A Russian journalist and critic of the Kremlin, reported to have been shot dead in Ukraine, showed up alive at a press conference on Wednesday to declare that his murder was faked by Ukrainian security services in an effort to foil an assassination plot against him.
In a stunning development, Arkady Babchenko, 41, walked into a room of journalists in Kiev who had been expecting to get an update on his murder.
He apologized to his wife Olechka — who on Tuesday was reported to have found him bleeding to death at his apartment — for the “hell” she had gone through. Ukrainian officials offered a jaw-dropping explanation for his so-called death — to expose a Russian plot against him.
The elaborate ruse raised many questions. Chief among them, why was it necessary to go to such extraordinary lengths to expose the plot, who was in on it, and what did Mrs Babchenko really see when she found the bleeding body of her husband.
At the press conference on Wednesday, none of these were addressed. Instead, flanked by Ukranian security officials, wearing a hoodie and occasionally flashing a sheepish smile, Babchenko launched into an explanation of the ploy.
He said Ukranian officials first told him about the threat against him — and their elaborate plan to thwart it — a month ago. He said he was told that $40,000 had already been transferred for the alleged assassination attempt.
Babchenko said he became convinced that Russian government agencies were involved in the alleged murder plot when he was shown his passport photo and personal documents that he said could have been accessed by Russian special services.
“An offer was made to take part in this special operation,” Babchenko said. “I had no choice but to cooperate.”
The Chief of the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU), Vasyl Hrytsak, said Russian special services had recruited a Ukranian citizen to organize the murder of Babchenko, who in turn had arranged for an acquaintance to carry out the task.
Only a day earlier, Ukranian authorities claimed they had launched an investigation into Babchenko’s death and even released a sketch of the suspected killer.
Police claimed he was shot in the back and died in an ambulance, citing his friend and supervisor, Ayder Muzhdabaev, deputy general manager of Ukrainian TV channel ATR. Ukraine blamed Russia for his “death.”
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko congratulated security services on a “brilliant operation” in “saving the life” of Babchenko. On his official Twitter account, Poroshenko said Ukrainian law enforcement agencies are becoming “stronger in counteraction to Russian aggression.” He later met Babchenko, embracing the journalist, and posted footage of the encounter on Twitter.
The affair seemed unlikely to improve the frosty relations between Russia and Ukraine.
In a statement, the Russian Foreign Ministry described the operation as “obviously calculated propaganda” and “anti-Russian provocation.”
“We state that the questions of life and death in Ukraine, as well as the international community’s confidence in Ukraine’s policy, are nothing more than bargaining chips for the anti-Russian hysteria of the Kiev regime,” the statement said.
Vladimir Dzhabarov, Deputy Chairman of the International Affairs Committee of Russian Federation Council, told state media outlet RIA Novosti that Kiev is now “disgraced in the eyes of the whole world.”
‘I apologize for what you had to go through’
During the news conference Wednesday, Babchenko thanked the Ukrainian security services for saving his life. He also apologized to his wife and all those who believed he had been killed — but said the secrecy had been unavoidable.
“I would like to apologize for what you all had to go through… because I’ve buried friends and colleagues many times, and I know it’s a sickening-vomiting feeling when you have to bury your colleagues,” he said. “Also I would like to apologize to my wife for the hell she went through in those two days. Olechka, I’m sorry, but there were no options here either.”
He described how he first claimed to have broken his leg and then was requested to “disappear somewhere” in the weeks leading up to the staged murder, in a bid to thwart the assassins.
Speaking to CNN, journalist and colleague of Babchenko, Simon Ostrovsky, described Wednesday’s revelation as “totally shocking and unprecedented.”
“For those of us who know Arkady personally, this is something that we’re going to have to process for a little while longer,” he said.
The Committee to Protect Journalists, which had earlier decried Babchenko’s “murder”, expressed relief that he was alive but demanded answers from the Ukranian authorities. “We are relieved that Arkady Babchenko is alive,” said Nina Ognianova, CPJ’s Europe and Central Asia program coordinator. “Ukrainian authorities must now disclose what necessitated the extreme measure of staging news of the Russian journalist’s murder.”
Babchenko ‘no longer felt safe’ in Russia
News of the apparent murder had stunned Kiev on Tuesday. Shortly after Babchenko’s death was announced, Moscow and Kiev began blaming each other for the killing of the journalist, who is a vocal critic of the Kremlin and left Russia in 2017, saying he no longer felt safe.
Ukrainian Prime Minister Volodymyr Groysman implied Russia had orchestrated the “killing” of Babchenko, while Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov dismissed that idea and slammed Ukraine as an unsafe place for journalists to work.
On Wednesday Russian foreign ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said the affair was a propaganda exercise by Ukraine, but that she was happy Babchenko was alive.
Babchenko left Russia after he criticized the Kremlin in a Facebook post in 2017.
He faced backlash after commenting on the crash of a Russian plane transporting the world-famous military choir Alexandrov Ensemble en route to Syria. They were traveling to perform for pilots involved in Russia’s air campaign on Aleppo.
Babchenko called Russia an aggressor, and accused the country of killing children in its air support of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime.