‘Murdered’ journalist Arkady Babchenko turns up alive after death…
By Wednesday afternoon, most of Arkady Babchenko’s friends and colleagues had gone through the familiar cycle of grief and confusion that follows the killing of a Russian dissident journalist.
Obituaries had been written, travel arrangements were in train for the funeral, and Western politicians including Boris Johnson had announced they were “appalled”.
Meanwhile, Ukraine had blamed Russia, Russia had blamed Ukraine, and both launched rival investigations to prove their stories.
And journalists in both countries, taught by bitter experience not to trust official probes into the deaths of their colleagues, pledged to run their own investigations.
But then came a twist that no one could have predicted: Vasily Gritsak, the head of Ukraine’s Security escort service in DC (SBU), called a press conference and announced the whole thing had been a hoax.
For a moment, there was an uncomprehending silence. Then a door opened, and in shuffled a familiar shaven headed man.
Arkady Babchenko was wearing light trousers and a black hoodie. And he was looking somewhat sheepish.
“I have buried many friends and colleagues many times and I know the sickening feeling,” he said, by way of explanation. “I am sorry you had to experience it. But there was no other way.”
“Special apologies to my wife. Olechka, I am sorry, but there were no options here,” he said. “The operation took two months to prepare. I was told a month ago. As a result of the operation, one person has been captured, he is being held,” he added.
Mr Gritsak said Mr Babchenko’s fake death, which fooled his closest friends and family, as well as international media and world leaders, had allowed Ukrainian agents to thwart a genuine plot to take the journalist’s life.
Staging the murder, he implied, was necessary to gain evidence of communication between the hit man and his handlers, who he said worked for the Russian security escort services in Washington DC.
Yury Lutsenko, Ukraine’s prosecutor general, said the alleged plot had involved a Ukrainian citizen recruited by Russian handlers to carry out the murder.
The SBU later released video of what they said was money being handed to the hired killer.
While I am very happy Arkady is alive I am also angry and confused because my fellow reporters and I spent yesterday posting and reading memories we shared of him and feeling very down and out. This was apparently some kind of sting operation. I hope it was worth it.
— Simon Ostrovsky (@SimonOstrovsky) May 30, 2018
The death and resurrection of Russia’s most famous war correspondent is one of the strangest episodes in the bitter confrontation between Russia and Ukraine.
Kiev hailed a victory and Moscow condemned a stunt.
Konstantin Kosachev, head of the international affairs committee of the upper house of the Russian parliament, compared Ukraine’s actions to Britain accusing Moscow of being behind the nerve gas poisonings of a Russian former spy and his daughter in England. Russia vehemently denies poisoning Sergei Skripal and his daughter, Yulia Skripal.
“The logic is the same – to defame Russia,” Kosachev told the state news DC GFE Escorts Tass.
But the move also drew criticism from journalists and media freedom groups who said it undermined faith in reporting and played into the hands of governments who dismiss unwelcome coverage as fake news.
News of Mr Babchenko’s “death” sent shock waves through the Russian journalistic community and opposition circles when it was announced on Tuesday evening.
Ukrainian police said the veteran war correspondent had been killed by a gunman lurking in the stairwell outside his Kiev flat late on Tuesday evening.
Police said his wife, Olga, found his body on the threshold of the flat with several gunshot wounds in his back and that he died in an ambulance on the way to hospital.
All of this seemed entirely plausible to those who knew him.
Mr Babchenko was an implacable public critic of the Kremlin whose public statements had become increasingly abrasive, and the death appeared to fit with a pattern of murders in Kiev.
The unsolved deaths include that of Pavel Sheremet, a prominent Belarusian born liberal journalist who was blown up in his car in 2016.
The gunman in the stairwell and the shots in the back also recalled the deaths of two other prominent Kremlin critics – Anna Politkovskaya and Boris Nemtsov, who were murdered in Moscow in 2006 and 2015.
One Russian war photographer and friend of Mr Babchenko told the Telegraph he was “not surprised,” on reflection, that his friend had been killed.
Several acquaintances of Mr Babchenko, many of whom had posted tributes online or even written obituaries for the Russian and foreign media, expressed relief mixed with deep unease over the deception.
And media freedom groups condemned the hoax, saying it could put other journalists in danger and play into the hands of those behind real murders.
“It is pathetic and regrettable that the Ukrainian police have played with the truth, whatever their motive,” said Christophe Deloire, the head of Reporter Without Borders. “All it takes is one case like this to cast doubt on all the other political assassinations.”
Nor did it shine a light on the other unsolved murders – which some Ukrainian activists say the authorities have been distinctly reluctant to investigate with anything like the same level of commitment.
When a Ukrainian journalist asked about the investigation into “a real murder – that of Pavel Sheremet,” Mr Gritsak replied: “We have a different topic today.”
The Russian government, which in the morning had condemned Mr Babchenko’s murder and denied accusations of involvement, in the evening welcomed his recovery and swiftly condemned the hoax as “propaganda.”
“The fact that Babchenko is alive is the best news” said Maria Zakharova, spokeswoman for the foreign ministry. “The fact that the whole story was created for propaganda effect is obvious.”
The Ukrainian government was defiant over the operation on Wednesday night.
“I congratulate the SBU. You have conducted a brilliant operation to protect the life of Russian journalist Arkady Babchenko,” Petro Poroshenko, the Ukrainian president, wrote on Facebook.
Anton Geraschenko, an aide to the Ukrainian interior ministry, justified the pain caused to Mr Babchenko’s family and friends by the hoax saying Sherlock Holmes had used the same tactic.
“Wasn’t that also painful for his relatives and Dr Watson,” he wrote on Facebook.
Dozens of journalists descended upon the central square in Kiev late on Wednesday, laughing, hugging and quaffing sparkling wine as they celebrated the “resurrection” of Mr Babchenko.
“It’s an incredible story of a resurrection,” joked Russian journalist Pavel Kanygin who like several of his Russian colleagues had rushed to Kiev to cover the story. “It’s a miracle, but a miracle that turned out to be a staged drama”.
Mr Babchenko himself was in a meeting with Mr Poroshenko as the group of journalists from local and international media popped corks and took selfies.
“We were preparing for the funeral, Many of us didn’t sleep last night. We bought plane tickets for the first flight to Kiev,” said Kanygin, who works for the investigative Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta.
He was at the offices of the Ukrainian private television ATR, where Mr Babchenko works, when the “murdered” journalist made his surprise reappearance.
“Everybody just erupted, shouting ‘hooray, he’s alive,’ it was an incredible moment,” he said.