KIEV, Ukraine — One of the reasons democracies have responded so ineptly to the flood tide of crass disinformation coming from Russia is that there is no obvious form of counter-strike, no straightforward tit-for-tat response. The Russian president lied about invading Ukraine, for example — the men in uniform crawling all over Crimea were just soldiers on vacation, he said, who might have bought their military equipment in shops. When he awarded medals to those same soldiers a few months later, what would have been an adequate, measured reaction? Blast fake news across the border? Tell lots of crazy Vladimir Putin stories, just to see which ones stick?
Until now, most Western governments have officially avoided the public trolling and open trickery that the Russians use on a regular basis. Instead of producing disinformation to counter disinformation, most mainstream Western journalists have doubled down on facts, believing that in an increasingly unstable world, they should stick as far as possible to the truth.
But now the Ukrainian security services have broken the taboo and pulled off a massive trolling surprise of their own. This is what a tit-for-tat counter-disinformation operation looks like.
For those who don’t know, here’s what happened: A couple of days ago, the terrible news broke that Arkady Babchenko, a tough, anti-Putin Russian journalist who lives in exile in Kiev, had been murdered in his own apartment building. His friends went into mourning; his obituaries were written; plaques were put up and prizes planned in his name. Foreign diplomats expressed concern and anger. Of course, the Russian media rushed out what appeared to be a previously prepared narrative, mostly criticizing the “chaos” in Ukraine and the “failures” of the Ukrainian authorities. The anxiety among Ukrainian journalists was real, and the nervousness was contagious: When I told people early this week that I was on my way to Kiev, they sent little notes of concern: “Watch your back.”
On Wednesday evening, the Ukrainian security services turned the tables. At a news conference, they announced that Babchenko was not dead. His murder had been staged in order to catch a contract killer who had been paid $40,000 to assassinate him and who was planning to kill others. Babchenko walked into the room. People cheered. The security services gloated: They had, they said, used the fake murder to catch the middleman who paid the would-be assassin.
Plus, of course, they had finally made the Russians look stupid and themselves look smart. What “chaos”? Who’s a “failure” now? They had convinced the world that Babchenko was dead, pulled off a surprise, caught a criminal. Because the security services are under direct control of the Ukrainian president, they may well have helped him in his coming election campaign, and that may well have been part of the point. One Ukrainian member of parliament proudly compared the sting to something Sherlock Holmes would have done.
But in its essence, this operation has a lot more in common with a Russian operation, or even an old-fashioned Soviet operation, than the Ukrainian authorities would like to admit. That’s because, as one Ukrainian journalist put it to me, this is a classic case of putting ends before means. The goal was fine: Catch a killer. But the means — the fictitious death, the staged public reports — will reduce even further the already microscopically low levels of trust that Ukrainians have in their government and their media.
Nobody thought about the collateral damage; nobody asked whether anybody will believe the security services the next time that they tell us a journalist is dead. In a country where journalists really do get murdered, it’s not clear whether anybody will believe journalists either, and certainly not Babchenko. It’s not clear whether the foreign diplomats who rushed to sympathize, and who made public statements, are going to forgive the Ukrainian government anytime soon either. Nobody has yet explained why there wasn’t a less elaborate, and also less damaging, way to catch this criminal. After all, other countries manage to catch murderers without staging fictional deaths of well-known people and triggering national and indeed international mourning.
This story isn’t over: The tale of the contract killer, the details of the plot, the reaction of the Ukrainian public are still unknown. But as blanks are filled in, pay attention, because it’s an excellent case study. If you did want to troll the Russians, using Russian methods, this is the kind of thing you would do. And this is the high price you would pay.