In a very surprising twist, a well-known Russian journalist who Ukrainian authorities said was shot and killed in the capital of Kiev on Tuesday, showed up alive Wednesday, with Ukrainian security services claiming they faked his death as part of an operation to thwart a real plot by Russian intelligence to murder him.
Arkady Babchenko, a celebrated war reporter who fled his home country last year amid a campaign of intimidation, was said to have been killed at his apartment building in Kiev on Tuesday night. But on Wednesday Babchenko appeared alive and well at a press conference where it was announced it had all been a ruse.
The head of Ukraine’s domestic SBU intelligence service, Vasyl Hrytsak, said authorities had pretended Babchenko was dead in order to stop a Russian plot to kill him.
Anton Gerashchenko, an MP who is also an adviser to Ukraine’s Interior ministry, posted a statement on his Facebook page after Babchenko appeared.
“So as to better document those who ordered the hit and the organizers of the crime — representatives of the Russian security services — it was necessary to convince them that the killer hired by them had successfully carried out the contract,” he said.
“As a result of a brilliant special operation by the Ukrainian security services, both the killer who received the contract to murder Arkady and the organiser of the murder have been detained,” he added.
At the news conference, Babchenko thanked the Ukrainian intelligence services for saving his life.
Babchenko’s killing had appeared entirely real. Ukrainian police described in detail how his wife had found him in their apartment and called an ambulance. Police had behaved as though they were carrying out a real investigation, sealing off Babchenko’s house with armed officers, and releasing a sketch of an alleged suspect for the crime.
Ukrainian officials had immediately accused the Russian security services of being behind the supposed murder. Ukrainian Prime Minister Vladimir Groisman wrote on Facebook on Tuesday that he was “sure the Russian totalitarian machine had not forgiven” Babchenko for “his honesty and principles.”
That prompted Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov to respond by denouncing the killing as a “tragedy.” He accused Ukraine and its “Western handlers” of seeking to use it to stir up anti-Russian feelings, saying it followed a familiar pattern of using such assassinations to frame Russia.
Russian media published obituaries and eulogies praising Babchenko’s talents and excoriating his murderers. Many journalists close to him said they were preparing to attend his funeral. Britain’s foreign minister, Boris Johnson, tweeted that he was “appalled to see another vocal Russian journalist, Arkady Babchenko, murdered.”
Gerashchenko said authorities “had no other option” and cited Sherlock Holmes as justification for the plot.
“Indeed, the hero of Arthur Conan Doyle, Sherlock Holmes, successfully used the method of staging his own death for the effective investigation of difficult and tangled investigations. However painful it was for his dear ones and Doctor Watson,” Gerashchenko wrote.
That Babchenko’s purported murder was so readily believed speaks to how common it is for journalists in Ukraine and Russia to be killed.
In March 2017, Denis Voronenko, a former pro-Kremlin Russian MP who had defected to Ukraine, was gunned down in broad daylight in front of a hotel in central Kiev.
In 2016, Pavel Sheremet, a renowned reporter who was also a prominent critic of the Russian and Ukrainian governments, was killed by a bomb placed on his car. A number of Ukrainian military officers have also been killed in bomb and gun attacks in the city in the past two years.
Babchenko, 41, is a highly-regarded war correspondent who had himself twice fought in the Russian military in Chechnya the 1990s. He became a scathing critic of the Kremlin, most recently attacking it over its 2014 seizure of Crimea and invasion of Ukraine and later its intervention in Syria.
His criticisms attracted the fury of pro-Kremlin officials and activists, as well as state media, and for years he endured regular abuse and threats. In February 2017, he fled Russia after becoming the subject of a particularly intense campaign of public harassment.