The shocking killing of Russian war reporter and Kremlin critic Arkady Babchenko in Kyiv turned out to be a no less shocking stunt by the Ukrainian Security Service (USS), which gave a press conference on May 30 and had Babchenko appear on camera alive and well.
"We have been preparing the operation for one month," Babchenko told baffled reporters, noting that he was approached by the USS that warned him of a murder attempt being prepared, timed with the UEFA Champions League final that took place in Kyiv.
Reportedly one or two people involved in the murder attempt have already been detained in Ukraine as a result of the "special operation", the self-exiled Russian journalist said. Babchenko apologised to his colleagues, family and wife, who did not know that his killing was staged, claiming that "there were no other options" and thanked the USS for saving his life.
The head of USS Vasily Gritsak told the press that Russian security forces were behind the planned and allegedly thwarted operation to kill Babchenko, with two Ukrainian citizens hired to carry out the attack.
"I can't decide if this is the most brilliant or spectacularly moronic thing I've ever heard. I think it's both," tweeted Moscow correspondent for the Financial Times Max Seddon, adding that "Ukraine has made much more effort to set up the fake Babchenko murder rather than to catch the very real murderers of fellow reporter Pavel Sheremet, or even interrogate suspects with ties to Ukrainian secret services."
"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 journalists’ safety," reads the tweet from the international editor of Channel 4 news Lindsey Hilsum.
Previously an image surfaced on social networks purportedly showing Babchenko moments after being shot. It shows the journalist face down on the floor near a door, blood pooled beneath him, with what looks like at least four gunshot wounds to the back. Reportedly, it was his wife that found "the body" and reported it to the police.
Babchenko is a well-known reporter, who served as a solider in two of Russia’s wars before becoming a war reporter. He fled Russia for Ukraine after being subjected to a sustained campaign of harassment after posting what the authorities said were “unpatriotic” posts concerning Russia’s indiscriminate bombing of Aleppo in Syria.
His fake death caused an outpouring of emotion amongst the journalist community, where he was well known for his forthright criticism of the Kremlin and bravery as a conflict reporter. Many were also quick to link the killing to his work and his negative attitude to the Kremlin.
“Today's (in all probability Russian secret police) murder of Arkady Babchenko in Kyiv says two things: 1. Russia regularly assassinates opponents in Kyiv. 2. The Ukrainian government had done little to stop it,” tweeted Anders Aslund, a Swedish economist and senior fellow at the Atlantic Council.
“The murder of a Putin critic Arkadiy Babchenko is a test for Western officials on the eve of the World Cup. Will they go to Russia to shake the murderer's hand coated with fresh blood? He wants to humiliate them, he wants them to shake his blooded hand. That would be his victory,” Aslund added in another tweet.
Given there was no evidence of the Kremlin’s involvement others were a little more restrained.
“Without jumping to conclusions about who ordered to kill Babchenko (possibilities are too many), it’s fair enough to say that he is yet another victim in the continuing war that Russia is waging against Ukraine. He was strongly against it and fled Russia because of that,” journalist Leonid Ragozin posted on social media.