The defense correspondent and fierce Kremlin critic Arkady Babchenko (41) was reported shot dead, on the evening of May 29, by an unidentified killer on the doorstep of his apartment in Kyiv. The news provoked an outpouring of grief and sympathy from many journalists, friends, as well as human rights and opposition activists in Moscow. The Russian authorities were accused of being behind the attack. All sides demanded a comprehensive investigation of the alleged crime. Babchenko worked for several years as a reporter for Novaya Gazeta before leaving Russia with his family in 2017, citing threats to his life because of his journalistic work. Novaya Gazeta quickly announced it would begin an investigation into his killing. Former Duma (lower chamber of the Russian parliament) opposition deputy Ilya Ponomarev (who is also living in self-imposed exile in Kyiv, like Babchenko), wrote on his Facebook page about an apparent plot to hire former Ukrainian Donbas conflict veterans to kill Russian political émigrés residing in Ukraine: “More killings may follow,” he warned (Interfax, May 29).
Less than 24 hours later, however, it turned out the “killing” of Babchenko had been simulated as part of a sting operation by the Security Service of Ukraine (SSU). News of his death, the images of Babchenko lying face down in a pool of blood, his distressed wife—it all turned out to be theatrics. The Russian journalist faced the cameras, safe and sound and grinning, at a press briefing at SSU headquarters in Kyiv, together with Security Services chief Vasil Gritsak, Ukrainian Prosecutor General Yuri Lutsenko and the chief of the National Police, Serhiy Knyazev. According to Babchenko and Gritsak, the SSU discovered a Moscow-sponsored plan to kill up to 30 people in Ukraine, and Babchenko was apparently on the list. Allegedly, some $30,000 had been offered for the contract killing of Babchenko, with $15,000 paid in advance to a contract killer—an unnamed Donbas war veteran who became an SSU informant and obtained immunity from prosecution. According to Babchenko, the SSU covert operation to prevent the alleged killing lasted two months. The Russian defense correspondent himself was approached by the SSU a month ago and agreed to cooperate by faking his own death in order to help arrest the culprits (Interfax, May 30). The alleged mastermind behind the planned assassinations was arrested; his name was disclosed during a court arraignment in Kyiv as “Boris German” (Pravda.com.ua, May 31).
To date, the Ukrainian authorities have not revealed any concrete evidence linking the alleged attempt on Babchenko’s life to the Russian intelligence services. And it is not clear whether the elaborate sting operation that publicly faked Babchenko’s death had obtained any additional proof for a criminal case that already seemed to be under the SSU’s control. The operation involving the simulated murder was made known to only a small number of officials. President Petro Poroshenko was aware of it, but most of his cabinet, including the prime minister and foreign minister, apparently were not (Newsru.com, May 31).
Many people in Moscow are of course relieved that Babchenko is alive and well, but are distressed over the hoax. Russian authorities, while expressing relief that Babchenko is fine, began to actively push back, describing the entire event as a “provocation” and an example of the purportedly false accusations Russia has to constantly deal with. They equated the Babchenko case with the poisoning of double-agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in Salisbury, England, on March 4, 2018, by a nerve agent known as “Novichok”—if one was a sting, the other could be, too. Western media and press-freedom watchdog organizations also rebuked the Ukrainian government, accusing it of misusing public trust and undermining journalistic credibility: Babchenko, a well-known professional journalist, pretended to be dead, thus helping to disseminate this news story world-wide. As critics have argued, this breached mainstream Western journalistic ethical principles. Moreover, Western officials and governments that had swiftly condemned the alleged killing now find themselves in an awkward position, while Russian officialdom is happily pointing fingers—suggesting the Babchenko case is representative of the falsehoods allegedly routinely disseminated by Kyiv’s authorities and opposition journalists (Interfax, May 30).
In Russia, the state-run propaganda machine is using the opportunity to go on the offensive and attack the Ukrainian authorities together with a large portion of the Western media. Russian opposition news outlets—nowadays mostly confined to blogs and various Internet publications that do not reach the majority of the Russian population—are, with some reservations, expressing support for Babchenko and the theatrical SSU sting operation. Georgy Satarov, a former aide to then-president Boris Yeltsin, has written on his Facebook page that he is glad Babchenko is alive and he dismisses the ethical condemnation of the sting operation. Satarov believes the truly unethical actors are German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron, who visited Russian President Vladimir Putin this past month. According to Satarov, Merkel and Macron are lucky Babchenko was not killed or they would have been morally responsible by de facto giving the Putin regime Western Europe’s stamp of approval (Facebook.com, May 30).
Many opposition Russian journalists have, in fact, been killed over the past couple decades. The offices of Novaya Gazeta display a gallery of portraits of slain colleagues who had worked for the paper. Sometimes, like in the case of Anna Politkovskaya (murdered in 2006), those directly involved in the killing are convicted. Similarly, the man who stabbed Ekho Moskvy radio anchor Tanya Felgenhauer (she survived), on October 23, 2017, was declared legally insane by a court and committed to a psychiatric ward (Interfax, May 11). But even when the culprits are named and brought to justice, the masterminds who ordered the attacks are not. The Kremlin always denies any connection to the killings of journalists or opposition activists. But somehow, assassins only target opposition journalists or activists, never anyone from the pro-Putin crowd. Babchenko was not actually murdered, but the hit list is almost certain to grow.