As a Russianist and one-time Moscow correspondent, I am periodically called upon for an instant response to the latest – alas, usually nefarious – deed attributed to Russia. A sadly recurrent topic has been the murder or mysterious death of a journalist critical of the Kremlin. This week it was the killing of Arkady Babchenko, gunned down, we were told, in the stairwell of the block of flats where he lived in Kiev, the Ukrainian capital where he had sought safety from his enemies in Russia.
My response, as ever, was cautious. That the Kremlin had a clear motive for wanting to silence Babchenko – who was an authoritative and rare critical voice on Russia’s military involvement both in Ukraine and Syria – did not automatically mean that the Kremlin was guilty. As with the Skripal case in Salisbury, I argued that the Kremlin had every reason to avoid this sort of damaging charge in the run-up to the World Cup, where Russia hoped to show a friendlier face to the world.
As in earlier journalist killings, there were others – rogue elements in the security services, freelance self-styled “patriots”, individuals in other fields whose wrath Babchenko might somehow have incurred – who might have committed such an atrocity. Anyway, it was wrong always to rush to blame President Putin; he does not have the Tsar-like power to propose and dispose that is often assumed. At most – and this is, of course, reprehensible in itself – he can be blamed for permitting a climate where critics, including journalists, may be killed with apparent impunity.
Having broached these various possibilities, I added that “conspiracy theorists” might argue that the Kiev authorities had organised the killing in order to discredit Moscow before the World Cup. Note: I was reluctant to claim such an argument for myself, and felt rather mean mentioning it at all. Babchenko was such a respected opposition figure, such an accomplished journalist, and to be gunned down in the way he apparently had been seemed to bear all the hallmarks of a contract killing. It looked like a carbon copy of how another outstanding journalist, Anna Politkovskaya, had been murdered in Moscow 12 years before.
Only a few hours later, it turned out that the conspiracy theory was uncomfortably close to the truth – with the crucial exception that Babchenko’s killing was a fiction – staged, so the Ukrainian security services said, for the purpose of exposing Russian agents who really did have designs on his life. One person, a Ukrainian citizen, was said to be in custody.
The effect of the Kiev news conference – at which Babchenko appeared, resurrected, so it seemed, from the dead – was electric. A day that had begun with a fierce statement from the Ukrainian prime minister, Viktor Groysman, blaming Moscow, followed by a defensive denial from the Russian foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, ended with the accusations going the other way. “Fake news!” shouted Moscow, not unreasonably, to defensive statements from Kiev about what it presented as its lifesaving ruse.
Almost more interesting – and significant – was the international debate that followed, which was about ethics – diplomatic and journalistic – and the practical implications of deceit conducted at state level. Here, it is probably fair to say that a stratagem dreamt up by Kiev (with a little help, some hazarded, from third-country security services) was at risk of rebounding badly. What the Ukrainian authorities had proudly presented as a coup for its security services in pre-empting and exposing a murderous Russian plot threatened to become an enormous liability.
The argument was less about whether Ukraine should have used deception – this is an age-old tool of security services, and indeed armies, everywhere – but about the lengths to which it had gone in actually staging a murder and officially blaming the nextdoor state. Would surveillance and intercepts really not have been sufficient, both to corner the supposed culprits and their handlers and keep the dissident journalist safe? Ukraine’s international reputation will now depend to a large degree on the quality of the evidence it can produce of a Russian plot. But it will need more than the detention of one Ukrainian, perhaps, a confession, and an alleged hit list.
In the meantime, Russia can take the moral high ground. Not only that, but it now has additional evidence to support its stereotypical view of Ukraine as a small, rather parochial country that resorts to dishonesty to pursue its objectives and is unworthy of playing in the big league.
What is more, Ukraine’s many friends and supporters abroad could be forgiven for revisiting many Ukrainian claims in its quarrels with Russia, or at very least applying more scepticism in future. Kiev may not be guaranteed such a sympathetic international hearing as it has hitherto generally received.
Babchenko, too, has come in for criticism – including from some of his most stalwart supporters – for “crossing the line” between journalism and activism. He says he had no choice but to cooperate with the Ukrainian security services. But to the point of complicity in his own faked assassination? The suspicion will now be – and again this plays straight into Moscow’s hands – that he places his role as a political opponent above his role as a trusted reporter. It is hard to see how there is much of a way back from there.
Not everyone would agree. Some foes of Putin defend Babchenko and the Kiev government, on the grounds that all methods are permissible against what they regard as an undemocratic, even “evil”, regime in Moscow. Those of a more technical cast of mind talk about just another aspect of “hybrid war”. Personally, I can’t share this view; neither does the international journalists’ organisation Reporters Without Borders, which has condemned the deception and challenged Kiev to produce its evidence.
Ethics are paramount. But whatever side of this particular line you stand, the practical consequences of the Kiev sting cannot be disputed. First, accusations against Russia, including on such grave matters as state-sponsored killings, will be questioned in future, and previous allegations may be revisited. Russians are already using the Babchenko deceit to question the UK version of the Salisbury poisoning.
Second, unless it can come up with cast-iron evidence of a Russian plot – and intelligence information has a tendency to be notoriously elusive – the good faith of the Kiev government, like the veracity of its statements and its sense of the permissible, will be in question for a long time.
And third, the tensions between Russia and Ukraine, which have been high since Russia annexed Crimea in 2014, have been sharpened still further by Kiev’s foolhardy rush to judgement on a false premise of its own concoction. If there is any positive result, it might be to make the West just a little less prone to rushing to judgement about Russia, and to push Kiev to try to mend its reputation by re-engaging with Moscow on a settlement of the simmering conflict in Ukraine’s east. Any resolution, let alone reconciliation, though, will be a long time in coming.
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