In the week since Russian journalist Arkady Babchenko’s staged assassination on May 29 (see EDM, May 31), plenty of smoke and dozens of unanswered questions remain. At this point, Ukrainian law enforcement and the security services have still not provided any clear evidence of the Kremlin’s involvement in the alleged attempt on Babchenko’s life. Indeed, on the same day of his surprising resurrection and appearance at a press briefing organized by the Security Service of Ukraine (SSU), where Babchenko was accompanied by SSU head Vasyl Hrytsak, more bizarre details of the alleged assassination emerged.
Notably, Oleksiy Tsymbaliuk, a member of a Right Sector nationalist volunteer battalion that participated in the conflict in eastern Ukraine, confessed in a Facebook post after the press briefing that he was one of the co-organizers of Babchenko’s staged murder, closely cooperating with the SSU on this case (MK.ru, May 31). Initially, the spokesperson of the Security Service denied the claim, but shortly thereafter the SSU confirmed Tsimbaliuk’s statement. As it turned out, this Right Sector fighter’s face was quite similar to a suspect’s picture released by the National Police a few hours following Babchenko’s staged assassination (RBC, May 29).
According to the Kyiv prosecutor’s office investigating the case, in the beginning of April Ukrainian businessman Boris Herman ordered Tsymbaliuk to murder Babchenko. Herman then paid Tsymbaliuk half of his agreed-upon fees of $14,000, which included money for weapons purchases. After that monetary exchange, Tsymbaliuk notified the SSU about the plot against the Russian opposition journalist (Lb.ua, May 31). On the same day, Herman was detained by the SSU (BBC—Russian service, May 31).
Herman is a co-owner of the Shmaisser arms producer, which supplies weapons to the Ukrainian military. Last year he was also detained by the SSU on charges of document forgery. Herman was released shortly thereafter. According to his testimony, he “shared” $70,000 with representatives of the Security Service to close this case. The Ukrainian businessman confirmed his involvement in Babchenko’s murder but claimed he was closely cooperating with the counterintelligence wing of the Ukrainian Security Service (BBC—Russian service, May 31).
Furthermore, Herman has stated that several months ago he was contacted by his “old friend” Vyacheslav Pivovarnik, a Ukrainian citizen and former business coach who now lives in Moscow. According to Herman, Pivovarnik was involved in a pro-Kremlin “[Vladimir] Putin foundation” designed to “organize unrest in Ukraine, including preparations for a military coup during the upcoming [Ukrainian] presidential elections scheduled for next year” (The Bell, June 1). Moreover, Pivovarnik was apparently in charge of recruiting about 100 professional killers from Donbas who would be ordered to assassinate members of the Russian opposition and other Kremlin enemies inside Ukraine (Espreso.tv, June 1). Right after receiving all these details, Boris Herman said he notified Ukrainian counterintelligence, which marked the beginning of their close cooperation on this matter.
During his interrogation, Herman suggested his detention could be the result of competition between different departments within the SSU that perhaps were unaware of each other’s work on the same case involving the murder plot against Babchenko—a further sign of the fragmentation and disorganization of the Ukrainian Security Service. Another version the Ukrainian businessman put forward was that his Shamisser company attracted the SSU’s attention because of its military specialization. As a result, Herman suggested, he was a victim of a confrontation over his business (BBC—Russian service, May 31).
If it is true that different departments within the Ukrainian Security Service cooperated with separate informers—the “killer” Tsymbaliuk and “organizer” Herman—without knowing each other’s plans, this would explain why the SSU initially rejected and later confirmed Tsymbaliuk’s confession on his Facebook page that he was cooperating with the SSU. Meanwhile, however, clear evidence about the Kremlin’s involvement in the attempted Babchenko assassination still has not been provided. Whereas Herman’s testimony regarding the Pivivarnik conspiracy will need to be investigated further and verified. SSU head Hrytsak’s contention, delivered during the dramatic press briefing featuring Babchenko, that the case was solved is, thus, clearly misleading.
If solid evidence about the Kremlin’s involvement is not revealed in the nearest future, and if it turns out that the SSU operation was in fact the result of an internal conflict or lack of coordination between different departments within the Security Service, the impact on Ukraine and its top law enforcement organizations could be highly detrimental. In such a case, President Poroshenko, who previously welcomed this special operation and personally congratulated the SSU (see EDM, May 31), will likely be forced to dismiss a number of high-level officials. The stakes for Ukrainian law enforcement, which includes the SSU, the Prosecutor General’s office and the National Police, are extremely high. Competition among them to retain the president’s good graces could have serious political implications for the presidential elections in 2019.
At the same time, whatever the truth, the Kremlin can be expected to do everything possible to discredit the Babchenko case and the Ukrainian authorities, repeating the narrative of “fake news” and trying to tar them as unreliable partners for the West. The upcoming few weeks will be crucial for Ukraine’s international image, for the fate of representatives of the Russian opposition in exile, as well as for Western attitudes toward this region.