Hey! Remember this guy? The sheepish-looking Russian journalist who faked his own death, presumably to foil an assassination plot against him? Well, that plot just got a whole lot murkier. And you’ll never guess who the fake hitman was:
Oleksiy Tsimbalyuk, once a monk and a deacon in the Ukrainian Orthodox Church who used the clerical name Aristarkh, wrote on his Facebook page that he was the man who went to the authorities after being hired to kill Mr. Babchenko.
The cleric has never made a secret of his longstanding antipathy toward Russia, fighting Russian-backed militias in eastern Ukraine and switching his religious affiliation from the Russian Orthodox Church to a breakaway branch of the Orthodox Church that has declared its independence from Moscow.
Pictures on his Facebook page show him in green combat fatigues including a patch from the Right Sector, a Ukrainian ultranationalist organization that some, particularly the Kremlin, portray as a neo-Nazi group. In a 10-minute documentary about him that appeared online in January 2017, he called killing members of the Russian-backed militias in eastern Ukraine “an act of mercy.”
Given such strong and publicly avowed enmity toward Russia, it is odd to say the least that Mr. Tsimbalyuk would be selected to carry out the contract killing of a prominent Kremlin critic.
Well, of course, if you’re a FAKE hitman, you don’t have to kill him for real; you can just do what Babchenko describes in the video above — cover him in pig blood and make him up to look dead.
And then there’s this next bit:
When he first posted the information on Facebook, a spokeswoman for the Security Service of Ukraine, known by its initials, S.B.U., denied that he was involved. But she later acknowledged that he had been.
Curiouser and curiouser. Somehow, I doubt that the national security services of Ukraine would be that eager to protect the life of a journo just for the sake of protecting him.
But the really fun part comes next:
Then there is the accused organizer, who Ukrainian officials said was just warming up with the killing of Mr. Babchenko and had a list of some 30 others Moscow supposedly wanted to eliminate.
That man, Boris L. Herman, was arraigned in a Kiev court on Thursday night and ordered to be held in custody for two months. Prosecutors said he had given the supposed assassin a down payment of $15,000, half what he was promised for carrying out the hit.
In court, Mr. Herman tried both to link the plot to President Vladimir V. Putin and to claim that he, too, had been working for Ukraine all along. He was first contacted six months ago, he said.
“I got a call from a longtime acquaintance who lives in Moscow, and in the process of communicating with him it turned out that he works for a Putin foundation precisely to orchestrate destabilization in Ukraine,” Mr. Herman was quoted as saying by Interfax Ukraine, a news agency.
Claiming that he was working for Ukrainian counterintelligence, he said he had known perfectly well that there would be no killing. A monk was hired because he would not kill an unarmed man, he said in court, and once Mr. Babchenko’s “assassination” had taken place, he said, his Russian contact had given him the list of 30 more names, which he says he passed to Ukrainian counterintelligence.
Again: This seems an awfully long length to go, just in order to protect one man who’s not even a citizen of Ukraine. Or even 30 more, assuming that they actually existed. It all reeks of a ruse, orchestrated not by Russia, but by Ukraine. And it’s not hard to tell who it was designed to smear. He’s even named: Vladimir V. Putin. Good ol’ Pooty-Poot! Whoever else?
But of course, the prosecutor’s office denies that dear Mr. Herman works for Ukrainian counterintelligence. Even though his “private” company builds the sights for Ukrainian state-made sniper rifles. Well, they would, wouldn’t they? After all, you can’t have a black op if you don’t keep things secret. And you can’t keep a secret if you don’t tell lies. Plausible deniability is the name of the game.
But here’s the rub: Is it really so plausible?
Ukraine faced continued criticism from international organizations, foreign political leaders and journalists for faking the assassination, which they said had validated the Kremlin’s all-purpose claim that it is falsely blamed for every evil in the world by a “Russophobic” West.
Aside from hinting that catching the organizer hinged on completing the killing, Ukraine has not made it clear why such a deception was necessary. Nor has it provided any evidence about accomplices or a coherent time line. Officials said the ruse was two months in the planning stages.
The level of international criticism was such that the Ukrainian Embassy in London felt compelled to issue a statement justifying what it called a “special operation.” “The hybrid war waged by the Russian Federation against Ukraine demands unorthodox approaches,” it said.
Nope. Guess not!
It looks like this “hybrid war” is decidedly one-sided, and it’s not hard to see why. The Russian army could, any time Putin gave the word, make war the good old conventional way: just march in and annex all of Ukraine — and not just the breakaway Donetsk region, which has been more Russian than Ukrainian for centuries (and, during Soviet times, was downright fractious that way).
But Ukraine can’t just march its own rickety little army (which has been heavily and overtly co-opted by Ukrainian far-rightists) into Moscow. They’d be mown down like so much grass in an instant. So they have to do it more sneakily, by taking advantage of the Russian dissident presence on Ukrainian turf, and staging fake “assassinations” of whoever’s prominent and critical enough to be a plausible target for Pooty-Poot’s ire. Which, of course, is where Arkady Babchenko comes in.
Where they messed up — and badly — was that they couldn’t make it look like a proper Russian-style, KGB assassination, say, by polonium poisoning. You can’t fake that; you’d need a radioactive “victim”, and radioactive traces on the “assassins” and everything they touched would only show that it was Ukrainians all along. Nor could you fake a nerve-gassing; the physical symptoms are beyond the abilities of any makeup artist, and even a skilled actor could not sustain them in a real hospital, for weeks and months on end. The Ukrainians, unlike Pooty-Poot, are not ex-KGB, nor do they have wealthy oligarchs on side; they don’t have the resources or the finesse. So they had to go the messy-messy route, and even that blew up in their faces. What good is a fake murder if the victim just gets up a day or two later and says “Hey, guys, just kidding”?
For his part, Mr. Babchenko said he was not privy to all the details of the investigation, but went along with the ruse because he believed his life was at risk. Numerous other critics of the Kremlin who have gone into exile in Ukraine have been murdered on the streets of Kiev, the Ukrainian capital, previously.
“They probably had their reasons,” he said of the security services at a news conference on Thursday. “Maybe they wanted to collect proof that was 100 percent solid.”
Orrrrr mayyyyyybe this wasn’t about “collecting proof” of anything, but rather just some lame attempt at deflection and distraction. After all, Ukraine has a Nazi problem, and it’s getting worse, not better. Ukraine’s far right is recruiting neo-Nazis from as far away as Britain to fight against Russia. Even the “monk” who was hired to “assassinate” Babchenko is an overt Right Sector fascist with a taste for killing Russians. Ukraine wants into Europe, but Europe is skeptical of its intentions. And rightly so: All of Europe has its own Nazi problems, due to the wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria, which have created a flood of refugees — and reactionaries. Europe is having trouble policing its own Nazis, and it wouldn’t look good if Ukraine came in, unstable and Nazified from top to bottom, the way it is now. So Ukraine’s only hope of saving some face is to point the finger at Moscow and say “But they’re even worse!” And this blown-up fake plot was, I’m pretty sure, aimed at pressuring Brussels to do something, anything, against Russia*.
What a pity it’s not working.
*ETA: I am well aware that Russia also has a Nazi problem quite aside from Putin himself. He may be authoritarian and borderline fascistic, but there are plenty of other Russians who are over the edge, and consider him to be not-fascist-enough. It’s also worth noting that the Russian left is anti-Putin, so the accusations that he is a scheming communist are bullshit. He may be scheming, but a communist he is not.