The faked assassination of Arkady Babchenko is a bizarre affair which has intriguing features similar to the murder of another journalist in Ukraine 18 years ago. The difference is that this previous killing was all too real, but in both cases the Ukrainian government and its security services showed the same weird capacity to discredit themselves by engaging in ill-conceived plots always likely to do them more harm than good.
The first of these scandals, which rapidly developed into a political crisis, began in November 2000 when a headless body was found by villagers in a wood on the outskirts of Kiev. The authorities were slow in identifying the corpse, but it seemed likely to be that of Georgiy Gongadze, the editor of an online paper called Ukraina Pravda that specialised in investigating official corruption.
Gongadze had disappeared on 16 September after dining with a friend and was last seen alive buying cat food in a shop on his way home. From the beginning, his friends suspected that his disappearance had been arranged by the security services of Leonid Kuchma, the Ukrainian president who was known to resent any criticism of his corrupt and authoritarian rule.
Even after the discovery of the decapitated body, it appeared unlikely that responsibility for the murder could ever be pinned on anybody in power. But this changed when Alexander Moroz, the well-regarded leader of the socialist opposition party in the Ukrainian parliament, revealed that he had been given a tape recording of Kuchma, his chief of staff and the interior minister in which they are heard denouncing Gongadze and discuss ways of silencing him, such as having him kidnapped by Chechen gangsters.
It looked likely that the leaders had concluded that the simplest way of dealing with Gongadze was to kill him. What they did not know was that their conversations were being recorded on a tape recorder installed by an officer called Mykola Melnichenko who belonged to the Ukrainian SBU security service – the successor to the KGB. He was singularly well placed to bug because he was in charge of making sure that the presidential offices were not being monitored by listening devices. He placed a tape recorder under the presidential sofa and changed the tapes every day.
The senior officials tried to discredit the evidence that they had ordered Gongadze’s abduction and murder by a special squad of security men. They claimed that the voices were not theirs or the tape recordings were fabricated, though they had been authenticated by experts. The police investigation went on at a snail’s pace, keen not to identify the body or allow anybody else to do so.
By this time international interest was aroused and foreign journalists like myself were arriving in Kiev. I met a friend of Gongadze called Alyona Prytula, who worked with him on his magazine and told me that he had shrapnel wounds which he had received when reporting fighting in Georgia. She had seen the body and said that “the corpse had shrapnel in it in the same places he did.” It was already becoming clear that the decision to kill Gongadze had come from the top, but all of those involved spent years trying to shift the blame onto each other.
What fascinated me at the time was the way in which Kuchma and his chief lieutenants had become obsessed with Gongadze, though his magazine had limited influence and posed no real threat to them. They could well have left him alone. Yet the tape recordings show that these men who were running the second largest country in Europe with a population of 50 million had repeatedly discussed how to eliminate this brave, but not very important, critic.
The self-destructive idiocy of the conspiracy has much in common with the faked murder of Babchenko earlier this week. It should have been obvious to Kuchma and his underlings that Gongadze dead could be a lot more dangerous to them than Gongadze alive. It should likewise have been blindingly clear to the densest Ukrainian security chief that fabricating the assassination of Babchenko and lying about it to everybody would permanently discredit whatever the Ukrainian government says in future. The claim that the scheme had a precedent in a fictional investigation by Sherlock Holmes was scarcely likely to improve their credibility.
To be fair, the Ukrainian SBU is not the only security service that has a fondness for crackpot schemes which will do them little good if they work, but will have disastrous consequences if anything goes wrong. Remember how the French foreign intelligence service attached limpet mines to the Greenpeace ship Rainbow Warrior in Auckland harbour in New Zealand in 1985. This lunatic scheme, approved at the highest levels, sank the ship and killed one of those on board, all in order to prevent the minor irritant of Greenpeace protesting against a French nuclear test in the Pacific.
Intelligence services everywhere seem to attract crackpots with poor judgement who are dangerously detached from reality and revel in cunning plots. Because they can claim that secrecy is essential for their operations, they are not held to account and their failures are well hidden. In Britain in particular the skills and professionalism of MI5 and MI6 are lauded in awed tones by government ministers. But the outcome of British military intervention since 2003 shows the intelligence agencies have repeatedly failed to assess the risks correctly. In the Iraq war, trust was placed in the most patent conmen who claimed intimate knowledge of Saddam Hussein’s regime and its non-existent WMD programme.
Politicians and intelligence agencies are easily pilloried for their failures in recent wars and crises, but the media generally gives itself a free pass. Governments lied or were misinformed about Saddam being a threat to the world, but why did journalists allow themselves to be so easily spoon-fed with official propaganda? This self-serving naiveté skewed reporting in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and Syria and was very visible once again in the reporting of the Babchenko affair. There was a knee-jerk belief that Vladimir Putin must be responsible for any killing of a critic of Russia, even when all the evidence for this is being provided by a government hostile to Russia.
I have always found that Ukraine and Russia operate in much the same way, both drawing on their traditions of authoritarianism, violence, corruption and criminality.
There is something absurd about journalists and news organisations complaining that they had been misled by the Ukrainian SBU. Why should it have suddenly developed such an interest in the safety of journalists, except as useful counters in the renewed Cold War between Russia and the West? Pity the Ukrainian journalists who enjoy no such protection. According to the Ukrainian National Union of Journalists, there were 90 assaults on journalists last year and nobody was punished in a single case.
Those hoodwinked by Ukrainian security services about the non-death of Babchenko have only themselves to blame for relying on such a partisan source. As the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists points out: “Given the SBU is an intelligence agency, which engages in deception, obfuscation, and propaganda, determining the truth will be very difficult.”