Russian’s Phony Assassination Undermines Ukraine’s Credibility

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- The news that Ukrainian authorities faked the death of the Russian author and journalist Arkady Babchenko raises important questions about modern hybrid warfare. The biggest is what is and isn’t permissible.

On May 29, Ukrainian law enforcement agencies announced that Babchenko, who has lived in Kiev after being forced out of his native Moscow by a government-directed bullying campaign, had been shot at the entrance to his apartment building. His wife supposedly found his body in a pool of blood and he was declared dead on his way to the hospital. An outpouring of grief (and some schadenfreude from Kremlin trolls) followed.

The murder was a set-up: Babchenko wasn’t shot and didn’t die. The Ukrainian Security Service, or SBU, announced Wednesday that the subterfuge was intended to thwart a plot to kill the dissident writer. The would-be assassin, a Ukrainian recruited by Russian intelligence, apparently cooperated with the SBU and allowed agents to film the handover of his $15,000 advance. 

He never attempted to carry out the hit. Babchenko was covered in fake blood, and his wife was in on the ploy. As he explained to me in a chat on Facebook Messenger,

This was 100 percent realistically staged, so that the organizer wouldn’t suspect anything, go dark and then hire a new hit man, this time someone not known to the authorities. Then I’d definitely have been iced. 

The version of events put forward by Babchenko and the SBU doesn’t quite make sense. For one, if Ukrainian counterintelligence was already tracking the “organizer” who hired the hit man, it’s not clear what evidence it stood to gain from faking a hit. Why did Ukrainian authorities have to lie to the media? Couldn’t they have arrested the suspect without the elaborate scheme? I asked Babchenko:

They wanted a completed crime, 100 percent proof. And the noise, of course. It plays into their hands, as far as I understand.

The “completed crime” explanation doesn’t hold water, because no crime was actually completed. The “noise” explanation is more plausible, but it would betray a certain naiveté on the part of the SBU.

Russia tried to use the Babchenko operation to undermine Ukraine’s credibility, though those efforts are easy to dismiss as propaganda. The Ukrainian government’s lies to the global media carry much more risk, however. Reporters Without Borders, the international organization, responded with a strong statement: “It is always very dangerous for a government to play with the facts, especially using journalists for their fake stories.”

Western journalists who had reported the murder were not happy to have been played, and the backlash was immediate. “Will be more careful in future,” the Guardian’s Shaun Walker tweeted. “Had learned not to trust Ukrainian authorities on Donbass war info but assumed on something like this official confirmation was solid!”

Pro-government Ukrainian commentators appeared not to understand the cost of the staged murder. “All those amused by new un-reality and how they were made believing in something that is not out there — welcome to Ukrainian world,” Yevhen Fedchenko, founder of the fact-checking website StopFake, tweeted in broken English. “We live in this hybrid reality for 4 years. I'm sorry you did not like it.”

This logic assumes that a country subjected to a “hybrid” attack — with disinformation and other dirty tactics in addition to, or in place of, traditional military operations — has the right to respond in kind. That may make intuitive sense, but all it does is put the aggressed on the same moral plane as the aggressor.

Babchenko’s spectacular return from the dead at a news conference on Wednesday will undermine the global media’s trust in any proof Ukraine could provide that Russian actors had put out the contract. And the more doubt journalists display, the harder it will be for Ukraine to claim that it’s on the side of the truth. 

I asked Babchenko if he thought about the credibility issue when he agreed to the operation, and if he realized how President Vladimir Putin’s regime would use the story of his “resurrection.” His reply:

I didn’t ask the SBU what and why they wanted to do. And I don’t give a [...] how this could be used. I wanted to live, and I’m alive. That’s enough for me.

I understand where Babchenko, who fought in both Chechen wars, is coming from. Taking part in the SBU operation and the subsequent public relations circus doesn’t undermine his reputation. He is an author and an opinion writer, and has made no secret of siding with Ukraine in its conflict with Russia.

But the Ukrainian government and its amateurish law enforcement apparatus have done themselves a bigger disservice than they realize. This incident is one more step toward changing Ukraine’s global image from an idealistic pro-European democracy back to a typical post-Soviet mess.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.