The news of Russian journalist Arkady Babchenko’s murder was met with a depressing sense of familiarity around the world. Yet again it looked like an opponent of Putin’s state had been bumped off.
On Tuesday, Babchenko’s wife said she’d found her husband at their apartment block in Kiev with bullets in his back and he was reported to have died in an ambulance on the way to hospital.
Police even released grizzly photos that supposedly confirmed the death:
The killing was reported around the world, with harsh criticism launched at Russia. Obituaries were written about him, roses were left outside the Russian embassy in his honour and his name was even added to a memorial plaque of slain reporters at Moscow’s House of Journalists.
But then, outrageously, Babchenko turned up at a press conference. He was alive after all!
Ukrainian security chief Vasyl Hrytsak admitted that the ‘murder’ had been staged, supposedly in an effort to foil an assassination plot, organised by the Russians, against Babchenko.
“I did my job,” the journalist said at the press conference. “I’m still alive.”
“I have buried many friends and colleagues many times and I know the sickening feeling,” he added. “I am sorry you had to experience it. But there was no other way.”
He also apologised to his wife for putting her through the strange, twisted ordeal.
The Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, a bitter opponent of Putin, praised the scheme and posted pictures on Twitter of himself proudly meeting the journalist.
There has, however, been a backlash against the Ukrainian plot, including by other journalists, who worry that this was essentially an exercise in anti-Russian propaganda.
Campaign group Reporters Without Borders condemned the operation as a “pathetic stunt”.
“It is pathetic and regrettable that the Ukrainian police have played with the truth, whatever their motive,” the head of the organisation, Christophe Deloire, told AFP news agency.
Indeed, it has been alleged that the Russian state is responsible for the murders of many journalists, including the country’s most famous investigative journalist Anna Politkovskaya in 2006, but stooping to this sort of Cold War-style disinformation is a very dangerous game.
To try to make sense of all this, ShortList spoke to Russia expert Andrew Bowen, from Boston College. Here’s what he had to say:
1. This case seems very murky, do you have any sense of which side is telling the truth?
“This is truly a stunning story. In terms of truth, the reality is one of degrees. The Ukrainian authorities argue that there was a serious plot to kill Babchenko (and also allegations of terrorist attacks) but they haven’t yet revealed much more information.
“It is hard to tell the extent of the plot and whether or not this was a serious threat to Babchenko’s life. Additionally, we can’t be sure that Russian security services were involved. There has been a distinct lack of evidence presented by Ukrainian security services to back up their claims.
“While, at best, it may have been tactically necessary, strategically it was a boneheaded manoeuvre. It gave Russia a free and easy card to play to back up their ludicrous claims that they are not responsible for similar heinous activities for which they are clearly to blame.”
2. Can you think of any previous examples of this sort of thing happening?
“Recently there have been several instances floated where Ukrainian security services used similar tactics to ensnare criminals. For example, in 2017, police faked the kidnapping of politician Oleksiy Honcharenko to catch his would-be kidnappers. It seems like this is a favourite tactic of the Ukrainian security forces.
“However, the optics in this case make it an extremely ill-advised strategy that gives Russia plenty of ammunition in the future to deflect from genuine accusations.”
3. How dangerous is the threat to journalists from the Russian state?
“Being a journalist in Russia is one of the most dangerous occupations one can have. There is a constant threat of imprisonment, random beatings or attacks, and potentially death.
“Numerous journalists have been killed in Russia, including numerous high profile reporters, such as Anna Politkovskaya who was shot and killed in 2006. This climate of fear has not only contributed to attacks on journalists in Russia, but has led to many of the most independent reporters being forced to flee the country for fear of reprisals–which is why Arkady Babchenko was in Kyiv.
“This has resulted in almost all the reporting in Russia today being state controlled–save for a few and shrinking brave outlets. And as Russia has shown with the Skripal poisonings, Russia not only has the capability, but the willingness to reach out and silence opponents it deems are a threat.”