Ukraine’s assassination hoax has played into Vladimir Putin’s hands

Russia now has the perfect distraction any time it stands accused of wrongdoing.

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

Arkady Babchenko, the Russian journalist apparently gunned down in his Kiev home on Tuesday, is alive. The journalist, who had twice moved city with his family following threats against his life, revealed in a shock press conference on Wednesday that his death had been staged as part of an elaborate hoax in conjunction with Ukrainian authorities.

This came hours after Ukraine’s prime minister condemned his “murder”, holding the Russian state responsible for the death of another critical journalist. Reporters who had met and worked with Babchenko grieved his death and condemned his killing. NGOs spoke out against it. And then the hoax was revealed.

Let us be clear: it is an unequivocally good thing that Babchenko is alive, and if the Ukrainian state played a role in preventing his death, it is to be applauded. But on the facts that we know at this stage, that’s where the good news ends: Ukraine’s audacious hoax has handed Russia a once-in-a-generation propaganda victory that it is perfectly suited to exploit.

In the simplest terms, Russia now has the perfect distraction any time it stands accused of wrongdoing. When someone wants to ask about Russia’s role in poisoning the Skripals in Salisbury, it can point to Ukraine’s false flag operation and ask what proof we have this wasn’t another – as useful idiots on social media have already begun to do.

When it is confronted with its stealth invasion of Crimea, it can point to the Babchenko hoax. When asked about the shooting down of MH17 by a Russian-armed militia group, it can point to Babchenko. Whenever, for the next decade, someone tries to hold the Russian mafia state responsible for its wrongdoings, it – and its media outlets, bots, and supporters – can point to Ukraine’s hoax and demand an impossible burden of truth.

That would be an impossibly good PR victory for any state looking to hide its sins, but – as Ukraine should know better than any other country – Russia’s entire international propaganda approach relies on exactly this kind of tactic. It creates a surreal “infosmog” in which there is never a clear narrative and no-one is ever sure of who to trust. By hoaxing the world’s media (and many international allies) in an intelligence-backed operation, Ukraine has made the smog all the denser.

Russia’s information war tactics are detailed in public Nato documents, but are perhaps best summarised by former Nato press officer as “dismiss, distort, distract, dismay” – rather than trying to push one counter-narrative, the country offers up dozens, releases lists of dozens of impossible-to-answer but reasonable seeming questions challenging the narrative, and engages in whataboutery to change the issue at hand. The Nato handbook on such tactics notes this is accomplished by “exploiting vulnerabilities in the target society, particularly freedom of expression and democratic principles”.

Ukraine – which has been the prime target of so many of these tactics – has made that job vastly easier for Russia. It has also made the work of investigative journalists much harder, and further risked the safety of many. One of the most common charges used to discredit journalists – and to make them “legitimate” targets – is to suggest they are either working as spies, or are in league with them. By so publicly aligning with an independent journalist, this allegation is seemingly confirmed, threatening the very legitimacy of the profession.

There could yet be a third act to this surreal tale – and we should hope that there is. If Ukraine has somehow managed to shake loose a Russian assassination network, arresting not just one would-be killer but handlers and more, through this stunt, it could perhaps still turn this around. If it has evidence to support its claims – that could be verified, as no-one will take Ukraine’s word for much anymore – and will release it, perhaps this can be turned around.

But at the press conference, Ukraine’s representatives offered nothing more than childish grins, at a stunt done well.

As it stands, some people online have likened Ukraine to the boy who cried wolf – a reference to the old tale of the shepherd who falsely cries wolf, only to be ignored when his herd is actually attacked. The reality is worse than that: Ukraine is the boy whose flock has been savaged by wolves more than once, who the world believed and stood ready to support – who then decided to cry wolf anyway. What will the world do next time Ukraine wants its attention?

James Ball is an award-winning freelance journalist who has previously worked at the Guardian and Buzzfeed. He tweets @jamesrbuk