MOSCOW — A fierce Kremlin critic and prominent Russian war correspondent, Arkady Babchenko, said Wednesday he had faked his death to foil a real plot against his life.
Babchenko showed up alive at a news conference in Kiev, the Ukrainian capital, one day after he was reportedly killed there, shocking a room full of journalists who had been covering his supposed murder. Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko accused Moscow of wanting to kill Babchenko and congratulated his country’s security services, saying they had grown stronger in the face of “Russian aggression.”
Russia dismissed the charge as part of what Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov called an “anti-Russian campaign.”
Babchenko, 41, fled his native Russia for Ukraine last year after receiving death threats following his criticism of Russian military involvement in Syria. He told reporters Wednesday that his fake death was part of an operation with the security services in Ukraine that took two months to prepare.
Sporting a black hooded sweatshirt and appearing somewhat perplexed, Babchenko first offered his wife “special apologies for the hell she’s been through these past two days.” His wife, according to the version that was reported Tuesday, had found his body after he had been shot several times by the entrance to their apartment in Kiev. It was not clear whether she had been involved in the operation.
Babchenko matter-of-factly told reporters: “I’ve done my work. I’m still alive and not going anywhere.” A few hours after his stunning appearance, Babchenko triumphantly took to Twitter to say he will live to the age of 96 and dance on the grave of Russian President Vladimir Putin. He also promised he would drive an American military truck through central Moscow.
Babchenko’s resurfacing immediately brought jubilation from his colleagues at Radio Free Europe in Ukraine. It also drew condemnation from Russians, wary of how the faked death could be manipulated by Russian authorities.
“What a wonderful day for Kremlin propaganda,” Russian journalist Leonid Ragozin tweeted.
Russia’s state-run RT network used the incident to draw parallels with the poisoning of former double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter earlier this year in England, which the West blamed on Russia. RT implied that both incidents were faked.
Ethical questions were also raised in the wider journalism community.
“It is always very dangerous for a government to play with the facts, especially using journalists for their fake stories,” the head of Reporters Without Borders, Christophe Deloire, wrote on Twitter.
Lindsey Hilsum, international editor for Channel 4 in Britain, tweeted: “So now every time a journalist is murdered, those responsible will unleash their bots and propagandists to say it’s fake news. Thanks, Ukrainian security services. That’s really helpful to all who care about journalist safety.”
Babchenko served in the Russian army during Chechnya’s two wars for independence. He wrote a memoir about the everyday brutality of conflict before turning to journalism, writing about war for a range of Russian publications.
His alleged death was widely condemned by American and European officials as an attack on press freedom. Vigils and tributes to Babchenko popped up in Moscow, just moments before he dramatically reappeared. The Russian government had demanded Tuesday that Ukraine conduct a full investigation into his death, though many in Kiev suspected at the time that Russians were behind it.
Ukraine’s chief of security services, Vasyl Gritsak, said Ukrainian police had detained one suspect involved in the real plot, a former rebel fighter in eastern Ukraine — in other words, one allied with Russia in the fighting there. Gritsak said he had been paid $30,000 to carry out the attack on Babchenko.
Poroshenko ordered that Babchenko and his family be given round-the-clock security, warning that “Moscow is hardly likely to settle down.”
Russia’s Foreign Ministry expressed relief at Babchenko being alive. “If only it were always like this,” ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova wrote on her Facebook page. “It’s a pity masquerading didn’t happen in other situations.”
Over the past two years, two Russians critical of the Kremlin have been killed in Kiev — former lawmaker Denis Voronenkov and investigative journalist Pavel Sheremet. In both cases, Ukraine’s government alleged Russia was involved.
Referring to Babchenko on Tuesday, Russia criticized Ukraine, alleging it was not doing enough to investigate the murders of independent journalists on its soil.