Things to do when you’re dead
It is not only the Russian government which is putting around fake news, notes Paul Demarty
What on earth are we to make of the peculiar case of Arkady Babchenko?
The journalist was shot dead on May 30 - three times in the back of head, as he left his apartment. Fingers pointed immediately towards the Kremlin; Babchenko’s murder followed his flight last year from Russia, apparently worried for his safety. Loudmouth cold war nostalgists across the west sharpened their sanctions.
Except that none of it actually happened. What did happen was … well, something else. Babchenko was not shot. At a press conference the next day, at which he turned up (confusingly alive), he described a complicated operation of the Ukrainian security services (SBU) to fake his death. Still to be adequately explained is why he reappeared so soon - even Jesus waited three days.
The official line from the Ukrainian security services is that the point was to protect Babchenko from a Russian plot and, now that the job is done, he can return to life. This is scarcely credible. The stated objective of the operation - protecting this man’s life - can hardly have been aided by its actual execution. We tend to overestimate the competence of spies, but nobody who gave the say-so for the plan as described is competent to run a corner shop in Kryvyi Rih. Surely now any halfway-competent attempts on his life will be shrouded in plausible denial for anyone who wants to go after him - from the FSB to random lone-wolf psychopaths. If Putin is half as good at psyops as press hysteria would have us believe, he will have Babchenko bumped off in the next few weeks.
We are left in the world of speculation - perhaps Babchenko got cold feet about a plan to fake his death and spirit him away. The SBU would then be faced with the alternative of murdering him for real, or trying to brass it out as all part of the plan. Babchenko’s wife was in on the plot, however, so to take the first option would mean ‘tidying up’ that little problem … and we all know how this movie ends. So they took the second option. Whatever the case may be, I look forward to finding out which of the many things that are not the SBU’s official story actually happened here.
We must voice also a little scepticism as to the purity of the Ukrainian state’s motives in carrying out this preposterous drama. Touching as their concern for Babchenko is, we cannot omit the context of Ukraine’s low-level civil war, which pits pro-Russian and ethnic-Russian nationalists in the east against the Ukrainian nationalists propelled to power by the Maidan Square protests. Ukrainian forces are plainly unable to confront the Russian army unaided, although skirmishes between the two sides and their respective far-right paramilitary allies continue.
Ukraine is a sore spot in this new and not especially competitive cold war; the aforementioned protests aimed at replacing a relatively pro-Russian government in Kiev with a relatively pro-western one, and succeeded in doing that, at least. The western powers were hopeful that they might walk their sphere of influence up to the Russian border. This has been done, after a fashion, although not without cost, and though it appeared that the Obama administration was prepared to gear America’s allies in the direction of proxy war in the Ukrainian east, the Europeans were not prepared to risk it.
The result is a stalemate. Despite the usual foaming in the imperialist press, from the Telegraph to Solidarity, the Putin regime’s operations in eastern Ukraine, as was the case in south Ossetia and Abkhazia 10 years ago, are clearly defensive, targeted at maintaining some modest buffer between Nato and the Motherland. There is zero interest, except among the most fanatical Great Russian chauvinists, in rolling the T80s from Donetsk to Lviv. The Ukrainians, for their part, cannot take on Russia’s military without much more extensive support from the west. Nobody can win.
In this context, then, this bungled non-assassination looks like an anti-Russian provocation on the part of Ukraine’s security apparatus - one that has radically backfired. If it had worked, it would have exploited the deteriorating relationships between Moscow and western European capitals, as well as heightened sensitivity to the Russian secret services in the wake of the attack on Sergei and Yulia Skripal. A cunning plan, but - like all conspiracies - preposterously unlikely to stay secret for long. (If there is a silver lining for anti-Russian types, this surely demonstrates that the main alternative theory of the Skripal attack - that it was a Ukrainian provocation - is false. Who would trust the SBU to assassinate anybody?)
In this context also, we must place the increasingly desperate insistence on the part of the same genius spooks that there really was - honest - a life-threatening plot against Babchenko: there are many reasons to try to save face in the wake of this fiasco, of which getting as much leverage against the Kremlin as possible must number among the highest.
There is one other embarrassed party to which we must dedicate some attention, of course, which is the mainstream media. When the news broke of Babchenko’s ‘death’, it was immediately reported as straightforward fact by the international media. Everything went impeccably to the SBU script, with the Russian secret services all but tried and convicted of another monstrous crime. Whoops!
We should not be too hard on the press for failing to spot holes in the initial story, however: only a truly diligent western media organisation with an improbably large and well-connected Kiev bureau could have seen through it at the moment Babchenko was purportedly expiring in the ambulance. The real peculiarity is what followed: it seems that the official line of the bourgeois media is a sort of strained attempt to be patient with the Ukrainians, like a parent faced with a bawling toddler who has pissed all over a rug. Yes, it is good that his life was saved, if it was, but this stunt undermines the trust of the press.
I highlight, for the sake of an example, a think-piece by TheGuardian’s eastern European correspondent, Shaun Walker. His piece is headlined: “The Babchenko stunt may end up feeding the Kremlin spin machine”. This is a true statement, as far as it goes, but also stupid. Sure, we already suggested that the SBU can have achieved nothing more than undermining the credibility of allegations against its Russian adversaries. Yet, even from that point of view, talking about this as a well-intentioned action that may have counterproductive results is bizarre. These people attempted to pull off a spectacular fraud that could have moved the ratchet further in the direction of great-power war. Our friends in the press are, in all likelihood, the intended victims of this fraud. It is as if Jeremy Corbyn was caught in the act of murdering an infant, and someone on the Corbynite left were to grumble that Jeremy’s actions were most unhelpful and could feed the Tory spin machine.
In truth, such an event would provide good reason to believe the Tory spin machine, even if other, better reasons remained to disbelieve it. So it is here. Russia Today and friends complain frequently that Russia is scapegoated and blamed for things that it did not do. Here is an example of it happening in plain view - a data point that people will remember and that Putin-obsessed hawks ought to take with an appropriate degree of humility.
So the next time you hear that Russian bombs in Syria kill only children, while American bombs dance nimbly around them to Assad’s gas factories; that Russian spooks assassinate heroic dissidents, where Mossad agents kill only wicked terrorists; that Russia interferes in American elections and not the other way around; when, above all, Russia is blamed for all the world’s ‘fake news’ - remember the curious tale of Arkady Babchenko’s death and resurrection.