The Babtchenko Affair: good news or embarrassment for Ukraine? (SHAPOCHKINA for France 24)

Anastasiya Shapochkina is a lecturer at Sciences Po on EU and Russia and a specialist of energy géopolitics.

On May 30, 2018 the world woke up to a modern resurrection story which can rival an Agatha Christie’s novel. Arkadii Babchenko, a Russian journalist and Kremlin critic, who was announced dead on a fortnight, appeared alive and well in front of the cameras of stunned journalists gathered for a press conference on the investigation of his murder. The hoax was staged by Ukraine’s security services, who captured the hit-man and the man who “ordered” Babchenko. Their official motive – stage a fake murder to expose real killers and to claim what Ukraine’s Security Service chief called undeniable evidence of their ties to the Kremlin. The evidence in question remains to be presented to the public, which will scrutinize it to the utmost. In the meanwhile, two questions remain: why did Ukraine’s government decide to launch this operation and what are the consequences, for Ukraine, Russia, and their relations with the West?

On the first question – Ukraine’s interest in staging the hoax – one must consider two possible target audiences with two different interests in mind. First is Ukrainian public opinion and citizens, who are presented with an image of a strong leader one year before the presidential elections and after four years of mixed results of Poroshenko’s presidency. At the press conference, Babchenko was flanked by three leaders of Ukraine’s security services who the president congratulated shortly before for a successful intelligence operation. This shows that the operation was most likely sanctioned by the president who considers its outcome a rare opportunity to come out in a positive light domestically.

On the international stage, the fake murder might have been intended to send a message to Ukraine’s Western partners, signaling the potential of its special services and aspiring to cooperation possibilities in intel, police and military fields. At the same time, the stunt worked as an eye for an eye answer to Russia in the information wars,  using similar tactics.

Whatever it was, Ukraine’s political decision has backfired. The West is bewildered at the affair, with the European Union not knowing how to respond at first. The hoax allowed Russian authorities to claim that previous accusations of its secret services have been as groundless as this one, albeit it reminded the world about the difficulty of being a critical Russian journalist today. Finally, the decision of the Ukrainian government to consciously generate fake news, even for one day, deepens the already wide-spread distrust of the official news sources, be it government or the media.

Ukraine’s response? – Although the murder was faked, the hitman’s order was not. The facts remain to be revealed, but the event reminded the world once again about a chain of intelligence scandals involving Moscow, casting a shadow on Russia two weeks before the World Cup. In the world of perceptions even a speculation that the Kremlin might have “ordered” Babchenko brings to mind thoughts about the seemingly all-present Russian security services. In the end of the day, the reality behind the murder becomes secondary. While the perception these and other news create (think meddling in the US elections by Russian citizens paid by a corporation whose owner is a member of Putin’s inner circle, or special visits of European extreme right and left parties’ leaders to Moscow) positions Russia as a great power in the so-called hybrid warfare, which among other things includes information and cyberspace. Whether Russia is indeed behind the recent developments credited to FSB is beside the point. The result is a continuous deterioration of trust with the West. The parading of intelligence capabilities in the media, voluntary or not, enhances the image of a great power that Russia seeks to project. However, it also compromises concrete collaboration opportunities with the US and Europe in these very fields.