Russian defense officials Monday argued that a Ukrainian warplane was near Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 and may have been responsible for the commercial jet's deadly shootdown. And when the physics seemed to dispute that theory, Russian officials appear to have changed the physics—on Wikipedia, at least.
That Monday presser was dutifully reported by Kremlin-connected English-language station RT:
The Russian military detected a Ukrainian SU-25 fighter jet gaining height towards the MH17 Boeing on the day of the catastrophe. Kiev must explain why the military jet was tracking the passenger airplane, the Russian Defense Ministry said.
"A Ukraine Air Force military jet was detected gaining height, it's distance from the Malaysian Boeing was 3 to 5km," said the head of the Main Operations Directorate of the HQ of Russia's military forces, Lieutenant-General Andrey Kartopolov speaking at a media conference in Moscow on Monday...
"The SU-25 fighter jet can gain an altitude of 10km, according to its specification," he added. "It's equipped with air-to-air R-60 missiles that can hit a target at a distance up to 12km, up to 5km for sure."
Now, experts immediately noticed some problems here—chiefly that the Ukrainian warplane in question, if it really existed, was identified as an SU-25.
It was sort of weird to hear a Russian general call the Russian SU-25 a "fighter jet." That's because the SU-25 is an "attack jet," a slow, heavily armored aircraft designed for close air support of ground troops. It's not designed to be very effective at air-to-air intercepting and dogfighting.
In fact, one reason the SU-25 is a poor air-intercept jet is that it flies much lower than most fighter jets. According to Sukhoi, the manufacturer, its service ceiling is 7 kilometers, about 23,000 feet.
But that's not what the Russian general said! He said the SU-25 flies up to 10 kilometers high, or about 33,000 feet—as luck would have it, almost exactly the altitude at which MH17 was flying when it was shot down.
How to account for the difference in facts? By covering it up, apparently. Interpreter Magazine, which is funded by a nonprofit critical of the Putin administration, confirmed that after the press conference, edits were made to the SU-25's Russian Wikipedia page—changing its maximum altitude to 10 kilometers, up from 7:
(The edit also increased the aircraft's maximum combat altitude by 4,000 meters.)
So who did the editing? Well for that particular edit, here's where the IP address of the editor leads:
Twitter sure seems convinced that means the Russian government tried to edit Wikipedia to fit its convoluted MH17 shootdown story.
— Андрій (@AndrijUKR) July 21, 2014
— Callum (ATU) (@AllThingsUKR) July 21, 2014
— AlekUA (@_Alek_UA_) July 21, 2014
Doesn't this all seem a little ham-handed for Russia, the nation that practically invented secret police and dirty espionage? Perhaps. But on the other hand, as one aviation blog points out, the Russian military men who ran that press conference also screwed up the likenesses of the aircraft they were describing:
MH17, to the left, is supposed to be a Boeing 777. But Russian planners used the likeness of a now-defunct Boeing 707, the Aviationist says. And that Ukrainian Su-25? Its part is being played by an EF-111, "a famous, retired, U.S. electronic warfare plane"—and one that can't carry missiles.