Arkady Babchenko has no doubt walked into a number of press conferences in his journalism career, but few would have been like this. He was being presented by Ukrainian authorities, alive and well, a day after he had been reportedly assassinated outside his home.
The head of the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) Vasyl Gritsak said that the Russian Mr Babchenko – a staunch critic of the Kremlin – had agreed to take part in a ruse to lure contract killers to arrest. The operation had helped prevent both Mr Babchenko’s own death and a wider, unspecified terrorist attack, Mr Gritsak claimed.
“I’m still alive,” Mr Babchenko told a startled room. “I’m sorry you had to go through this but there was no other way.”
It had been widely reported that Mr Babchenko was assassinated on Tuesday evening, shot three times in the back outside his front door as he apparently left the apartment to buy bread. His wife was said to have found him in a pool of blood and he died in an ambulance on the way to hospital.
Prosecutor general Yuriy Lutsenko, who appeared alongside Mr Babchenko, said it had been necessary to fake the journalist’s death so that the organisers of the plot believed they had succeeded.
Ukrainian authorities claimed their operation had helped foil a plot to kill 30 people in Ukraine, including Mr Babchenko. They declined to say who the other 29 people were.
According to their claims, Russia had paid a Ukrainian citizen $40,000 (£30,100) to organise the first assassination. That man is now supposedly under arrest.
The news of the apparent killing sparked theories about whether it was his work that caused it, and there was a swift war of words between Ukraine and Russia. A number of prominent Russian journalists critical of President Vladimir Putin’s polices have been killed in recent years.
When he was presented to journalists, Mr Babchenko’s reappearance elicited gasps, then cheers and applause from those gathered.
For some friends, news of the journalist’s non-death was met with immediate relief, and a desire “to punch his face in”. For his wife, with it seemingly unclear whether she knew about the sting in advance or not, a similar reaction may have followed.
“Sorry, Olga dear,” was all that the tearful journalist could offer her on his reappearance from the dead.
But marriage is not the only thing on the line. The credibility of Ukraine is under question too. This was, after all, a country that had claimed to be somehow more truthful than its eastern neighbour.
There may well be serious evidence to come out of this as-yet-unclear special operation. But the fake story has other, rather more obvious consequences.
First, journalists will no longer accept Ukrainian official statements on face value. This is good practice anyway, given the increasingly creative endeavours emerging from the government in Kiev.
Second, news of threats to journalists will now be doubted at every turn. As foreign correspondent Lindsey Hilsum tweeted: “Thanks, Ukrainian security services. That’s really helpful to all who care about journalists’ safety.”
Third, the Kremlin has a new get-out-of-jail-free card: Ukraine is now a storyteller; nothing that comes out of Ukraine is really how it seems; everything Ukraine says is to show Russia in a bad light. Russia has been accused by the US of using disinformation campaigns to try and affect the 2016 presidential election and in such a climate there is no doubt Moscow will use the staged killing to undermine news out of Kiev.
Unsurprisingly, the Kremlin has chosen to take a rare high road. The Kremlin’s official spokesperson Dmitry Peskov declined to comment, letting the incident speak for itself. The usually excitable foreign ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova said she was pleased Mr Babchenko was alive – “if only it was always such good news”. Ukraine had used Babchenko for “propaganda purposes”, she added.
Earlier on Wednesday, before Mr Babchenko’s ressurection, the Kremlin had described the Ukrainian allegation that it was behind his murder as an anti-Russian smear and demanded that Ukraine conduct a genuine investigation into the killing. Mr Peskov described the allegations as “the height of cynicism” and said he hoped other countries would lean on Kiev to do more to protect journalists.
After the press conference the Russian Foreign Ministry called the staged killing a “provocation” with other officials labelling it “propaganda”.
We don’t know what alternatives, if any, Mr Babchenko was offered to the special operation. His critical writing also left few doubts as to his views on the Kremlin. But in agreeing to take part in a police operation, he also put the credibility of an entire profession at stake.
“It’s crossing a line big time,” author Andrei Soldatov said on Twitter. “Babchenko is a journalist, not a policeman, for Christ sake, and part of our job is trust, whatever Trump & Putin say about fake news.”
Katya Sergatskova, founder of Zaborona, a new media platform in Ukraine, suggested the incident had shown the country’s security service to be out of its depth.
“They thought they were showing off, but they have no idea how awful this looks on the international arena.”
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