PETROPAVLOVKA, Ukraine — A few days after the Malaysian airliner fell from the sky and landed in this pro-Russian rebel-held territory, Oleksandr Kolisnyk was combing through its scattered wreckage in the vast wheat fields next to his little village.
Tossing a few pieces of the plane’s metal scraps into the trunk of his car, and orange Soviet-built Moskvitch, Kolisnyk, a retired miner, said he didn’t need to wait for an investigation into what brought the Boeing 777 down, killing all 298 on board. He already knew.
“I saw the second plane,” he said. “It was a Ukrainian fighter jet flying right behind the plane’s tail. Then whoosh! And a loud explosion. Then there was another boom, and we saw pieces floating out of the clouds.”
He said the Ukrainian government’s jet shot a single missile at the Malaysian passenger jet, then quickly turned around and headed southwest out of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic. “I don’t know where exactly it went, but definitely it went back to Ukraine, and it was definitely a Ukrainian jet,” Kolisnyk said. “They were probably using American weapons. The U.S. has soldiers here trying to kill us. I’ve seen them.”
The Ukrainian-jet explanation is just one of many unlikely or downright impossible theories that have circulated rapidly among the residents of this conflicted region, many of whom are quick to reject the Ukrainian government’s accusation that rebel fighters shot down the passenger plane with a Russian-made surface-to-air missile system — a scenario that is now accepted almost everywhere except here and in Russia.
Another theory is that Flight MH17 was mistaken for the plane carrying Russian President Vladimir Putin, who was returning from a visit to South America and might have been close by in Polish airspace.
Yet Kolisnyk’s description of the events that unfolded here in the late afternoon of July 17 match nearly exactly what has been reported by Russian state media, the main source of information in this heavily Russian-speaking region. For months he and other Russian-state-television viewers and radio listeners have heard reports about fascists and neo-Nazi groups taking over Kiev and seeking to destroy the largely ethnic Russian population of the Donbass, as this coal-rich region is known.
So it was without question that Kolisnyk and his friend Dmitry, who was helping him sift through the metal, could believe that a Ukrainian jet was responsible for the tragedy. Their theory was backed up by the Russian Ministry of Defense, which said on Monday that it had records of a Ukrainian SU-25 fighter jet flying less than three miles from the Malaysian plane.
But the readiness of eastern Ukrainians to believe often far-fetched conspiracy theories underscores the likely difficulties ahead for this now very deeply divided nation. Even if the Ukrainian government defeats the pro-Russian separatists and take the self-declared people’s republics of Donetsk and Luhansk back into its fold, many believe it would be difficult to erase the deep mistrust on both sides of the Dniepr River that roughly divides the country’s east and west.
Not all those divisions can be blamed on what Kiev says is Russia’s direct interference with the Ukrainian conflict, which has claimed more than 500 lives since the government began its military operation against the rebels in April.
Since the beginning of the Euromaidan protests in November 2013, when hundreds of thousands of demonstrators took to Kiev’s central square to protest then-President Viktor Yanukovych’s refusal to sign an association agreement with the European Union, eastern Ukrainians — supported by Russia — have been trying to get recognition for what they say is a way of life different from the rest of the country’s.
Ukrainians in the industrial heartland of the Donbass often harbor nostalgia for the Soviet Union, when its coal miners and steelworkers were praised for their contributions to building communism. Most of the east’s economy is built on products sold to Russia and other former Soviet markets.
Kiev’s lean toward the European Union left many industrial workers in the east feeling abandoned and forgotten as their factories struggled and once stable jobs became scarcer. As the middle class in Kiev grew, the east’s coal miners often barely scraped by on steady but low salaries.
Such discontent has created sympathy for Russian media claims that Ukraine’s pivot away from Moscow might be a disaster for the Russian-speaking Donbass. Anti-American rhetoric increased to levels some have described as akin to Cold War times’, including frequently heard claims among locals that the U.S. is orchestrating Kiev’s military operations in the east and training fighters to kill Russian speakers.
So when Flight MH17 went down in the heart of the Donbass, people here turned to those they trusted for answers, even if at times those answers leaned toward the bizarre. One of those residents was Vasyliy, who did not give his surname. He was taken off his normal shift at a nearby mine last Friday to help recovery workers walk the fields and villages looking for victims. There was something suspicions about the whole scenario, he said.
“Why wasn’t there any blood in the dead bodies? And why were they naked?” he said. “Excuse me, but it doesn’t make sense. There should have been a lot more blood here, and there was practically none.”
He was referring to perhaps the strangest and most gruesome of the conspiracy theories. The separatists’ commander, a Russian who goes by the nom de guerre Igor Strelkov, wrote on social media that the victims had been dead for days before the plane crash. Their corpses were drained of blood and placed in the fields by the Ukrainians in order to create the scene of a civilian tragedy that could be used to discredit the rebels, Strelkov posted on his VKontakte page, a Russian version of Facebook.
“It’s very possible that this whole thing was created by the Americans, who really want war with Russia,” Vasyliy said. “Anything is possible now. It’s war.”
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