It’s been a week now since the wife of exiled Russian journalist Arkady Babchenko reportedly heard shots and found him face down on the floor of their apartment in Kiev. Three bullet holes were plainly visible in his sweater, showing he’d been shot in the back. Beneath him was a puddle of blood. Some of it oozed out of his mouth.
Then, the next day, Babchenko showed up alive and well at a press conference the brass of the Ukraine Security Service, the SBU, to announce the whole thing was a ruse—a sting, as they say in America—to flush out the conspirators in a Kremlin plot to murder critics who sought safety in Ukraine.
Since then, Babchenko has spoken at some length with a small group of his colleagues, and meanwhile the main suspect in the conspiracy has appeared in court.
The details suggest some very dark operations, what Russian spies used to call mokroye delo, wet work, meaning contract murders or, in more antiseptic American parlance, targeted killings. There are also suggestions the plotters may have called on the services of organized crime, which is not unusual in the overlapping underworlds of intelligence and the mob.
But there are also many major issues of concern about the actions of Babchenko and the SBU in a case that may have done more damage to his credibility and to that of journalists in Ukraine and Russia than it did to the would-be murderers.
One glaring question left unanswered, and often unasked, is why the Babchenko performance was necessary at all in order to arrest the one conspirator who actually appeared in the dock. By every indication, the case against him already was made. One is left with the impression that the purpose of the sting was primarily to publicize the investigation, which it certainly did. But if new information came to light because of it, that has not been revealed.
The alleged organizer of the attempted assassination, Borys Herman, appeared in a Ukraine court on Thursday, reportedly having been detained the day before, prior to Babchenko’s televised resurrection.
Borys Herman (also written Boris German) is a pudgy, round-faced 50-year-old independent arms manufacturer who appeared before the judges in a white short-sleeved shirt. He was isolated in a glass box, and often grabbed his head, or shook it as if suffering flashes of physical pain when he heard the accusations he was involved with Russian-backed terrorism.
His lawyer argued that Herman’s arms company, Schmeisser, had worked closely with Ukraine’s defense ministry, selling to the country’s military weapons that were used in the fight against Russian-backed separatists.
More significantly, Herman declared that he was a double agent working simultaneously for Ukrainian counterintelligence and a Putin-linked fund or foundation represented by an “old acquaintance” of his in Moscow named Vyacheslav Pivovarnik.
Herman said this mysterious fund “organizes unrest in Ukraine” and has been plotting “terrorist attacks” meant to impact next year’s Ukrainian presidential elections. Putin spokesman Dmitry Peskov says no such fund exists.
In Herman’s chronology of events, he was contacted about six months ago by Pivovarnik and quickly informed what he called “Ukrainian counterintelligence.” Herman claimed that these Ukrainian officials first asked him to help investigate the Kremlin’s plans for contract killings but then he was detained and accused of cooperating with Moscow’s terrorist program.
Technically, at least, counterintelligence is part of the SBU, as the prosecutor pointed out. Herman’s response: “Our counterintelligence is in conflict with the SBU. Everybody pulls the blanket in his direction, instead of defending the state together.”
Such is the infighting in Ukraine that even the state prosecutor in this case, former internal affairs minister Yuriy Lutsenko, has been investigated in the past for alleged corruption.
Herman’s family background might have made him seem a likely choice to organize contract killings. His father, Lev Herman is known in Ukraine for his deep-rooted connections to a famous Ukrainian-born Russian crime boss, Semion Mogilevich, who has many alleged links to top Russian officials.
On Friday, in an interview with The Daily Beast, former U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine John Herbst, who is now director of the Atlantic Council’s Eurasia Center, confirmed it is his “understanding” that Boris Herman, like his father, “is connected to Mogilevich.”
And that is very interesting indeed in the current context.
Mogilevich has been a target of FBI investigations into massive scams and frauds dating back at least to the 1990s. (In those days, as it happened, one of his top lieutenants lived in Trump Tower.)
In 2008 Russian police finally detained Mogilevich, accusing him of a $2 million tax evasion case, but the following year the mob boss walked free because he supposedly was considered “not a danger to the public.”
That’s not the way the FBI saw it. The feds put him on their 10 Most Wanted list in 2009, noting that the fraud case for which he’d been indicted was just one relatively small element of a vast “international criminal enterprise.”
The FBI press release about this “global con artist and ruthless criminal" included these remarks by one of the agents who’d been tracking Mogilevich:
“The FBI doesn’t have the jurisdiction to charge him with other crimes taking place solely in other countries,” said Special Agent Peter Kowenhoven, “but open-source reporting shows him to be involved in weapons trafficking, contract murders, extortion, drug trafficking, and prostitution on an international scale.” ...
“Victims don’t mean anything to him,” [Kowenhoven] said. “And what makes him so dangerous is that he operates without borders. Here’s a guy who managed to defraud investors out of $150 million without ever stepping foot in the Philadelphia area.”
Mogilevich, who is in his early 60s, is about 5-feet-6-inches tall and weighs nearly 300 pounds. He has pockmarks on his face, may have a moustache, and is a heavy smoker. He is living in Moscow, where Russian law prohibits his extradition to the U.S.
Through his extensive international criminal network, Mogilevich controls extensive natural gas pipelines in Eastern Europe, and he uses this wealth and power to not only further his criminal enterprises but to influence governments and their economies, Kowenhoven said.
“With him, it’s all about money—money and influence. And the really chilling thing is that he seems willing to work with any criminals, regardless of their ideology.”
Mogilevich’s money laundering network involved 27 nations around the world.
Ukrainian prosecutor general Yuriy Lutsenko says that the Russian secret services were behind the alleged plot to murder Babchenko, and they gave Herman the job of pulling it all together. Herman then hired Oleksiy Tsymbalyuk, a former monk and a veteran of the war in eastern Ukraine.
Herman said he gave the assignment to Tsymbalyuk, along with a down payment of $20,000 on a $40,000 contract, precisely because he knew such a religious warrior would not kill an unarmed man.
A long-time friend of Tsymbalyuk also attested to his character. Timur Nishnianidze, a former Georgian diplomat based in Ukraine, told The Daily Beast in a phone interview, “The so-called ‘hitman’ is a Ukrainian nationalist, a devoted patriot of Ukraine and my friend, he is a pal, very kind and fun, and wellregarded in Ukrainian security services and in the military.”
Nishnianidze told The Daily Beast, “At a recent private meeting Tsymbalyuk told us that some men came to him and offered thousands of dollars to kill the Russian journalist Babchenko; Tsymbalyuk immediately reported to SBU—that was his moral duty,” Nishnianidze added.
Nobody disputes that Tsymbalyuk cooperated with the SBU, even recording the exchange of money at a meeting in a car.
But if Tsymbalyuk was working with the police and there already was evidence against Herman—who may have been working with another branch of the same security service—what was the purpose of the sting? Did it fill some hole in the case against Borys Herman? Did it further implicate his alleged accomplice at the mysterious Putin fund? Did spies withing the SBU give themselves away by their reactions? Babchenko’s fake death might have accomplished any number of things, but nothing presented so far shows what those were. The only certainty is that it created a lot of noise.
In the meantime, what the information actually released about the case so far has done is intimidate a large group of people in Ukraine, many of them journalists, who might be on an alleged Kremlin hit list—and that is all the more ominous because the public has not been told what the names are.
On Friday Prosecutor General Lutsenko stated that the number of people on the list for assassinations allegedly prepared by the Russian secret service and passed to Herman was much higher than the original list of 30 names mentioned at the SBU’s Babchenko resurrection press conference last week. Now the prosecutor is talking about 47 names.
A source who has been briefed by security services told The Daily Beast that the alleged assassins were going to choose one or two victims from this roster of almost four dozen people. The idea would be to target someone whose death would create as a big a scandal as possible but who would be clueless and an easy target. Ukrainian investigators say they have correspondence among the alleged organizers of the hit discussing the price on the head of a Ukrainian politician.
Some journalists in Ukraine are very suspicious of the case presented thus far by the government. They fear that what’s being called “The Story of 47” is meant to put more pressure on an already embattled press corps. By publicizing a list like this the SBU is essentially telling them that the way to stay safe is to work with the security service. That was why Babchenko says he decided to play along. He felt he had no choice.
A list purporting to be "the 47" was has been published by strana.eu, a Ukrainian news site. And according to a source there, Herman handed it over to the secret services before they had Babchenko "killed." There is also speculation the SBU wrote the list itself.
Ekaterina Sergatskova, one of the names on the leaked list wrote on her Facebook page: "On Monday [May 4] I received a summons from the SBU, where it was clearly said that I was a witness in the Babchenko case opened against Borys Herman. Why am I a witness? What can I know about the case? At the interrogation [Tuesday] I still did not understand why I am a witness, why they summoned me and what I could know about this case."
Sergatskova manages a medial project called "Banned" that documents themes censored in Ukraine.
If the SBU had a better reputation among reporters, cooperation might be more acceptable, but in addition to the new "47" factor focused on the Russian threat, Ukrainian reporters note they have yet to see a proper investigation into the real assassination of their friend the Ukrainskaya Pravda reporter Pavel Sheremet. He was blown up in his car in July 2016. Both Pavel and his girlfriend Olena Prytula, also a journalist from Ukrainskaya Pravda, had received multiple death threats for criticizing Ukraine’s own authorities, and had complained that somebody was tailing them.
Such is the record of political assassinations in Ukraine that all threats have to be taken seriously. As Amb. Herbst noted, when all is said and done, “The important thing is that there have been a number of murders in Ukraine of Russian opposition figures and of effective Ukrainian fighters in Donbas [eastern Ukraine].”
If Babchenko’s sting drew attention to that fact and helped prevent more such killings then, messy as that ruse proved to be, it has to be counted in the plus column.
Anna Nemtsova reported from Moscow and Christopher Dickey reported from Paris.