Revoking the decree to remove two judges from the Constitutional Court of Ukraine when you claim no lawful powers to do so? Bringing in law enforcement units, for effect, or canceling MP district election results to subvert the vote count to get a win for your candidate? So what?  Now Zelensky faces something new, an international backlash over kidnapping a person in another sovereign country.

The abduction news came from Moldova in the first days of August. For long Kyiv did a lot to strengthen the partnership with Chisinau as the both countries share a common strategic objective of reclaiming the territories lost to Russia. Now it is clear that Zelensky does not bother much for such small things as he is trying to save face in the light of his faltering policies and snowballing scandals. Earlier this week, one of Zelensky party MP texted a colleague “it’s time to get out of this country”, and the president promptly followed the advice. While he is on his official visit to Qatar, let’s take a look at judge Mykola Chaus story that today is making the headlines worldwide.

The judge Mykola Chaus story started in 2016 when he was arrested by anticorruption detectives after taking a $150,000 bribe and stashing money in a glass jar in his garden.  Soon the disgraced judge went into hiding and later showed up in Moldova where he applied for political asylum. When his asylum application was turned down, he faced the charges of illegal entry into the country. Chaus filed another appeal to the Moldovian court and got his case closed.

The fugitive judge story saw some twists from its start. Ukrainian investigators found that fleeing Ukraine Chaus got assistance from Andriy Smirnov, his then lawyer, and the # 991/1532/20 ruling of High Anticorruption court has the record of it. Since it was a closed hearing, the Unified State Register of Court Decisions denies public access to the case documents. Though the court’s website kept a record of judge Khamzin panel hearing #991/1532/20 case and leaked document soon made the story public. Today, working as the President’s Office deputy head,  Andriy Smirnov is no longer helping illegal migrants,. He landed the job at the time the office was headed by Andriy Bohdan.

In his state official position Smirnov is reportedly responsible for ‘relations’ with law enforcement agencies, which brought him into a spotlight yet again when the media leaked tapes of Roman Truba, State Investigations Bureau Chief. The tapes had mentions of Smirnov’s former client  Chaus and witnessed the former’s dramatic about-face – now you hear him demanding Roman Truba to “f*ck him (Chaus) right now”. This foul-mouthed command assumed abuse and grillings of the judge family and his lawyer, to help “lure” Chaus back to Ukraine. To make the plan work, Smirnov reached out to the fugitive. According to the tapes, the plan had a ‘problem’ because, at the time,  NABU was leading an investigation on Chaus, separately from State Investigations Bureau.

Roman Truba, allegedly, failed to carry out the plan, and Mykola Chaus was enjoying a quiet life in Moldova and hoped that his appeals would eventually earn him political asylum status. The appeal case developments probably led to Chaus abduction in Chisinau.

The news of abduction came from his Moldova’s lawyer Iulian Balan who reported his client disappearance to the local police and was cited claiming that such acts put to doubt Moldova’s powers to guard basic human rights.

On April 5, Internal Ministry of Moldova held a news briefing to reveal the details of their investigation into Chaus kidnapping. The investigation recovered text messages from the kidnappers’ mobile phones, tracked down their cars and detected the route they used.

According to Moldova’s detectives, Chaus had been abducted by a group of men heard speaking in Ukrainian and Russian, who later were seen crossing the Moldova’s border and entering Ukraine.

Chaus abduction has remained top news in Moldova media for several days; the story got a critical response from Moldova’s president Maia Sandul who called such an act intolerable regardless they are committed against Moldova people or foreign nationals. After all, Chaus had claimed legal grounds to  reside in Moldova and was exempt from extraditon while  his political asylum appeal was still under consideration.

Who was behind his kidnapping and what are the motives?

This takes us back to the world of Ukrainian politics. Claims that it is all about bringing Mykola Chaus to justice are hardly worthy of consideration. After all, Zelensky and his crowd policies have long been at odds with the rule of law especially when it comes to bringing corrupt officials to justice.

Moldova’s saying ‘yes’ to Chaus political asylum application would most probably raise questions in Ukraine. How come that a person involved in the disgraced judge escape plot, and the court records clearly point to it, now happens to be working  as a Zelensky’s top official? Few people would probably call it into question though, had Chaus been placed in custody and tried according to regular law procedures.

Two things back up the assumption. Zelensky people initially alleged that Poroshenko had somehow been involved with Chaus escape plan.  The smear campaign on social media proved effective toward thi end but charges against the former Ukrainian president never materialized. The leaked court ruling on Chaus case citing Smirnov’s involvement now brings to light another important fact.  The court documents cited NABU investigation claiming that Chaus escape plan got assistance  from the undisclosed official of Defence Ministry Chief Intelligence Directorate. And this is where Major General Vasyl Burba comes in.  He was Directorate deputy head at the time of the scandal, and, in October 2016, stood at helm of this intelligence agency.

Honored with different state awards and decorations, Vasyl Burba is a recognized military professional. His military record boasts SBU counter intelligence work in Donbas ATO operations in 2014. Back then, his intelligence unit exposed GRU intelligence officer Roman Filatov. The exposure disrupted the  Russian spy network activities in eastern Ukraine. The Russian officer was later made the part of prisoner exchange that helped bring Ukrainian military captives and Crimean activists. Later, he gained notoriety after revelations about failed Wagner mercenaries capture scheme.  The failure led to dismissal of Burba. The media reports alleged that Burba had reported to Zelensky officials about the upcoming covert operation and later,  following its failure, called for investigation on top president’s top aides alleging they could be behind the leak on the plan . In his Interfax interview Vasyl Burba though dismissed allegations of the president involvement. The late February brought the news of Vasyl Burba being stripped of government protection status, while  his family war reported to have been removed from the state housing. The State Directorate  promptly responded citing repairs as the reason behind the move while the law-enforcement  agency reported that Major General family retained the state-funded protection.

The story was unfolding amid the news of upcoming Bellingcat investigation on failed Wagner mercenaries’ capture that saw Burba as one of the key actors of the covert operation. Needless to say, Zelensky’s office was not excited about possible Bellingcat revelations. Recent media reports claim that Zelensky office was trying to prevent the investigation, calling into question its credibility and getting witnesses to withdraw their statements. Notably, Bellingcat investigators supposedly avoided claims of ‘treason’, calling the operation scheme result a “mistake”. The story got another turn after  the recent arrests of Semen Semenchenko and Yevhen Shevchenko on charges of starting illegal private military contractor company. Strangely enough, SBU grew concerned and presented charges shortly after Yevhen Shevchenko Bellingcat interview on Wagner mercineries story.

These developments appear to be closely intertwined with Mykola Chaus story making it possible for Zelensky officials to “kill two birds with one stone”. To whitewash Smirnov’s reputation, they can try to hold Vasyl Burba accountable for Chaus escape scheme.  To make it work, the plan needed two things – detention of Mykola Chaus and his statements about Burba, and, possibly, Poroshenko’s, involvement in his escape plot. This design may face a serious setback, though. Reports of the backlash the story got in Moldova can seriously damage Moldova’s president and her ministers’ standings. Ukraine will have to respond officially, and it will be hardly sufficient to produce State Investigations Bureau statement, claiming, predictably, that ‘jugde Chaus was recovered and made new revelations’. Besides, you will have to keep him away from NABU that is still investigating his case.

It still remains unclear what can come of it given Zelensky’s team baggage of slumping economy, corruption cases, cronyism, breeches of law, arrests of political opponents, and a new international kidnapping scandal.