the proposal “untimely and counterproductive.” One can only guess in what way such a tribunal would be “counterproductive.” 

The Malaysian Foreign Ministry, by contrast, balked at Putin’s reticence, saying that “all other ad hoc criminal courts and tribunals were established prior to the completion of investigations.” It added that “justice delayed is justice denied.”

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But based on the available evidence, obfuscation, and not justice, is the only thing on Moscow’s mind.

No one expects Moscow to come clean regarding what has become the moral nadir of its brutal, clandestine war in Ukraine’s east. After all, the US government was unwilling to muster the moral fortitude to admit fault after shooting down Iran Air Flight 655, although Washington and Tehran reached a settlement at the  International Court of Justice eight years after the fact, in which the United States “recognized the aerial incident of 3 July 1988 as a terrible human tragedy and expressed deep regret over the loss of lives caused by the incident…” Some compensation was also given to the families, though clearly not enough given the sheer loss of life.


One key difference is that while the Pentagon did shamefully try to avoid responsibility for the incident, neither Washington nor the US media attempted to rewrite reality as we know it to cover their tracks. It did lie to avoid culpability, especially regarding whether the USS Vincennes was in international or Iranian territorial waters, whether the pilot of flight 655 was ascending or descending and at what speed, whether the plane was flying along the “established route”, and whether the Airbus was “squawking” on a civilian or military channel. The USS Vincennes did, however, issue several warnings, although failure to respond to those warnings, given all of the available evidence, did not justify the crew’s decision to shoot the passenger plane down.

All that being said, at no point did the US military or any state-run media (or private for that matter) flood the airwaves with a series of conspiracy theories. Neither Zionists, the Illuminati nor the Iranians themselves were blamed for downing the plane. A different culprit was not released on a daily basis, nor did the Pentagon itself release doctored photos to further muddy the waters.


Moscow’s handling of MH-17, by contrast, has been one of the most shameful episodes to befall the Russian populace in these deeply troubling times. Russia’s leadership wasn’t content to to merely rip Ukraine apart to maintain their pretense of regional hegemony. They had to drive an already psychologically traumatized population crazy in the process.

In a previous piece, I wrote about how Russians are particularly susceptible to propaganda due to a series of complex historical circumstances.

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As it stands, Russia is a society of power-obsessed cynics. At first glance one would think that inveterate cynicism and a tendency to be so fawning of power would be mutually exclusive. On closer investigation, these two seemingly opposing forces do seem to gel in the Russian psyche, though with often deleterious effects.

During Soviet times, Russians used to refer to labor camps as the ‘little zones’, and the country as a whole as the ‘big zone.’ That Russians would psychologically equate their society to a prison inevitably has profound psychological implications.

Writing about a PornHub study which revealed the immense popularity of anal sex in Russia, Natalia Antonova notes the work of Pavel Svyatenkov, who argued that male-on-male rape is a tool of humiliation in Gulag culture (or any prison culture really.)


Antonova goes on to argue that Gulag culture has not been done away with in  Russia; rather it has been sublimated. Projection of power shores up a fundamental fear of violence and domination. There is no civil society in modern-day Russia, no core ideology, no manifest belief in social welfare or a utopian belief in the future. Instead, there is the projection of power, and what that power affords you, namely protection, if not self-actualization.

Rigid hierarchies, in turn, exist through which that power is expressed, always vertically, always top to bottom. Superiority is an expression of power, and it does much to fuel Russia’s militarist, imperialist mindset. Few Russian people actually believe they can be happy in the sense that Danes are happy or Italians are happy. What they can be, however, is powerful — they can be feared. Perhaps never loved, but always respected. Such power projection is a proxy of self-worth. But it is also riddled with contradictions.

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Collectively, Russians, flexing military muscle allows for a vicarious means of empowerment in a society which, by definition, is emasculating. If masculinity has any connection to autonomy and alpha-male domination, a society which believes in no mechanisms for popular expression, but rather a coterie of powerful men who rule absolutely, is a society which infantilizes its citizens. In a remote, abstract way, nuclear warheads, tanks and guns can imbue one with a sense of power.

Actual everyday interactions with real organs of power, however, reinforce a sublimated gulag culture. You are not a citizen, a custodian of your society. You are a kowtowing subject paying rent, stealing what you can from below and kicking up tribute as many rungs on the ladder as your relative position demands.  It is this angry, volatile faultline between a power-obsessed superiority complex and daily emasculation that Russia’s elite deftly exploits, albeit on a razor’s edge.


All in all, manipulating people in Russia today relies on a two-pronged approach which references both that triumphalist cynicism and the shaky contradictions of power-obsessed prisoners.

First, employ a fantastical conspiracy to displace the fact-based (WESTERN) narrative, and then appeal to Russians’ wounded pride by placing the antagonist in Western dress.

Kierkegaard and Nietzsche wrote about the latter phenomenon as “ressentiment”.

Ressentiment can be understood as a transference of ones pain, humiliation, inferiority and failure onto a scapegoat. The ego, rather than internalize the implications of weakness, failure, and the emasculating lack of power, creates an enemy, an external evil which can be “blamed” for one’s woes.


Kierkegaard noted that ressentiment can lead to bloody, violent rebellion with the express purpose of leveling all men, and all things. Looking at Russian history, there is no need to belabor this point. Most absolutists forms of government in history inspired rebellion. Other societies, however, moved beyond absolutist forms of government. It just so happens that those are the very societies which Russians are now being taught to view as the enemy of its “traditions.”

For a brief window in the 90s, Russia played with the concept of equals, but only in a superficial and ultimately abstract way. The ensuing chaos which resulted became intimately associated with ‘democracy’. Stability became the new mantra. Power was concentrated to maintain this stability. This stability, however, was largely predicated on external factors like the price of oil and natural gas and the need for other country’s in the ex-Soviet sphere to respect their relationship of inferiority to Moscow. Maintaining this relationship (and high oil prices) is paramount to Russia’s elite.

But with an economic downswing and many on Russia’s periphery clamoring for a right to determine their own affairs, the rotten core of the Russian system of governance was about to be laid bare. To maintain their grip on power, all social ills had to be transferred onto outside forces, ‘fifth columnists’, ‘enemies of the people’ and so on. It’s ironic, seeing that external factors in fact played a large role in the largesse of Putin’s first decade in power.

As a society, Russians are already enamored with the concept of diffusion of responsibility. Two rules became paramount in Soviet and post-Soviet life: always blame someone else — never take responsibility. Generations of Russian leaders have both created and played on this reality to their own ends. They are also victims of it. The lunatics have taken over the asylum.

Sadly, for a traumatized population, institutionalizing a  distorted frame of reference has left many Russians perilously at odds with any knowable reality. And as living conditions deteriorate, the need to be great via the proxy of fantasy, often militaristic and atavistic fantasy, further takes hold.  If there is one thing Russia’s deeply frayed populace cannot bear at this point of time, it is being on the wrong side of history. The war in Ukraine in general and MH-17 in particular have certainly put them there.

Even if Russians were getting all of the facts about what befell 298 innocent people last July, it wouldn’t be enough to change their minds. The problems isn’t just the toxic blend of both cherry-picked and out-and-out fabricated information being fed to them. The problem is the filter which stands between them and an all too harsh reality that far too few are capable of facing.

Except for the clinically psychotic, even the most militant and ultimately violent defenders of Russian aggression deeply want to be viewed as just. Whatever acts of violence are being committed against government troops in Eastern Ukraine, they are being done to beat back American imperialists, Ukrainian fascists, Zionists, the Illuminati, or all of the above.

Russian Ultra-nationalist Demonstration

To no longer be a bulwark against American Imperialism, but rather sandbags thrown around the moat of a corrupt mafia manor, to no longer be freedom fighters against the “fascist junta” in Ukraine, but rather the invader of a sovereign nation and the murderer of women and children in the sky, — such a realization in large enough numbers might just see Moscow go up in flames.

For now, people are content to burn up inside. Just how long that controlled blaze will be left to merely consume families rather than the nation itself is anyone’s guess. But until then, no matter what truth the world reveals about MH17, expect a majority of Russians to live not in the world as it is, but in the world as they wish it to be, no matter how dark and strange that place appears to be to those on the outside looking in.