Babchenko Case a Successful Sting, But Sentsov’s Plight Deserves Much More Attention

Vasyl Hrytsak (left), head of the Security Service of Ukraine, journalist Arkady Babchenko (centre), and Prosecutor General of Ukraine Yuriy Lutsenko. Swerhii Nuzhnenko, RFE/RL

Marco Levytsky, NP-UN National Affairs Desk.

There has been a mixed reaction to Ukraine’s sting operation staging the faked murder of exiled Russian journalist Arkady Babchenko with organizations representing journalists and some of Ukraine’s allies questioning the need for such extreme tactics and saying this undermined Ukraine’s credibility. Some even went so far as to say it handed Moscow a propaganda gift.

The underlying suggestion in many of these criticisms is that in staging “fake news” to counter Russian plots, Ukraine is no better than Russia itself, which leads the world as far as the production of “fake news” is concerned.

Nothing could be further from the truth. This “fake news” was staged with an expressed purpose in mind and was revealed as such a day later when Babchenko appeared at a new conference in Kyiv. Compare that with Russia, which to this day continues to deny that it shot down a civilian passenger plane over occupied Donetsk, that it used the chemical nerve agent Novichok on British soil in an assassination attempt, that it bombs Syrian hospitals and provides that country’s strongman Bashar-al-Assad with chemical weapons, despite indisputable evidence to the contrary.

The Babchenko sting on the other hand was a pro-active and successful operation which saved the life of a journalist, led to the arrest of suspects and exposed not just one murder plot, but a possible 47 others.

Prosecutor-General Yuriy Lutsenko revealed this on June 1, raising the number on alleged hit-lists from the earlier 30.

Lutsenko said all 47 have been informed, arrangements have made for their safety and met with Western diplomats to brief them on the latest developments.

Around a dozen diplomats from major Western countries — Germany, the United States, France, Britain, Italy, Japan, Australia, Norway, and Canada — as well as the European Union and Council of Europe attended the briefing.

After Lutsenko’s briefing, Reuters quoted a senior EU country diplomat as saying that the Ukrainian minister had given a convincing explanation to justify the sting operation.

“I’m happy, others are happier than before. I’d say it was the right thing to do,” the diplomat said, adding that Lutsenko during the briefing “acknowledged that the media reaction came as a surprise and that side should have been handled better.”

What’s more, this is nothing new. Ukrainian authorities have staged at least three killings over the past two years in operations to flush out suspected perpetrators.

In February 2017, Ukrainian officials announced that lawmaker and Poroshenko ally Oleksiy Honcharenko had been abducted. But Honcharenko reappeared a day later, saying his abduction was staged by the SBU in an operation to nab members of an organized crime group.

In May 2016, Ukrainian authorities announced an Odesa-based lawyer, Oleksandr Pohoreliy, had been shot dead and produced a staged crime-scene photograph of the Lexus SUV he was supposedly killed in and what appeared to be a body wrapped in a sheet and lying on the street.

The following day, however, the head of Ukraine’s National Police revealed on Facebook that the crime had been faked and that the operation had led to the detention of several suspects accused of plotting to assassinate Pohoreliy.

A month prior to the Pohoreliy sting, Ukrainian authorities released information that a businessman had been killed in car-bomb attack in the southern city of Zaporizhzhya. Police even released a video of the alleged target being painted up with fake blood and posing for photographs at the simulated crime scene.

Police said the alleged organizer of the attempted murder was detained after paying the man he allegedly hired to assassinate the businessman.

So, like the Babchenko sting, they were successful operations that thwarted assassination plots and brought criminals to justice.

But while the global media has been wringing its hands over the tactics used to thwart a plot to kill a journalist, they have paid much less attention to the case of a film director, unjustly imprisoned by Russia, who on May 14 declared a hunger strike to demand the release of 64 other Ukrainian citizens that he considers to be political prisoners in Russia.

In a letter to his lawyer, Ukrainian filmmaker Oleh Sentsov, who in 2014 was sentenced to 20 years in prison in a farcical show trial for declaring his opposition to Russia’s annexation of Crimea, stated: “The only condition for ending it is the release of all Ukrainian political prisoners held by Russia. Together to the end. Glory to Ukraine!”

A global campaign to demand the release of Sentsov has been organized ahead of this summer’s World Cup soccer competition in Russia. Several rallies to free Sentsov were held on June 1-2 in numerous Ukrainian cities as well as in Brussels, Paris, Sidney, Warsaw, Tel Aviv, Riga, Leipzig, Vienna and London. In Canada, rallies and other actions have been held in Victoria, Vancouver, Edmonton, Calgary, Winnipeg. Mississauga, Toronto, Ottawa, Montreal and Halifax.

But outside Ukraine, this campaign has received very little attention.

That is unfortunate because surely the plight of Sentsov and the other 64 political prisoners held by Russia is something that should be much higher on the priority list for media in the democratic world than the tactics used for a successful sting operation that may saved the live of as many as 47 journalists and others on Russia’s hit-lists.