Friday, October 24th, 2014

Fact-checking claims about Russia, Ukraine and MH 17

Pro-Russian rebels, right, walk by plane wreckage as they arrive for a media briefing at the crash site of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 on July 22, 2014. (AP Photo)
Pro-Russian rebels, right, walk by plane wreckage as they arrive for a media briefing at the crash site of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 on July 22, 2014. (AP Photo)

The downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 in eastern Ukraine has brought the world’s attention back to events there, months after Ukraine formed a new government over concerns about the country's increasing ties to Russia.

Since the split in February, pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine have been fighting with forces representing the new Ukrainian government. The separatists have held the area where the plane went down, and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has made a strong case that these forces launched the missile that shot down MH 17.

Here at PolitiFact and PunditFact, we’ve fact-checked three recent claims about the situation in Ukraine.

Kerry on the separatists

"We know that very shortly (after the crash), separatists were bragging in the social media about having shot down a transport plane," Kerry said on Fox News Sunday. "We know that the so-called defense minister of the People's Republic of Donetsk, Mr. Igor Strelkov, actually posted a bragging social media posting of having shot down a military transport. And then when it became apparent it was civilian, they pulled it down from social media."

The Internet Archives website shows that a post appeared on Strelkov’s social media profile bragging about shooting down a transport plane close to the MH 17 crash site. In a subsequent post, Strelkov said the information passed along came not from him directly, but from militia members on the scene. He said the information was unofficial and incorrect.

It’s impossible to know with certainty Strelkov's role in the post, or why the post was pulled, but we do know that the posts come from within the separatist movement -- as Strelkov himself said.

The evidence is largely on Kerry's side, though there are some points that are unclear. We rated his statement Mostly True.

Global trends in warfare

Despite the events in Ukraine, on July 15’s Glenn Beck Program, head writer Stu Burguiere said that on the whole, the modern world is a largely peaceful place.

"Violence around the world is dropping. There are less wars, there are less people dying in wars than there have been in quite some time. It’s odd to think about, but it’s true."

According to the most common definition of war -- an armed conflict with more than 1,000 battle deaths annually -- Burguiere is right, although other definitions exist. Battle deaths are down since World War II. However, they have begun creeping up in the last couple of years, mostly because of the conflicts in Syria and Iraq. The record when it comes to "people dying in wars" generally is less clear.

The caveats are that "war" and "people dying in wars" are fraught terms, and that recent Middle Eastern conflicts are increasing the number of battle deaths. But that doesn’t detract much from the overall point that violence is down. We rated Burguiere’s claim Mostly True.

Parallels to 1983?

For Fox News, the downing of MH 17 evoked memories of the shooting down of Korean Air Flight 007 by the Soviet air force in 1983. The commercial flight with 269 people aboard had strayed into Soviet airspace on its way to Seoul. After tracking the plane for several hours, a Soviet SU-15 Interceptor opened fire, crippling the plane and sending it into the sea. About 60 Americans were on board, including a member of Congress.

Several pundits on Fox News used the 1983 crash to illustrate how unfavorably President Barack Obama compares to President Ronald Reagan.

"President Reagan rushed home from Santa Barbara vacation, from the Reagan ranch when the Korean jetliner was shot out of the air by the Russians," said commentator Kate Obenshain said July 17 on The O’Reilly Factor.

The actual timeline shows that even after the White House concluded that the Soviets were responsible, administration officials decided that the president would remain in California. It took about half a day for them to change their minds.

Aside from a brief statement, it took Reagan several days to address the issue with the American public. In a practical sense, the delay was not long, but there was more deliberation than Obenshain’s words would suggest. We rated the claim Mostly False.