Was it all worth it? Babchenko’s case and credibility of Ukrainian authorities
Michael Bociurkiw and Kateryna Kruk provide two angles on the attempted assassina-tion of Russian journalist Arkadiy Babchenko in Kyiv
Hello and welcome to this week’s episode of Ukraine Calling. I’m Oksana Smerechuk for Hromadske Radio in Kyiv and we’re bringing you our feature in-depth interview followed by some new music from Ukraine.
And in our interview this week, Kyrylo Loukerenko talks to journalists Michael Bociurkiw and Kateryna Kruk about what the attempted assassination of Russian journalist Arkadiy Babchenko, the sting operation, and the media storm that followed, means for Ukraine, for journalism and the ongoing hybrid war, that Russia is engaged in.
FEATURE INTERVIEWS. KYRYLO LOUKERENKO SPEAKS WITH MICHAEL BOCIURKIW AND KATERYNA KRUK AND GETS TWO DIFFERENT PERSPECTIVES.
Loukerenko: This week the media reported that on the 29th of May Russian journalist and Putin critic Arkadiy Babchenko had been gunned down in his Kyiv apartment. The next day, at a press conference we learned that Arkadiy Bachenko was in fact alive and well, and that the murder had been staged by the SBU, the Ukrainian Security Service, as a sting operation. The operation provided investigators with evidence for the arrest of the organizer of the Russian plot, as well as leads to information that killings were being planned for about 30 other people.
The news that Babchenko was alive was a shock and led to mixed reactions in the local and international media. Many journalists were taken aback at having taken a false story at face value. Ukrainian media and authorities were criticized, they were equated with fake news or disinformation campaigns.
On the other hand, from others there was praise for the Ukrainian Security Services for having pulled off a clever operation that saved the life of one journalist, and potentially many more. For having stood up to fight back against the slew of political assassinations that have happened to Kremlin critics, not just in Ukraine but in other countries.
So, which is it? In conducting this sting operation, have Ukrainian authorities done indelible damage to their credibility and to the credibility of the Ukrainian media? Or, on the contrary, was it all worth it, to save the life of a courageous journalist and perhaps many others, to strike a blow in the ongoing hybrid war.
Today our guest is Michael Bociurkiw, Canada-based journalist, global political analyst, and formerly spokesperson for the OSCE Monitoring Mission in Ukraine (2014 – 2016). We reached Mr. Bociurkiw on Skype.
Journalist and political commentator Michael Bociurkiw has taken the position of supporting the statement of Reporters without Borders which reads “it is always dangerous for the states to play with the facts and also on backs of journalists.” Michael, what is your personal feeling towards what happened?
Bociurkiw: Thanks for having me. First of all, let’s go back a little bit and talk about where we stood before all of these came out. What I mean is the reputation of Ukrainian Security Service. As many listeners I am sure know is that they have quite bad reputation for botching investigations, for not following on leads. I am also thinking about a grizzly murder in broad daylight in Kyiv of journalist Pavel Sheremet two years ago, which still has not been solved. In fact, some of the Ukrainian journalists have come up with more evidence than investigators have. And there are other cases which have not been solved. Not one big fish, so to speak, form the previous administration has been put behind the bars.
So, when they come out in a press conference that is broadcasted around the world in prime time and say, “We have foiled the plot and the journalist is alive; we have evidence.” Well, I think number one it is great that the journalist Babchenko is alive. But secondly, I think the honors fall on them very hardly and now it up to the President Poroshenko administration to come up with the evidence why this was necessary. Why this was necessary to fake the murder, broadcast it around the world? There are a lot of questions that need to be answered. The Committee to Protect the Journalists in the past few hours has come out with an urgent request to President Poroshenko to answer many questions including how imminently credible was the alleged threat to Babchenko. What evidence do they have, and why did SBU need to go extreme measures of announcing Babchenko’s murder in order to stop the alleged plot and arrest the alleged organizer? Finally, the big question is ‘Was it all worth it?’ to fake the murder when at the time when there are so much fake news going on. Russia is the biggest source of fake news in the world. It looks to some that Ukraine is taking a page out of that playbook.
Loukerenko: Actually, my question was what is your personal feeling about it? How did you receive the news and what was your second impression after his “resurrection?”
Bociurkiw: I was very saddened, because I practiced many years as a journalist, and still consider myself a writer. Whenever a person like this who has such a distinguished record and who is so brave to criticize Putin and who dies. We were all saddened. I started writing and tweeting about it. My good friend Zhanna Nemtsova, who knew Babchenko, wrote a very painful piece saying this is such a tragedy. Many other journalists wrote similarly about it. And then 24 hours later we woke up with breaking news that he is actually alive. I felt almost a sense of betrayal. On one hand, we are totally happy that he is alive. But secondly, could this really had happened? We, actually many of us, thought it’s fake news. But was not and then it is. I think many of us feel a dangerous line has been crossed and I will tell you why. When SBU or Presidential Administration or Yury Lutsenko [Ukraine’s General Prosecutor] come up again with big news, we would feel that we need to double or triple check it. That is not a reputation any government or any person really wants.
Loukerenko: The SBU, the General Prosecutor and President Poroshenko himself claim that a plot was found here and they averted at least one death, of Babchenko obviously, and also they say that about three dozen journalists are in danger. They called at least two names of people who may have ordered (contracted) it on Moscow’s request.
Bociurkiw: І’ll go back to what I said at the beginning. These very same people have a reputation for deceit or fabricating evidence. The President, and our memories are still very fresh, of his deception over the Christmas holidays – taking a secret vacation to the Maldives, and then having to say later on that he did do it. You can do this when you come from a platform or position of moral authority and you have this reputation for being honest.
If you look at the shoddy, embarrassing, I would say, performance of Lutsenko on Amanpour (CNN) the other night, when he was asked direct questions of what evidence do you actually have, he could hardly answer. So when you go to these extremes, to actually stage or fabricate a murder, and then you come out to the world and say sorry, it actually didn’t happen. We did it because we wanted to save someone’s life. You have to come out very quickly with some kind of answers and evidence as the Committee to Protect Journalists is demanding right now.
Loukerenko: Why do you think the Ukrainian authorities did this?
Bociurkiw: As I wrote in my CNN.com piece, I think they were desperate for some kind of “win”. That having not solved many other cases, including involving journalists, they needed to come out and prove that they are capable of breaking a case. I hate to sound overly cynical but as I’ve said in the international media in the past few days, one can’t help but think that there is also an election around the corner. Poroshenko’s popularity rating is in the single digits, in other words, on the tank. They might have felt that they needed to prove they are capable of this big “win”.
But I’ll go back to what I’ve said in several panels in Ukraine over the past few months, is that reputation takes a long time to build up. And I do believe that in its arguments against Russia, in its statements on the hybrid war being played out in Eastern Ukraine, that up until now Ukraine has held the moral high ground. That it’s been believed. That the well of sympathy and support has been absolutely incredible. But then they go and within a few minutes I think they’ve caused a lot of damage to themselves. And that actually makes me very sad.
Loukerenko: So what about the international implications for this situation?
Bociurkiw: I’ve followed international media very closely, and I think it’s almost a universal feeling: the international media feels it’s been played. Actually a lot of the feeling is this is absurdity, and it’s going to be a lot more difficult to believe the Ukrainian government henceforth. Now I think that sentiment also extends to many foreign governments. They’re just in shock because a lot of them did issue statements of sympathy when they heard that Babchenko was killed. And then I have to add too, that monitoring the discussions on social media, especially among members of the Ukrainian diaspora, this has had the unintended and unfortunate consequence of dividing the community. I can’t remember seeing as many heated arguments about whether this was feasible or not, whether it was a good idea or not. I’m hoping this will only be a temporary kind of flare up, but there are a lot of arguments taking place among members of the diaspora on social media on this one.
Loukerenko: And what do you think about domestic implications? Will it eventually actually help Poroshenko to succeed in the future Presidential elections?
Bociurkiw: I doubt it. If I read the poll correctly yesterday when I was on Zik TV, they were polling Ukrainians on whether they thought this caused positive or negative impact on the country’s image. And it looks like the majority said it caused a negative image to Ukraine. And you know I’ve been speaking to many of my former colleagues in Ukraine, and many of them actually support my position, that this perhaps was not a good idea. I think a lot of people feel that it could have been done another way. Don’t forget the SBU is one of the best-resourced arms of the government, tens of thousands of employees. And I think this incident also raised questions about where are we with the reform processes? Especially with the SBU – it was supposed to have been broken up a long time ago, international donors are demanding that – and turned into a leaner organization that is focused on one or two main areas.
I think that the kind of negative sentiment towards Poroshenko is quite high, because I don’t think that people feel like their lives are getting better, I don’t think that people feel the safety factor, for example, in big metropolises like Kyiv, is getting better either. So this is happening actually relatively soon to the election season and I think it could backfire on them.
Now, one quick thought: maybe they’re going to surprise us. Maybe they’re going to come out with a press conference and say ‘look this is what we have, there is no other way’. And they need to say that this was an extreme measure, that we fake something, and that it’s not going to happen again. Because that’s why I use the term ‘it’s playing with fire’.
Loukerenko: But actually this is what is happening. They are claiming that actually it was an extreme situation and they are on the way to find how Russia is trying to influence the situation in this country.
Bociurkiw: I’ve listened to Babchenko as well and I think I’m hearing things that he hasn’t necessarily said publicly. But it does seem more and more that he might have been played to a certain extent. That the evidence that he was shown was very flimsy, and that out of fear, I think he agreed to take part in this. And I feel very badly for him, of course, having to go through this, and having to even deceive his family, friends, and colleagues. But you know given the very poor, acrimonious relationship between the security services and journalists, and him being forced in a way to collaborate with them, I think it could be very difficult for him to go about his job. Of course he’s probably going to need 24/7 protection. It’s very difficult to do journalism when you’re protected by policemen all the time. And I’m also hearing from journalists and colleagues, what kind of credibility will he have as well. Again, maybe he had no choice. But this is a very, very serious step to take, for a journalist to collaborate with the state security services and be complicit in an operation that was staged, that was faked.
Loukerenko: Thank you very much Micheal Bociurkiw, it was very impressive comment, thank you.
Bociurkiw: My pleasure.
Loukerenko: Thank you. It was Michael Bociurkiw, Canada-based journalist, global political analyst, and formerly Spokesperson for the OSCE Monitoring Mission in Ukraine two years ago. Thank you.
Bociurkiw: Thank you.
Our second guest is Kateryna Kruk, a journalist and political analyst. She is woring with Stop Fake, and is a Fellow with the European Values Think Tank in Prague.
Loukerenko: So, what’s your personal feeling about what happened with Arkadiy Babchenko?
Kruk: First of all, thank you very much for having me here, and having this discussion in English, for an international audience. For me personally, for a person who is working in English, on twitter for years, it was a huge surprise to witness the reaction of foreigners to the case of Babchenko. And how at some point everything became more about the Security Service of Ukraine, about Ukraine, and not about Babchenko himself. That is why I think it is very important to have more voices from Ukraine explaining our perspective, from people who are walking the same streets, and, obviously, living in the same country.
Getting back to your question about my personal reaction. I remember that at the moment I learned about the assassination of Babchenko, it was Tuesday evening, if I’m not mistaken, and I was with friends who knew him personally, who have worked with him. And immediately it became very personal for all of us. Because anyone working in the public sphere, in journalism, providing commentary, being a vocal critic of Putin, of Russia, of what they have done in Ukraine, and continue doing in Ukraine, and Syria, and other countries, we do understand that we are targets. Either on twitter, by bots, or trolls, or threatening e-mails, but also even personally.
For me, personally, the most shocking detail was that he was shot at his home, in his own apartment. Meaning that there is no refuge, there is no place where you can feel safe. So, the entire evening and then the next morning were very tragic, I think for many people in Ukraine, especially those who are involved in journalism, or the public sphere. It was mostly about self-reflecting, how the balance and peace that we see around us, we go to the city center of Kyiv and everyone is smiling, singing, sitting on the grass, drinking coffee. And how this peace is so fragile. It takes just one shot to realize that our reality is very drastic. That we are at war. And we have a terrorist state, the biggest one in the world, against us.
But the moment I learned that he is actually alive I felt nothing but pure joy. That he’s alive! That we didn’t lose yet another friend, yet another good friend of Ukraine, a good journalist whose work is brilliant. He’s really worth reading.
Loukerenko: Basically, I felt the same. I felt this pure joy, but some people also felt different feelings. They felt that betrayal, I would say. This always happens, when you learn that there are lies. And you feel a little bit, or not just a little bit, betrayed.
Kruk: I was asking myself this question. And this is something that I would like to have more information on from the SBU. Did we really have to go through this emotional roller coaster? Because that was hard for everyone. Because at the very beginning we felt that we lost a dear friend of ours. And then the next day he’s alive. And you ask yourself the question, did all this pain, that was very much real, the mourning, the condolences that we shared with his family. And the memories that we revived about him. It was all very real. And I think that we shouldn’t be ashamed of that.
We should question SBU whether it was really the best scenario possible. So far we do not have enough information. That is why I don’t have a tendency (inclination) to say that it could have been done differently. I’m not an intelligence officer. I’m a journalist. I’m a political scientist. So, I can comment on the things that I am aware of, and know about. We don’t have all the details of this operation. Therefore, I think it’s going to great lengths (going too far) to say you ‘should have done it differently.’ Based on the information we have so far, and based first of all on the interview that Babchenko himself gave yesterday when he answered this precise question.
And he is the person who is in the very center of the entire operation. He said that he didn’t trust SBU at the very beginning, so it took some time for trust building, credibility building between themselves, between people. But that when he saw the professionalism of the people who were working with him, then he trusted them, that he could be part of this operation. And then they described all of the different points, all of the different stages of the operation, and he agreed to them.
And no matter how harsh our emotions were, just try to imagine for one second what he, his family, his wife, his daughter, his mother, and obviously all his close relatives had to go through. So, I think we shouldn’t be too egoistic when it comes to this case. And remember all the time that it was, first of all about, saving a human life, a great human life. Secondly, it was an intelligence operation, which wasn’t about faking something, about creating fake news. I’m really very much against using these words. Because that takes out of context only one aspect of the operation. And operation that was saving a human life. Uncovering an entire network that was planning assassinations of roughly 30 people. And obviously shaking the entire network. So, to prevent them from doing things like that in future. So, this is what it is about. Looking at the entire picture. And, obviously, asking whether it was worth it. But not in the context that I was personally very much involved, and was it worth it or not, but looking at the results, and the entire operation.
Loukerenko: Are you satisfied with the information published by the Security Service of Ukraine about the person who ordered this assassination? And also about the person on the Russian side? What is your opinion of the quality of the information released by the SBU?
Kruk: First of all, there is a specific style of the modus operandi of the SBU which is giving information piece by piece. This is what we saw yesterday, for example, or during the past few days. That almost every two or three hours there was a new statement, a new piece of information from the Ukrainian SBU. This is how they work. They don’t give you the entire picture from the very beginning, or all at once. Also, I think to some extent, it may be the case that the operation is still going on. We’re aware of the most public aspect. Because, obviously, taking into account Babchenko’s popularity, it would be impossible, it would be simply impossible to stage this sort of thing and not have a very big public reaction, both in Ukraine and abroad.
So far, what I find really appealing, and what I find really professionally done, are the video and audio recordings. Where you can see the suspects. Where you can hear their voices. This is very strong, solid evidence. Because if you have something just printed on paper, or if you have only the words of the SBU themselves, you know perfectly well that its not the most trusted institution in Ukraine. Then there could be room for speculation. Video and audio recordings of certain people – this is evidence which is much harder to shake. I’m still waiting for more details, because it was really confusing when Mr. Herman started answering questions yesterday at the courthouse, when they were deciding what was the degree of punishment for him.
Loukerenko: Mr. Herman is the suspect.
Kruk: Yes. Exactly. He is the first suspect who was detained by SBU.
Loukerenko: For ordering (contracting) the murder, not perpetrating it.
Kruk: In fact, what he was describing himself as, is that he was a contact person between Russia and people who were to be the assassins. And this is the moment when it became confusing. Because he started saying that he is counter-intelligence. And in this case, you see the conflict between two institutions. To be honest, I think, so far, I’m not really convinced that he is counter-intelligence. Obviously, it might be the case that certain intelligence institutions haven’t been closely in touch with each other, because there is this tendency towards internal conflicts. But I don’t think this is the case right now. I think this is really wise advice that he got from someone, how to use the public reaction to the entire situation, of the entire operation, and picking up on this very weak (sensitive) point.
Loukerenko: Some international journalists, and some opponents of the Ukrainian President, and Ukrainian authorities, Michael Bociurkiw mentioned this in his interview, say that basically it was a special operation which was invented in order to help Poroshenko to win his presidential elections, which will be in a year.
Kruk: Well, first of all, in a year’s time, no one will remember about this situation. Because the intensity of life, of events in Ukraine is so incredible. You mentioned that I also work in Prague and many European capitals. I always have the feeling that the number of events that happen in Ukraine in one day, would happen in a month in a normal, calm European country. So, talking now about elections which will be a year from now is too far reaching. Definitely, based on the intensity of Ukrainian events, of political life in Ukraine, this is not something that can be remembered. We don’t have this situation [election] immediately. I wouldn’t say that this plays directly into the hands of Poroshenko. If solid evidence is presented by the SBU, it would rather have the effect of increasing the trust of Ukrainian society in the SBU itself but also in intelligence institutions more generally. I don’t see that there is a direct link going directly to Poroshenko.
The second aspect, the reaction of foreign journalists and commentators on Ukraine. This was a very sad situation for me. Because, to be honest, we weren’t only criticized by people who are always against Ukraine, like Russia, or some Russian puppets in western countries, but also so-called ‘friends of Ukraine.’ And for me personally, people with whom I worked for the past four years on an almost daily basis since the EuroMaidan. And I saw a very critical stance, a very critical assessment of the situation from them, and I was very surprise how, I don’t want to use the word egotistical, but very much egocentric.
There was a nice blog written yesterday, published in the Washington Post, written by a Ukrainian journalist Maxim Eristavi, who is now a non-resident Fellow at the Atlantic Council. And I never use such words on my twitter. But he very sharply said ‘dear western journalists this situation is not about you, and it’s not about how you felt about it but it was about saving a human life.’
For me personally, the statement of an organization called Reporters Without Borders was a huge disappointment. Its one of the largest organization which is aimed at protecting the rights of journalists. They are saying that nothing can justify faking a journalists’ death. And I was asking myself, and also my readers, even saving someone’s life? I think there is a great deal of not understanding the reality in Ukraine. That Russia has not only occupied Crimea, and is waging war against us in the Donbas, but it is also terrorizing Ukraine on different levels.
Many people have mentioned assassinations of Ukrainian journalists. But two years ago, there was a very prominent case, a very important one, when a high ranking Ukrainian intelligence officer was killed. It was also a car bombing. His name was Maksym Shapoval. This was the person who was responsible for the work of the team that was collecting evidence of crimes against humanity, and war crimes by Russia in Ukraine. Evidence that was later used in international courts against Russia. This is a hybrid war. And when someone is talking about hybrid war, this is precisely the description. Not only media, not only fake news but also eliminating people who are key, who might show to the world, and to Ukrainians, obviously, that Russia is an aggressor.
Loukerenko: What do you think about this stance, this position of western media, and some journalistic organizations, will it eventually be transformed to a change of policies and attitudes of western governments towards the Ukrainian government?
Kruk: I don’t think so, judging by official reactions of governments, or ambassadors, or institutions, not journalists themselves or their personal opinions and journalistic organizations. There was a statement by the European Delegation in Ukraine, the EU commented that Ukraine has the right to protect people on its territory using whatever means. Once again, there are certain things that are getting out of focus. There are three things that I would like to mention. For me we are very critical, and this is something that I was also pointing out to my foreign friends, I do work very closely with foreign journalists, and politicians, and think-tankers, first of all, it was not an operation aimed at lying to the western audience, or lying to Ukrainians. It wasn’t about ridiculing media as such. It is really very wrong to take just one aspect, one dimension of the entire operation out of context. Obviously, there was a very strong media element, the publicity element, but the entire operation wasn’t about that. It wasn’t about faking Babchenko’s death and then showing that the SBU has resurrected him. It was something more. That is why we have to look at the entire picture, not only focusing on our own perceptions.
Secondly, I think, this situation is a very serious test for Ukrainians, but also for foreign journalists, and editors working with Ukrainian issues. Showing that there is a certain bias when it comes to covering Ukraine. This is something that was really widely commented among my network of friends on twitter, for example. When we compared the perception of media and journalists when it came to the assassination attempt of the Skripals [former Russian spy poisoned in England], and also the victims of the use of the nerve agent, dozens of UK citizens in Salisbury. And back then no one, literally no one, I didn’t see any article, no even a tweet, that questioned the qualification and professionalism of MI6, the Security Service of Great Britain. No one was saying that UK is a fallen state, that they weren’t able to protect their own citizens. And the damage is much greater that in the case with Babchenko. When it came to Ukraine, even before he was resurrected, a few hours after the information that he was killed, immediately people started criticizing SBU. Saying that it’s so deeply infiltrated by Russian agents, that it’s absolutely impotent, that it’s not able to protect key figures when it comes to the Russian war. But then, the moment that we learned that actually SBU did something, SBU became an even bigger victim. It shows a certain bias that there is a critical stance towards Ukraine, and no matter what our institutions are doing, whether we are doing something, or whether we aren’t doing anything, there is always criticism. So, I think this is the moment for many journalists and experts in western countries to look in the mirror. And really think, do they have an objective stance when it comes to commenting on Ukraine.
And the last point that I would like to make in this regard is that it really shows, once again, that Ukrainians and our friends are repeating at every single occasion, that we have war in our country. That this is real. The west still thinks that you can deal with Russia in white gloves. That they don’t like the entire operation because it was inelegant. Because it had an element of really staging someone’s death, and making it public information, and so on. And I really have a feeling that the west still hasn’t left its comfort zone, and still hasn’t realized how serious it is for Ukraine. Because we have war going on. Almost every single day we receive news that someone was killed at the frontline. And the numbers of victims are thousands of people killed. And we have millions of IDPs, internal refugees. So, for us it’s not about looking nice. And I do believe that based on the information that I have so far, and obviously not being a great fan of Ukrainian security services, but in this situation, in the Babchenko case, with what we know so far, I think it was worth going to these lengths to save a human life and to uncover the entire network. It was worth it.
Loukerenko: Thank you very much for your opinion. Kateryna Kruk, journalist and political analyst. Fellow with the European Values Think Tank in Prague was in studio with us. Thank you.
Kruk: Thank you.
We usually play new music for you. This week we’re bringing you a golden oldie, from the legendary band Брати Гадюкіни, the Viper Brothers. They began playing together 30 years ago, when the Soviet Union still existed but was teetering on the brink of collapse. Their cynical lyrics continue to be relevant today. Here’s their unmistakable sound from the days when lead vocalist Kuzma was still alive with one of their biggest hits, Червона Фіра, the Red Wagon. Enjoy!
Next week we’ll be back with more commentary on events in Ukraine with interview host Oksаna Smerechuk. We would be happy to receive any feedback from you. Write to us at: [email protected] This is Oksana Smerechuk in Kyiv. Thanks so much for listening.
Interview transcribed by Marta Dyczok, Larysa Iavorenko, and Caitilin O’Hare. Interviews set up by Oksana Smerechuk. Music by Marta Dyczok. Sound engineer Andriy Izdryk. E-mail distribution Ilona Sviezhentseva. Web support Yaroslava Volvach.