On Tuesday, Russian journalist Arkady Babchenko was murdered in his apartment building in Kiev, Ukraine — or so we thought. I was in Norway, hosting the 10th annual Oslo Freedom Forum in my role as the chairman of the Human Rights Foundation. We issued a strong statement condemning the killing. That night I wrote a column memorializing him, sickened over the death of yet another comrade for opposing Vladimir Putin. “I feel grief, exhaustion, and outrage,” I wrote. “But not surprise.”
The surprise came the next morning, when we learned that Babchenko was in fact alive. The Ukrainian intelligence services had staged his murder as part of an elaborate sting operation to break up Putin’s assassination network in Kiev, which has been busy for some time. The authorities revealed that they had already captured the man targeting Babchenko, and they hoped he would lead them to those who had ordered the killing. The details are still coming out, but apparently the bait was taken and a corresponding arrest was made. There are hopes that the entire network may be unraveled.
At a news conference, Babchenko apologized for the pain he had caused his friends. (He hadn’t even told his wife, so his health may still be in danger!) He accepted responsibility and said that he would never have taken such desperate measures if the situation weren’t so dire. Those of us forced into exile by Putin’s crackdown on dissent are in a perpetual state of mourning for our colleagues, and so I cannot be anything but happy that Arkady is alive. I have lost too many friends to bullets and beatings to spend my anger on anyone other than the assassins and the man in Moscow who commands them.
Some are making the argument that this ruse damages public trust in Ukrainian authorities and bolsters Kremlin propaganda. I don’t accept that. As Babchenko said to his critics on social media: “Let us see you face your killer and choose between professional ethics and survival. I chose survival.” That a form of disinformation was used to ensnare the agents of the man who has made so much use of it is ironic, but not contradictory or self-defeating.
Here’s the real headline: There’s a war going on in Europe, and Ukraine is on the front line. Babchenko and others like him are targets of a system of assassins run by Russia around the world. Putin is also backing Bashar al-Assad’s brutality in Syria, hacking elections in the United States and Europe, and spreading lies and propaganda. He began this war years ago, and he won’t stop until he and his gang are faced with isolation and the loss of their power, riches and access to the West.
Putin’s critics ultimately have no protection against his bombs, bullets, nuclear isotopes and nerve agents. The only real defense is deterrence, by making the penalty for such acts unbearably high. Russian dissidents and journalists have no way to inflict such penalties on Putin and his thugs, of course, so the responsibility falls to the leaders of the free world, where the value of human life supposedly still has meaning.
Nor are the victims exclusively Russians. On May 24, the same day the Dutch-led Joint Investigation Team announced Russian forces were responsible for shooting down Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 over eastern Ukraine in 2014, killing all 298 on board, French President Emanuel Macron was in St. Petersburg, where he was making energy deals with Putin. On the day of Babchenko’s “murder,” German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier reasserted Germany’s commitment to the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, which will increase the amount of gas Germany gets from Russia, thus making it even more dependent on the Kremlin. All this despite Putin’s 2014 invasion of Ukraine.
This is what appeasement looks like. But today it doesn’t come in the form of a treaty promising “peace for our time.” Today it’s all about fat contracts for Russian gas and oil. That’s how Putin funds his hybrid war on the West. That’s the money he uses to pay people to kill us.
After the news that Babchenko was alive spread through our event in Oslo, I took the opportunity to remind him that expectations for the rest of his career were now very high, as with everyone who has ever been resurrected. I had last seen him in March in New York City, where he was a speaker at PutinCon, a conference put together by the Human Rights Foundation. Babchenko has no illusions about the United States finding common ground with Putin’s Russia. “Putin’s main weapon is propaganda,” he said in his talk. He spoke about his service in the Russian army, fighting in two horrific wars in Chechnya — also a part of Russia, don’t forget. “We soldiers were told that the Chechens hated us, so we had to hate them and kill them. Now Putin has Russians hating you.”
We are lucky to have people such as Babchenko to speak the truth. But we won’t have them around for long unless we can protect them.