False Flag Fantasies in Ukraine
A conspiracy theory about the 2014 Maidan Revolution gets demolished—but refuses to disappear.
A HISTORIC TRIAL IN KYIV that lasted more than six years and concluded with eleven months of jury deliberations wrapped up last month with a verdict that was almost entirely eclipsed by pressing war news. But the verdict deserves a look, because the trial dealt with key events in the 2014 “Revolution of Dignity” that birthed modern Ukraine—and because it’s at the center of persistent conspiracy theories portraying that revolution as nefarious “coup.”
The case involved riot police officers charged in the killing of 48 protesters on the Maidan Nezalezhnosti, or Independence Square, on February 20, 2014. Many commentators have suggested that it was those deaths, after three months of protests sparked by pro-Moscow president Viktor Yanukovych’s rejection of a European trade agreement, that caused popular anger to boil over, leading to Yanukovych’s flight and ouster.
Claims that the killings were a false flag operation intended to topple Yanukovych and install a pro-Western government began to circulate almost immediately. No one has done more to give this conspiracy theory quasi-respectable cover than Ivan Katchanovski, a Ukrainian-born political scientist at the University of Ottawa. Katchanovski has authored several papers on the subject; as I noted in a Bulwark article last year, few other scholars take his work seriously, and it is generally viewed as politically motivated. He is, however, popular not only with the Russian propaganda machine but with Ukraine skeptics in the West, from right-wing British sociologist Noah Carl to American leftists Katie Halper and Aaron Maté.
Late last month, Katchanovski touted a bombshell announcement on Twitter:
In the fever swamps of the platform’s “dissident” lunatic fringe, Katchanovski’s report was amplified with more hysterical viral accusations:
KATCHANOVSKI’S SUPPOSED BOMBSHELL contains its first lie right after the “Wow.” The verdict, handed down in the Sviatoshyn District Court on October 18, was hardly “unreported”; one can easily find coverage in both Ukrainian-language and English-language Ukrainian media as well as reports by Reuters and the Ukrainian service of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, not to mention an in-depth analysis on the Russian-language site of the German news organization Deutsche Welle.
The falsehoods continue after that. But first, it’s worth noting the massive omission in Katchanovski’s post: the fact that four of the five accused men—former officers in the Berkut riot police—were actually convicted. (The fifth, Serhii Tamtura, was acquitted because the defense successfully argued that he was stunned by an explosion and spent several hours in a daze behind a concrete barrier until he was picked up by an ambulance.) One defendant, Oleksandr Marynchenko, was found guilty of abuse of authority and given a five-year sentence but was released after the verdict, since the sentence amounted to time served. Three other men, deputy commander Oleh Yanishevskyi and officers Pavlo Abroskin and Serhii Zinchenko, were found guilty of murder, with a life sentence for Yanishevskyi and fifteen-year sentences for Abroskin and Zinchenko. The catch, however, is that all three were tried and sentenced in absentia, having been traded to the Russia-controlled separatist “republics” in Eastern Ukraine in a 2019 prisoner exchange. Marynchenko and Tamtura were also part of the exchange but later chose to return to Ukraine to stand trial.
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A subsequent post in Katchanovski’s thread does acknowledge the convictions but claims that they are based on “fabricated forensic ballistic examination” and that his own “synchronized video appendix” proves it. In other words, the court’s verdict is gospel when it supposedly validates his theories but based on fabrications when it disproves them, and all the evidence is in the grainy zoomed-out video clips compiled by Katchanovski—who, notably, has no expertise in forensics.
What, then, did the court actually find? As a feature article on the verdict on the Ukrainian site Slidstvo Info (Criminal Investigations Info) starkly puts it: “Ukrainian citizens were shot by Ukrainian law enforcement officers.” Marynchenko, Abroskin, and Zinchenko were found guilty in the deaths of 31 of the 48 slain protesters; only Marynchenko, who gave the orders, was found guilty in the killing of four additional protesters. Of the remaining thirteen fatalities, the court found that five victims were definitely shot by Berkut men but the involvement of these specific defendants could not be proved beyond a reasonable doubt. That leaves eight dead bodies on which Katchanovski builds his conspiracy theory: eight killings in which the court said that Berkut’s role could not be definitively proved and the role of other parties could not be ruled out.
Does any of this validate the narrative Katchanovski has spun in his writings on the Maidan killings? Here’s how he sums up his view in his first paper on the subject, presented at an Ottawa conference in October 2014:
The evidence indicates that an alliance of elements of the Maidan opposition and the far right was involved in the mass killing of both protesters and the police, while the involvement of the special police units in killings of some of the protesters cannot be entirely ruled out based on publicly available evidence.
An updated version of the paper presented a year later at the annual meeting of the American Political Science Association in San Francisco states even more categorically that “the massacre was a false flag operation, which was rationally planned and carried out with a goal of the overthrow of the government and seizure of power” and further downplays Berkut’s role, suggesting that at most they may have killed or wounded some armed protesters. (He also suggests that more investigation is needed into the possible role of the United States.)
By contrast, the Sviatoshyn District Court verdict in which Katchanovski now finds a reason to rejoice concludes that 40 of the 48 dead protesters were killed by Berkut, while in eight cases other perpetrators cannot be ruled out due to lack of evidence. In part, the court relied on the fact that shots were fired from locations that were not controlled by Berkut at the time, such as the Ukraina Hotel and its vicinity. That hotel figures prominently in Katchanovski’s conspiracy theory as a sniper-infested stronghold of the Euromaidan protesters—though his critics argue that it’s highly unlikely the massive hotel and the entire area around it were fully under the control of the protesters in a volatile and chaotic situation. (And, once again, Katchanovski’s tweet misstates the court’s findings: he says the court concluded that shots were fired from the Ukraina Hotel, but the verdict actually says they were fired from the direction of the hotel.)
The eight protester deaths that cannot be conclusively attributed to Berkut could have any number of explanations, from “friendly fire” in the pandemonium to shots fired by plainclothes cops. Even the presence of Russian operatives has not been “disproved” as Katchanovski asserts: The presiding judge, Serhiy Dyachuk, has told the press that “it’s theoretically possible, but there is no proof.”
Blaming Russian agents on the basis of such speculation would, of course, be misleading and irresponsible. But that goes double for Katchanovski’s own dramatic leaps of bad faith: from the finding that eight of the 48 slain protesters may have been shot by someone other than Berkut to “false flag operation.”
THIS IS NOT TO DENY that the trial and its verdict have been a bitter disappointment for many Ukrainians—especially the families and friends of the dead. The prosecutors are unhappy that the court rejected charges that the Berkut men were committing “terrorism” as an organized group and acting to suppress a peaceful protest. (They plan to seek a reversal of this judgment since Ukraine, like a number of other European countries, allows appeals of acquittals; there are also plans to try five more Berkut officers in absentia. ) Many people, whether family members or concerned citizens, are appalled that no one will be doing a single day of prison time following the verdict. The decision to trade the defendants to Russia, made by President Volodymyr Zelensky in 2019 shortly after he took office, may also seem baffling—and is undoubtedly providing more fodder for the conspiracy theories. In fact, Zelensky explained this decision to journalists at the time as he met the released Ukrainians at the airport: agreeing to the exchange was the only way to free Ukrainian hostages—both soldiers and civilians—and he felt that saving the living was more important than avenging the dead.
The lack of justice or closure in the 2014 Maidan killings was a subject of frustration in Ukraine for years. Naturally, Katchanovski has been crying coverup. But there are plenty of non-conspiratorial reasons for the delays, starting with, quite simply, the daunting challenges on this case: the massive crowd in the square, the chaos and panic, the fact that the riot police officers’ faces were obscured by helmets and weapons were passed from hands to hands. To this, add the chaos in Ukraine after the fall of the Yanukovych regime, particularly amid new hostilities with Russia. Key evidence in the killings vanished easily, as documented in Deutsche Welle’s deep dive. Weapons were disposed of (some of them were fished out of the Dnipro river a year and a half later). Suspects fled to Russia, Belarus, Crimea, or the lawless separatist enclaves in Eastern Ukraine; among those fugitives was Dmitry Sadovnyk, the defendants’ unit commander, who played a key role in that day’s tragic events. And, while Katchanovski has speculated about a coverup by the post-Maidan government, prosecutors have accused Yanukovych holdovers in the Ministry of Internal Affairs (which oversees law enforcement) of sabotaging forensic tests and causing delays that resulted in some ballistics evidence being disqualified. Under the circumstances, perhaps it’s a miracle that the court was able to achieve the results it did.
But there is another remarkable aspect to this trial. Given the symbolic importance of the case, the two judges and the jurors might well have felt that the “right” verdict affirming the defendants’ villainy and the victims’ martyrdom was especially important. Yet the court carefully weighed all the charges and refused to go beyond the evidence—for instance, to speculate that Yanukovych or high-level members of the government ordered the shootings. It also took into consideration the fact that at times the Berkut men were legitimately defending themselves or trying to evacuate trapped fellow officers, since the crowd of protesters did include armed people who were prepared to use violence. (It should be noted that the protests started out in late November 2013 as completely peaceful; it was Berkut that initiated and escalated the violence in several brutal assaults on unarmed demonstrators.) If Ukrainian courts functioned like Russian ones, this court would have come back with whatever verdict was politically advantageous for the government—even if it meant convicting an officer who wasn’t on the square that day, or concluding that Yanukovych personally commanded a crack Berkut squad on the square.
The lack of punishment may be unsatisfying. But in a sense, the court’s decision is a triumph for Ukraine’s democracy—both because of its respect for the rule of law and because of its unambiguous affirmation that the massacre was carried out by Berkut.
In the past, Katchanovski has pointed to the lack of convictions as evidence that the “official” narrative of the Maidan killings—and, by implication, of the Revolution of Dignity—was false. Now that a Ukrainian court has endorsed this official narrative, he is reduced to citing out-of-context scraps from the judgment as vindication and blaming the rest on “fabrications.” But not to worry: his fans will lap it up.