Four years into a stalemated war, it takes something very big or very bizarre to get Ukraine back into the headlines. Even the news in April that the United States has started delivering lethal weapons (Javelin anti-tank missiles) to Ukraine didn’t do the trick, but the non-assassination of Arkady Babchenko last week did just fine.
Babchenko is a Russian journalist, turned into a critic of the Putin regime by his service in the Russian army in two wars in Chechnya, who took refuge in Ukraine last year after receiving death threats in Moscow. Last week it was reported that he had been gunned down outside his apartment in Kiev, and Ukrainian Prime Minister Viktor Groysman immediately blamed Russia.
There was footage of Babchenko’s lifeless body lying in a pool of blood and being borne away in an ambulance. But the following day he walked on stage at a press conference to reveal that the assassination had been faked with the help of the Ukrainian intelligence service, the SBU.
‘Intelligence’ may not be quite the right word here, since this was an exceptionally stupid thing to do. The Putin regime condemned the episode as ‘fake news’, and will have much more credibility the next time it needs to deny killing a critic. The Ukrainian government’s reputation for telling the truth, never that high, is shot to pieces.
Why did the SBU organise this deception? According to Babchenko, the fake murder was planned for a month, even to the extent of having a make-up artist come to his apartment on the day of the ‘assassination’. “I was made up, the blood was natural, everything was for real,” he said.
It was allegedly part of a clever plan to trap a real Russian operative who was plotting Babchenko’s murder, but that doesn’t even make sense. Was the SBU expecting the ‘real Russian operative’ to break down in tears of frustration when he heard that somebody else had got to Babchenko first? This is really just more evidence of how dysfunctional the whole Ukrainian state is.
The three-month confrontation on the Euromaidan in Kiev in the winter of 2013-14, ending in a bloodbath that left 130 demonstrators dead, was supposed to be the revolution that finally freed Ukraine from rule by corrupt oligarchs backed by Moscow. It wasn’t.
The previous revolution had manifestly failed, with the pro-Moscow leader who had been rejected in the ‘Orange Revolution’ in 2004, Viktor Yanukovych, back in power through a free election in 2010. The 2014 revolution drove him out of the country entirely – but by overthrowing Moscow’s man in Kiev again, Ukrainians greatly alarmed Moscow.
Vladimir Putin feared that Russia’s big southern neighbour would end up joining both the European Union and the main Western military alliance, NATO. In the spring of 2014 he therefore incited a rebellion in two Russian-speaking provinces of eastern Ukraine, backed the revolt with Russian troops, and annexed the Crimean peninsula outright.
These illegal acts began a war that still rumbles on in the east, with 10,000 dead (mostly civilians) in four years. However, Putin is clearly not out to conquer all of Ukraine (which he could do quite easily). He just wants to paralyse the government in Kiev and make the situation in the country so problematic that NATO would never consider taking it aboard.
That’s not hard. In the presidential election of May 2014 the Ukrainians elected another oligarch, Petro Poroshenko. He’s just as corrupt as his predecessor, and there have been no reforms in the system that keeps him and his fellow oligarchs rich and the rest of the country poor. (Ukrainian GDP per capita is less than a third of Russia’s.)
The basic problem is that practically everybody who has expert knowledge or administrative experience relevant to government has been co-opted into the system. Many veterans of the Euromaidan protests were elected to parliament, but they are struggling on $600-a month salaries while they know that voting the right way can get them ten times that.
The opposition has done no better at staying united since 2014 than it did after 2004. The war in the east is largely a charade (although real people get killed in it), and it’s widely known that Poroshenko and Putin frequently have amiable late-night telephone conversations. Presumably they are discussing business deals, since there’s no money in talking about politics.
So what are the odds that the two men might one day cut a deal that ends the war? It’s possible. Putin wants an end to sanctions, and given certain guarantees he’d be happy to see the two rebel provinces rejoin Ukraine.
“Russia wants the regions (controlled by pro-Russian militants) re-integrated as a blocking share in the Ukrainian political system,” explained Andrei Kortunov, director-general of the Russian International Affairs Council, in 2016. “The aim is to guarantee that Ukraine does not join NATO or move too far from Russia.”
The real obstacle to a deal now is probably Crimea. Russian nationalism won’t let Putin give it back, and Ukrainian nationalism won’t allow Poroshenko to let it go. But if the United States wants to ensure that there is no deal, it might try giving Kiev enough modern weapons to get things moving again on the military front.
Gwynne Dyer’s new book is ‘Growing Pains: The Future of Democracy (and Work)’.