The faked death of Arkady Babchenko was a spectacular own goal for Ukraine

Towns and villages subject to Russian disinformation techniques are vulnerable to the lines peddled by the Kremlin against Kiev, writes Damien McElroy
TOPSHOT - Anti-Kremlin journalist Arkady Babchenko addresses a press conference on May 31, 2018 in Kiev during which he dismissed criticism of cooperating with Ukrainian security services in the staging of his death, a day following his shock reappearance after Ukrainian authorities said he had been shot dead.
 In an operation that blindsided the world's media, Babchenko made a shock reappearance at a press conference in Kiev on May 31, less than 24 hours after the Ukrainian authorities reported he had been shot dead at his home in a contract-style killing blamed on Russia. / AFP / GENYA SAVILOV

Overnight, he became the Mark Twain for the digital era. Reports of Arkady Babchenko's death were a sensation, even if they were greatly exaggerated. 

The flux in opinions since the Russian reporter was revealed to be not dead after all has been stark.

There are very few who like the outcome of this particular bit of fake news.

It is true that a man is alive who appeared to be under a mortal threat. There are few among us who would not collude with such extraordinary measures if our lives depended on it.

Yet to use this tool was a particularly foolish gambit. Ukraine’s government destroyed any absolute element of credibility, not just for itself but globally.

That does not mean Russia gets off the hook for its grave responsibility.

For a country as perilously placed as Ukraine, the episode is yet another unfortunate twist in its recent sorry history.

Ukraine would like to think of itself as modern, progressive and European. In many senses, it is light years ahead of its neighbour.

But to emulate the Russians was never going to be a clever idea. It is not even now clear that Mr Babchenko’s life was really under imminent threat. The supposed perpetrator may have worked for Ukraine’s own intelligence services.

Since the clashes that led to the seizure of Crimea and the division of the Donbas, Ukraine has been a testbed for information warfare.

As a deeply corrupt country, it did not start from a promising position. Western European nations and the United States have, however, backed its effort to resist the Kremlin's onslaught. 

There have been some wins. The documentation of previous corruption has allowed for an element of name-and-shame of the old regime. Ousted president Victor Yanukovitch is in exile and no one doubts the legitimacy of the current leader, chocolate tycoon Petro Poroshenko.

This holds true, even though his credibility has now sustained a wounding blow. The western countries backing his government have grown increasingly disillusioned with his failure to tackle graft in any systemic fashion.

At the edges of the conflict, events of recent days will have a great impact. Surveys have shown that towns and villages subject to Russian disinformation techniques are vulnerable to the lines peddled by the Kremlin against Kiev.

The intensity of the Russian propaganda operation has constantly caught the West out and now has more fertile circumstances.

Another survey from within Russia last week showed the potency of its techniques. The Levada centre claimed 34 per cent of those asked what they enjoyed most in life said watching television – above earning money, caring for children and enjoying meals by some margin.

Of course, the survey might not be real but yet another piece of disinformation that shows off the Kremlin’s formidable grip on its own people.

Russia's ability to cast doubt on accusations against it will have been boosted yet further. Its propaganda potency is expanded.

It is not just in Ukraine this matters. Hundreds of millions are poured into questionable government-sponsored schemes to counter propaganda across the old Soviet satellite states every year. European nations are suddenly more vulnerable as already wavering populations will now be more inclined to doubt the West’s version of events.

The recent recovery of Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia from a chemical poisoning in Salisbury, England, led to renewed pressure for Russian sanctions. After the Ukrainian debacle, the Kremlin lost no time in claiming that whole incident was faked as well.

The phrase that best sums up the cynicism engendered by the loss of trust in the truth is "what about..?" That is where the agents of falsehood might not necessarily deny culpability but instead seek to turn the tables. If someone else does it too, then it is somehow all right.

The Ukrainian novelist Andrey Kurkov is a master of this world. His big theme is the Slavic art of the pointless struggle to exist within a landscape beyond individual control. The characters within his works have a maxim to live by.

"Go with the current or you're done for," warns one figure cast adrift, speaking to a dead fish "swimming" against the tide in The Bickford Files.

Absurdist and simultaneously arduous, the scenarios painted in Mr Kurkov’s fiction are a neverending ordeal. The maze in which the characters are trapped is a historic construct.

By putting the truth into question, Vladimir Putin has in his sights a great prize. Extending the Kremlin’s mental trap beyond the Slavic world puts Russia on a level equivalent to its global rivals.

Reports of Russia’s death as a superpower were much exaggerated in the late 1990s. Mr Putin’s gameplan to fight on another battlefield that the West barely understood and still cannot adjust to is paying off handsomely.

Damien McElroy

Damien McElroy

Damien is a  foreign correspondent who has covered politics and conflict across Europe, the Middle East, the US, Africa and Asia. Before joining The National in 2017, he worked for The Sunday Times and Telegraph titles as an editor and roving reporter. He started his career in China and has a degree in finance.