The photo that ran under most of the headlines was gruesome, showing a bald, presumably middle aged man face down on a hardwood floor. There was what appeared to be a pool of blood beneath his chest. The upper back of his long-sleeved shirt was soaked through, presumably with the same substance.
According to the English language press, which covered the story widely, at some point during the evening on May 29th, the man in the photo, Arkady Babchenko, a Russian journalist and dissident residing in Ukraine, had been murdered in the doorway of his home. Authorities claimed that the reporter was shot three times in the back as he was leaving to buy bread and that he later bled out in an ambulance on his way to hospital.
The famously tough talking Babchenko had served in the Russian army during the two conflicts in Chechnya and later became famous for his memoir, “One Soldier’s War”. In more recent years, as a journalist and war correspondent reporting from conflicts in Georgia (2008) and Ukraine (2014-?), he’d become a very public critic of Russian leader Vladimir Putin.
In the aftermath of the killing and before any investigation had really begun, blame was being laid in much of the Western media at the Kremlin’s doorstep. Speculation abounded. Perhaps President Putin himself, a former KGB man, was the mastermind behind the hit?
There was just one problem with this quickly constructed narrative: Babchenko was very much alive.
A dangerous hoax?
The following morning, after the image and the first reports were already in circulation and as heartfelt obituaries were probably still being penned around the world, a press conference about the investigation was held with high-level representatives of the Ukrainian government, including Vasily Gritsak, director of the country’s state security service, the SBU, and the country’s Prosecutor General, Yuriy Lutsenko.
To everyone’s surprise, Babchenko, looking no worse for wear, was also at the event, very much alive. He claimed that he had been forced to fake his own death to foil a plot involving Russian intelligence to actually have him killed. It was made clear by Babchenko and others at the press conference that they saw a familiar puppeteer pulling the strings behind the scenes of what we were assured was a still unraveling plot.
The war correspondent apologized to his friends and family, including his wife, who were kept in the dark about the plan. This could have been an oversight, but it was odd that it was so widely reported that it was Babchenko’s wife who discovered his body and yet we were told she didn’t know the whole thing was faked.
Despite claims of a far reaching plot, until Friday, June 15th, the only person in custody was a man named Borys Herman, who owns stakes in several large businesses but still appears to be a somewhat shadowy figure in a story with an abundance of them.
The latest arrest is apparently a Ukrainian national, colorfully referred to as “Citizen T”, who was allegedly recorded speaking to Herman about how to travel to Kiev undetected and how to get weapons once there.
Interviewed by the BBC, Babchenko’s ‘killer’ Oleksy Tsymbaliuk, a former Orthodox priest and “a member of of one of Ukraine’s right-wing groups”, described how he’d worked with Ukrainian security services to stage the murder, “I finished my soup, called a taxi and I went to kill Babchenko, [He] was lying on the floor in a pool of blood waiting for the ambulance to arrive. I wished him good health and he asked that I not make him laugh.”
The murder and photo were staged before ‘the assassin‘ arrived, as reported by the UK bureau of Business Insider, “Babchenko said that a make-up artist went to his apartment on Tuesday, that he was given a shirt with bullet holes, shown how to fall like he’d been shot, and had pig’s blood poured on him before they took the fake picture…”
The Prosecutor General later claimed that the investigation had led to the discovery of a list of 47 people, mainly Ukrainian and Russian journalists and bloggers, who he claimed are being targeted for assassination, saying these people, “could be the next victims of terrorists.”
What we know so far is that the faked assassination had been in the works for two months. According to the UK Independent, Ukrainian MP Anton Gerashenko said, “…that the people behind the killing had to be convinced that the murder had gone ahead, so that they could be caught.”
This doesn’t make much sense. Even if Herman wasn’t working for Ukrainian counter-intelligence as he’s claimed, why bother to fake Babchenko’s death? It appears that there was enough evidence to arrest Herman, as at least $14,000 had already been paid for the hit. The whole thing has the strong smell of either a case of grandstanding or gross incompetence, conclusions that are all too common in stories about so-called intelligence agencies.
Interestingly, while Tysmbaliuk and Herman both claim to have been working for Ukrainian intelligence, the SBU denies even the former’s claims.
Some excellent reporting by Hromadske International, a Ukrainian multimedia organization, posits, while not outright stating, another possible motive for the stunt and Herman’s arrest that’s a little more prosaic than that it was a conspiracy hatched by Russian security services. It seems that Herman was being investigated in another case, one that is of interest to several powerful people in the Ukraine, including one Valeriy Pavliuk, “the former deputy head of the Kiev tax service”.
Herman is suspected of forging the minutes for a weapons manufacturer he co-founded, Schmeisser. The accusation is that he was purposefully excluding Pavliuk in the list of shareholders. Prosecutors trumpeted the fact that Herman had a ticket to Milan, but he’s claimed through attorneys that he had a business meeting there with fellow arms maker Beretta and had purchased a return ticket.
Was the SBU helping to settle a score while hoping to secure a propaganda victory against its Russian nemesis in the process?
Regardless, after Babchenko’s Lazarus like return to life, the stunt has led to widespread criticism and warnings about the danger such a hoax represents to journalists working both in the Ukraine and further afield.
“Now with Arkady Babchenko basically acting as a police asset, one clear damage is to public trust for the media and for journalists,” Nina Ognianova of the Committee to Protect Journalists told Al Jazeera shortly after the press conference.
Also missing from most of the early stories, beyond Babchenko’s criticism of Russia’s right-wing government, his war record, and his work in dangerous places, was what his critics say is what made him one of the most hated people in his country. This was understandable during the time in which Babchenko was ‘dead’ but it becomes more suspicious that it’s ignored after his ‘resurrection’.
In a Facebook post after a military plane bringing some members of the Russian Army’s world famous choir, the Aleksandrov Ensemble, crashed on the way to Syria on Christmas Day, 2016 killing 92 people, Babchenko said he had, “no sympathy, no pity,” for the dead. While calls for him to be stripped of his citizenship and property were excessive, the statement showed an incredible lack of empathy not only for the victims but for their families and friends, even if Babchenko thought they were tools of a government he despises.
The war correspondent left for Kiev soon after.
Twins in corruption
Just as what is now Russia was born in Kiev along with the Ukraine (and Belarus), these two countries have a shared, often tragic history, with the former in the role of colonialist villain for much of it. While many of the charges commonly made against the Russian government and security services have a basis in truth, there are many ignored contemporary parallels between Putin’s Russia and the Ukraine, both before and after the Maidan protests brought a chocolate oligarch to power in the latter.
President Putin has certainly been more effective in controlling or eliminating some factions of Russia’s oligarchy and empowering others than his more fluid procession of counterparts in the Ukraine, where politicians have performed a balancing act between pro and anti-Russian oligarchs since the fall of the Soviet Union. Ukraine is currently under the thrall of some newly influential tycoons who emerged as the main power brokers after Maidan, with an added dash of open Nazism in the mix.
While Putin’s extreme nationalism and religious propaganda must be criticized at every opportunity and we certainly see similar movements in Russia, the rise of the far right in Ukraine is arguably more worrying as it empowers open anti-Semites and historical revisionists who see Ukrainian collaboration with Nazi Germany as something to be proud of. Groups like the openly fascist Azov Battalion are involved in fighting in the mostly Russian speaking east of the country, developing skills that may be deployed in other places in the future.
There is no question that journalists in Russia (and, for that matter, Ukraine) are under threat, whether from the political leadership, security services, oligarchs, gangsters or some combination of these groups. The Babchenko hoax actually does a disservice to these brave individuals in that in the future, governments will be able to point to this hare-brained scheme to muddy the waters when journalists are targeted in either country.
At the same time, jumping to conclusions about Russian involvement in odd plots gives authorities there ammunition to call all Western reporting disinformation or, as too many people in too many places have come to call it, “fake news.”