Arkady Babchenko, a 41-year-old Russian journalist, a war veteran who then became one of Russia’s top war correspondents, was forced into exile in Ukraine after he criticized Russian President Vladimir Putin’s Syrian bombing campaign in 2016. Pro-Putin Russian politicians called for Babchenko to be stripped of Russian citizenship, and a state-run TV station took up a petition calling for his deportation, a petition that was signed by 130,000 of the channel’s viewers.
UPDATE: According to an Associated Press report, Babchenko appeared at a press conference in Kiev on Wednesday, alive and well. “Vasily Gritsak, head of the Ukrainian Security Service, told a news conference on Wednesday the agency faked Babchenko’s death to catch those who were trying to kill him,” the AP reported.
A BBC report on the bizarre hoax said that even Babchenko’s wife, who reportedly found him bleeding in their home, was not aware that the “murder” was staged. “Special apologies to my wife,” Babchenko said at the Wednesday press conference.
“The operation was being prepared for two months. I was informed a month ago,” Babchenko added, according to The Moscow Times. A Ukrainian suspect, who had reportedly been paid about $40,000 to carry out Babchenko’s assassination, was in custody, The Moscow Times reported.
ORIGINAL STORY: On Tuesday, Babchenko was shot in the back in his own home by an unknown intruder, in the Ukraine capital of Kiev. He died in an ambulance as he was transported to a nearby hospital, according to a report by China’s Xinhua news agency.
“They shot Arkady in his back, at his own place,” said Ayder Muzhdabayev, the deputy chief of ATR TV, the Ukrainian television network where Babchenko had worked since last year.
According to a report by the independent cable news channel 112 Ukraine, Kiev police now suspect that the Russian government is behind Babchenko’s murder.
“It is clear that one of the lines of inquiry is the actions of Russian special services, aimed at eliminating those getting in the way of poisoning people’s minds with the truth about what actually takes place in Russia and Ukraine,” a Ukrainian member of parliament, Anton Gerashchenko, wrote on his Facebook page.
“Today in Kiev on the doorstep of the apartment where he lived, famous Russian journalist Arkady Babchenko, a consistent opponent of the Putin regime and a friend of Ukraine, was shot,” Gerashchenko wrote. “The house ran out of bread. Arkady went to the store. The killer was waiting in the stairwell. When Arkady opened the door of the apartment, the despicable killer shot a few shots in the back of Arkady Babchenko. Arkady’s heart stopped in an ambulance on the way to the hospital.”
The term “special services” was used in the Soviet era to refer to that country’s multiple intelligence and secret police agencies, which were involved in “decades of working undercover, gathering information, spying and battling other spies, liquidating state enemies (both real and imagined),” according to the site Russia Beyond. Today, the term refers to Russian security services such as the Federal Security Service, or FSB, and the military intelligence service the GRU. Both agencies have been identified as carrying out cyber-attacks against the 2016 United States presidential election.
Babchenko served as a soldier in two of Russia’s bloodiest conflicts in the Vladimir Putin era, the first war in Chechnya from 1994 to 1996, and the second Chechen war which dragged on from 1999 to 2006.
“Babchenko soon grew critical of the Russian government and participated in opposition movements,” according to the state-run international Russian news network RT.
But it was a Facebook post that Arkady wrote on December 25, 2016, that led him to flee from Russia fearing for his safety, he said in an article for The Guardian newspaper in February of 2017. In that Facebook post, Babchenko commented on the crash of a Russian military plane on its way to Syria carrying members of the Alexandrov Ensemble, a military choir. He wrote that he could not feel empathy for the “80 full-time employees of the ministry of defense” who died in the crash, due to the Russian military’s bombing campaign in Syria that, he said, killed “dozens of children.”
“I can tell you what political harassment feels like in Putin’s Russia,” Babchenko wrote in The Guardian article. “Like many dissidents I am used to abuse, but a recent campaign against me was so personal, so scary, that I was forced to flee.”
Babchenko’s slaying is the second murder of a Russian anti-Putin journalist in Kiev in less than two years. In July 2016, journalist Pavel Sheremet, a reporter with the independent Ukrainskaya Pravda newspaper, was slain in a car bomb attack.