Another Putin Critic Murdered in Ukraine? Nope. His ‘Death’ Was a Sting That Caught Alleged Assassin
The famous war reporter received many death threats from Russian officials and Russian-backed rebels. Finally he and police acted to catch a killer—but first fooled the world.
Editor’s Note: Arkady Babchenko, one of the bravest and most famous of Russia’s war reporters, is not dead, although Tuesday night the world, including his family and friends, believed that he was. Now we find out it was all part of a sting to capture those who really did want him dead.
On Wednesday Babchenko appeared alive and well at a press conference, saying that he had to fake his death as part of a Ukrainian Security Service counter-terror operation. A suspect reportedly is in custody.
This is not the first time secret services have pulled off such a sting to embarrass their enemies and capture conspirators. In 1984, for instance, the Egyptians faked the murder of a leading opponent of Libyan strongman Muammar Gaddafi. But in today’s news environment, such a spectacular example of “fake news” risks discrediting those who pull it off as well as those who would commit the crime in the first place.
– World News Editor Christopher Dickey
Anna Nemtsova, who wrote the original story reporting Babchenko’s death, filed this update from Moscow:
No fake news ever shocked reporters working in Russia and Ukraine more than this story.
On Tuesday Ukrainian authorities convinced the world that the famous Russian journalist Arkady Babchenko was killed in Kiev. A photograph of Babchenko in a puddle of blood with three gunshot wounds on his back was released to the public. Ukrainian parliament member Anton Geraschenko told a detailed story about the murder on his Facebook page, giving details of the assassination. The Ukrainian police released a composite sketch of the supposed killer.
Thousands of Babchenko’s fans and friends wept for hours. Respectful publications wrote tributes. Russian politicians blamed Kiev and Ukrainians blamed Moscow for ordering Babchenko’s murder; the United Nations demanded an investigation.
But at the Wednesday press conference the Ukrainian Security Service, the SBU, broke a happy news: Babchenko was alive. According to Ukrainian officials, the sting was a top secret special operation conducted to find the real would-be “killer.”
“When a live Babchenko appeared on TV screens on Wednesday afternoon, all of his colleagues at ATR, a Tatar TV channel in Kiev, began to scream in shock in the newsroom, they had no idea,” Pavel Kanygin, Babchenko’s friend, told The Daily Beast.
Kanygin, as well as several other friends flew to Kiev on Wednesday morning to help Babchenko’s wife organize the funeral. There were too many real assassinations of Russian journalists and politicians criticising President Vladimir Putin to doubt Babchenko’s murder story.
During the press briefing on Wednesday Babchenko appeared before his colleagues and said: “The SBU operation, conducted in order to prevent large scale terrorist attacks, was prepared for two months.”
Apparently a former Ukrainian volunteer soldier had received $15,000 to kill Babchenko. The head of SBU Vasily Gritsak told reporters that the detention of the assassin helped to prevent dozens of other contract killings in Ukraine, that the list of potential victims included at least 30 names.
In Russia, Babchenko’s friends were crying and laughing, happy to hear the news. “We have the entire newsroom at Echo of Moscow screaming too, some curse badly,” Tanya Felgenhauer, deputy chief editor of Echo of Moscow told her friends.
Later, Babchenko wrote to a group of fellow journalists: “My wife is not doing great. It is hard. But she says hi to all of you and thanks you for all the words of support and words of sympathy. This is important. Thank you, brothers. And I am sorry that I had to drag you through all this. But there was no way.
“We had to get the bastard. And we got him.”
This is what Babchenko and the SBU had everyone believing, as reported in a story published by The Daily Beast earlier on Wednesday:
... On Tuesday night, [Babchenko] was shot in the back on the doorstep of his Kiev apartment. His wife reportedly was in another room when she heard the shooting. He died on the way to the hospital.
Babchenko was 41 years old and leaves behind his 12-year-old daughter.
“His murder is a terrorist attack on the entire journalistic community, on all of us who cover the conflict between Russia and Ukraine,” Babchenko’s old friend and colleague at Novaya Gazeta, Pavel Kanygin, told The Daily Beast shortly after news broke of the assassination.
Hundreds of thousands read Babchenko’s fearless, controversial stories about Russian politics, human rights violations, and the war in Ukraine, and Kanygin spoke bitterly of the impact on journalists and journalism this killing will have. “The ‘spin master’ behind the contract murder intends to tell us that no matter how sharp and well-reported our stories are, no matter how well we hide from their persecutions, they will come and get us.”
Babchenko himself was the biggest optimist of all of us. In one of his posts written in April 2015 while covering the war in the eastern Ukraine region known as Donbas he said: “I will survive all their fucking wars. I will survive Donbas. The third Chechen war. And all their new local wars that they have time to start in their agony.” In the same post he calls all his readers to drink beer, Champagne, twerk, shake it. “Life rules! You guys love, kiss, talk, argue, have fun, make jokes and maybe for such an occasion I will dig myself out and one more time hang out with you.”
It escaped no one’s notice that Babckenko’s cowardly assassin shot him three times from behind, just the way the murderers of Russian opposition leader Boris Nemtsov fired into his back in 2015. Babchenko’s close friends among Moscow journalists suspected Russian authorities are behind what appeared to be a contract killing.
The Ukraine Interior Ministry released a composite sketch of a bearded man in his forties with a denim cap, but some journalists in Ukraine question its authenticity.
Two years ago Babchenko wrote a blog about another journalist assassinated in Kiev, Pavel Sheremet, who was a journalist many young reporters looked up to. “I am tired of having funerals for my friends. Every time it is the same thing, this damned endless run of deaths,” Babchenko said. Now Arkady’s name joined the list of Vladimir Putin’s assassinated critics. And we mourn one more friend.
Since the early days of the war in eastern Ukraine in 2014, Babchenko had received constant threats on his life from Russian officials and pro-Russian rebels. Moscow-backed militants put his photograph on the wall of the occupied administration building in the Ukrainian city of Donetsk with a sign: “A provocateur and enemy.”
Last year Babchenko had to leave Russia. “Some Moscow source who he trusted informed him that Russian authorities were planning to lock him,” Babchenko’s friend, the Prague-based photographer Petr Shelomovsky, told The Daily Beast. “So last year he first moved to Prague and then to Kiev.”
In March last year, shortly after the former Russian State Duma deputy Denis Voronenkov was gunned down in the center of Kiev, Babchenko told his friends that every year some famous Russian gets killed in Ukraine. He wondered who would be next.
“Today we got the answer to that question—he was right, famous Russian public figures are vulnerable in Ukraine,” says Ilya Barabanov, a BBC reporter based in Moscow, and another of Babchenko’s friends. “Looks like the order to kill Arkady came from Moscow; in fact, he constantly received death threats, he was feeling concerned about his own and his family’s security.”
In 2002 and 2006 Babchenko published a series of stories and essays about the war in Chechnya; in the past few years he was running a blog called “Journalism without Intermediaries.” Tens of thousands read his posts.
All of us, journalists who covered Russian-Georgian war in 2008, admired Babchenko’s reportages for Novaya Gazeta. He was wounded in that war, but that didn’t stop him.
“He had many enemies both in Russia and Ukraine; there is no doubt that he was killed for his articles,” Tanya Lokshina, a Russia program director of Moscow Human Rights Watch told The Daily Beast.
To Babchenko’s friends he will always be remembered as an honest, passionate storyteller, an easy-going colleague.
Every day he received hundreds of messages, people recognized him on the streets and would ask him questions, but Babchenko still found time to answer personal notes.
“If I met Babchenko’s killers,” said Kanygin at Novaya Gazeta, “I would tell them that they would never be able to kill our memories and that Arkady Babchenko will always stay a heroic reporter who had the guts to write things that most people were too scared even to think of.”