By Nina Bachkatov and Andrew Wilson
Arkadi Babchenko is alive, but with a professional reputation in tatter. Ukrainian president Poroshenko might be the main person to suffer collateral damage of a tasteless pseudo-assassination.
For a week now, Ukrainians and the West have been waiting for solid facts gathered by an independent inquiry. The first signs are not reassuring: as too often in the past, the two men arrested and accused of the assassination plot, on Russian payroll, are now treated as witnesses after confessing; and in a few days, the list of Russian targets in Ukraine saved thanks to this operation has gone up from a dozen, first to 30 and then to 47. This follows a well-known scenario of Ukrainian justice, where in the end, after much heated declarations, the inquiry goes nowhere.
The goal of the fake murder on 29 May is obvious. Since 2014, Ukraine under president Poroshenko, has repeatedly projected an image of Ukraine as a victim of Russian aggression -and himself as its leader whose duty consists of constantly reminding others of the Russian threat to world security. The Babchenko saga was supposed to broadcast the message that Russia is permanently engaged in terrorist actions far beyond its borders. Hence the numerous references to the poisoning in London of Russian double agent Yuri Skrypal, at a time when Kiev is worrying about President Trump’s lack of concern for the European continent and is alarmed by recent visits by European leaders to Russia during which mere lip service was paid to events in Donbass and Crimea.
Obviously, the complexity of the world requires Russia to be on board. Moreover, the systematic Western support to post-Maidan Kiev is eroding as the regime tests it too often. In this particular fake-murder case, Kiev has admitted it under-estimated foreign and national reactions.
In fact, the whole scenario was wrong-footed, starting with the personality of the “victim”. Babchenko’s Russian liberal colleagues describe him as a generous and physically courageous man, devoted to his job, but traumatised by his years of fighting in Chechnya. Lately he has been driven by such an excessive hate towards president Putin (excessive even by Russian standards) that many people have stopped forwarding news from his blog. When he arrived in Ukraine, he raised eyebrows by declaring he would come back to Moscow only in a NATO tank. This time, he took offense when Western colleagues, and international journalists’ organisations, always very supportive, questioned his behaviour and the discredit to his profession. He has been very crude with some.
All the signs are that the Russian journalist refugee in Kiev is a person who could be easily seduced by a central role in such a “news premiere”, and in any case he could hardly refuse cooperation because permission to stay and work in Ukraine, with his family, depends on the goodwill of Ukrainian authorities.
Btu the picture is larger than the personality of Babchenko himself. At the crucial press conference, he appeared with the two men who orchestrated all this episode: Vassil Grytsak and Yuri Lutsenko. The first has been head of the Ukrainian security service (SBU) since June 2015; the second is the general prosecutor and a former Interior minister. Appointment to those functions results from clan warfare in a country where the political majority depends on a shaky alliance headed by a man whose popularity is falling a year before new presidential elections. In a revealing declaration, the newly nominated Grytsak had declared in 2015 that his principal duty was to “impress the president”. Indeed, both men have in common a personal loyalty to Poroshenko – and an eye on their political survival.
But while the president was all smiles during his photographed meeting with Babchenko, it was obvious that the organisers were unprepared for negative international reaction. Immediately, they launched a damage limitation operation, including by inviting Western ambassadors in Kiev to hammer the official version – that they saved a man’s life and had no other means that faking the death of the journalist to expose the reality of the Kremlin machinations. Some are ready to support the story, if only for not looking fools after years of religiously accepting claims by the Maidan leadership. But it has increased an already existing “Ukraine fatigue” and many European officials are privately less convincing in their private declarations while publicly asking for proofs and a real trial.
The briefing of ambassadors took place at the general prosecutor office, not in the Ministry of foreign affairs. This reflects the very limited circle that was kept informed of the operation. While it was rational to prevent leaks, it put many officials in difficult position after they had publicly commented on the latest success of the security agencies, denounced the duplicity of Moscow, and called for solidarity from Europe and Washington.
But the West has been getting impatient with Poroshenko. Because he seems more interested (as is the Kremlin) in prolonging a low-key conflict in the Donbass, which fits the President’s image of defender of Ukrainian security and a symbol of the Western orientation of the country. And because he has been dithering for years in the fight against corruption.
Corruption is precisely the ground chosen by prime minister Volodymyr Groysman in the wake of the Babchenko operation. On 4 June, he threatened to resign unless the parliament finally adopted a series of anticorruption measures, including the creation of an anti-corruption court. The measure is a necessary condition for the IMF to continue to sustain this technically bankrupted country. Poroshenko is opposed to the court because it would limit Ukrainian sovereignty by involving foreigners in the nomination of the court’s composition.
Groysman is young, energetic, post-Soviet, not tainted by confusion between his function and personal interests.
As presidential elections approach, Poroshenko might be well inspired to remember how quickly, and without emotion, the West dropped its support for his “ally” Georgian president Shevarnadze as soon as it had a new candidate under its sleeves.