Ukraine jumps the shark

On the two days Arkady Babchenko was killed and then came back to life to announce his death was faked by Ukrainian security services (SBU) and police, there was an international forum on disinformation in Kyiv. Never let it be said the SBU lacks a sense of humour.

I described to some conference participants how it felt in 2014 in Crimea during annexation and in Donetsk when the war started, surrounded by disinformation. Absolutely everybody lied about absolutely everything, from corpses poisoning the water supply to the presence of Russian forces. The lies made no internal sense, let alone tallied with what people were actually seeing and hearing. It was, literally, like drowning in bullshit. There were no facts, no objectivity, no two sides, not when everybody was lying about everything. The final question for me, and one I still haven’t been able to answer, is how much people knew, and on what level they knew (or know) that they were lying to themselves. How much they knew they were being fooled; how much they were fooling themselves.

And here we are, 2018, fools drowning in bullshit.

If we’re being honest (an out-of-date commodity these days) the bewilderment and moralistic outcry over Babchenko’s fake death is not quite so much because it’s another lie, but because we were made to look stupid. No one likes to look stupid, and particularly people like journalists and spokespeople and politicians whose ego and livelihood depend on being taken seriously. I am sure MIA advisor Anton Herashchenko and SBU head Vasyl Hrytsak massively enjoyed making fools of the press in and on Ukraine, which, if we are being honest, can be insufferably self-important and self-righteous. I’m sure the SBU loved making fools of reporters who are always going on about how corrupt and useless the SBU are, to the extent of carrying out their own investigation into the murder of journalist Pavel Sheremet in Kyiv two years ago. I’m sure they loved poking with a bullshit stick the CPJ and RSF who’ve come close to suggesting, on no actual hard evidence, that the Ukrainian state may be involved in Sheremet’s killing.

But Sheremet is dead, and no one is going to bring him back to life, and two years on the police and security services have named no suspects and made no arrests. A murder happened and was never solved. And now we have a murder that didn’t happen, so that it could be solved. We have an incompetent – or worse – SBU that lets murder happen and never catches culprits, and a SBU so damn clever that it fakes murder in order to catch culprits. We have accusations of Russian involvement in murder that is never proved, and we have (allegedly) proof of Russian involvement in a murder that didn’t happen.

My head hurts.

Those people justifying the Babchenko fake by citing other incidents of faked deaths of police officers to catch local criminals are being disingenuous. Local police officers or officials and criminals do not provoke a public statement from the prime minister blaming a neighbouring state, and from ambassadors and politicians around the world engaged in a major geopolitical conflict. The SBU didn’t just trick some pesky journalists with the laudable aim of saving lives. The stakes are so high: MH17. The war in east Ukraine. Crimea. Syria gas attacks. The Skripals. Literally, thousands of dead and injured, all drowned in lies.

If we’re being honest, none of us were objective over Babchenko’s killing when we thought he was dead. In retrospect, there were a number of peculiar anomalies. But if we (I) thought about them at all, we put them down to Ukraine’s frequently unprofessional and crass way of doing things (Herashchenko publishing that photo on facebook, anyone?) We believed it, because it was so very, very likely to be true, it confirmed every worst scenario we have already lived through and are going to go on living through.

No one likes admitting they’ve been fooled – or that they’ve fooled themselves. And of course we’re relieved and glad he is alive. My god, of course we are.

A civil activist called Server Mustafaev was arrested by Russian forces in Crimea almost two weeks ago, and charged with Islamic extremism. Server described himself as a citizen journalist, and was untiring in documenting other people’s arrests and detentions and disappearances before his own. The CPJ has said nothing about his case. No open letter like the one they’ve just written to President Poroshenko over Babchenko, no outrage. They wrote no open letter to Putin over the ‘extremism’ conviction of Crimean journalist Mykola Semena either. In Server’s case they’d argue, I’m sure, that he is not a journalist as he was not published in any mainstream media and mainly posted livestream videos and photos online. And if we’re being honest I can see the point; it’s pretty hard to define these days who a ‘journalist’ is. But when no ‘real journalist’ in mainstream media covers such obviously fake cases in Crimea, except Russian media which covers them all the time to show how special forces are winning the war against terrorism – what’s a person to do but pick up a camera, and court persecution with no protection?

Last week a civilian called Mikhail was killed by a bullet in the east Ukraine frontline town of Mariinka. He never really made it into Ukrainian, let alone international news. He was 35, disabled, and until recently lived with his mother (I say ‘until recently’ not because he’s recently no longer alive but because his mother died a week or so before he did. Before that a family grave in the cemetery got hit by a shell and blasted open). Not a very prepossessing subject for media attention, Mikhail. The head of the Mariinka civilian-military administration, as well as several townspeople, told me he was killed by a sniper’s exploding or expanding bullet, banned under International Humanitarian Law. I don’t know whether that’s true. A few days later a beautiful 15 year old girl with an extensive collection of lovely social media portraits was killed by a shell near Zalizne, not far from Mariinka. Unlike Mikhail the fatality appeared a lot in Ukrainian media and god forgive me I wondered initially whether it was true too, because she was so perfect for Ukrainian propaganda purposes. (It is true).

To be honest, I wrote that paragraph above about Server Mustafaev as a kind of trick, because I know you might read a piece about Babchenko. To be honest, I’m not sure why I’m telling you about Mikhail and Darya. No outrageous life-is-stranger-than-fiction story here. No affronted dignity. No one paid 40,000 dollars to get rid of them. No one rushed to put up memorial plaques and then, feeling weirdly ashamed, had to take them down. They are actually nobodies in the information war and the actual war. The OSCE and UN will record their deaths, and probably they’ll get added to the case Ukraine is putting together to bring to the Hague against Russia. The other side will have added its own deaths to its own case. And there will be relatives even after four years of war who are unable to believe it, who with some deep and vital part of themselves are waiting and hoping to hear the news that it’s not true, that Darya is alive, Mikhail is alive, all the missing and the killed are alive. It was a trick, these last four years of war and horror and loss are all a fake. It was lies and we were fools right from the beginning.

And it’s true, it was, and we were.

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