On Tuesday, Arkady Babchenko, a leading Russian journalist who opposes the regime of that country's President Vladimir Putin, was reportedly murdered at his home in Kiev, Ukraine, where he now lived after he was forced to flee Russia after serious threats on his life in early 2017. A photograph of his blood-soaked body circulated through Ukrainian and Russian media circles, appearing to confirm the shocking murder, which Ukrainian authorities quickly blamed on Russia's security services.
On Wednesday, the story of the assassinated reporter — who was a Russian soldier in both of his country's bloody wars in Chechnya before becoming one of Russia's top war correspondents — took a bizarre and even more shocking twist. When media in Kiev showed up for a police press conference expecting an update on the hunt for Babchenko's killer, they were greeted by the 41-year-old Babchenko himself — very much alive and completely unharmed, according to a CNN report.
At the press conference, Vasiliy Hrytsak, the chief of Ukraine's security service, claimed that the elaborate death ruse was a necessary step to expose what he said was a Russian-backed conspiracy to kill Babchenko. In fact, Hrytsak said that Ukraine authorities had arrested a Ukrainian citizen and military combat veteran who was identified to the media by only the letter "G." This person, Hrytsak said, has accepted a $30,000 payment from Russian security agents to arrange for the assassination of Babchenko, according to an account of the press conference by Radio Free Europe.
Later in the day, Ukrainian authorities released a video that they said showed a potential assassin accepting the payment. That video may be viewed below.What neither Babchenko nor Hrytsak made clear, however, according to a CBS News report of the unusual proceedings, were the details of how the sting operation was carried out, and why it required Babchenko to fake his own death — and fake it so convincingly that even his wife believed that her husband had been murdered by Putin's hit men.
"Sorry for imposing this upon you, but there was no other way," Babchenko told the assembled media. "Special apologies to my wife for the hell she's been through these two days. There was no choice there, either."
While Babchenko's wife was undoubtedly happy to find that he remains alive and well, the Russian government expressed outrage at the death hoax, with Ministry of Foreign Affairs Spokesperson Maria Zakharova condemning the sting operation as "propaganda," and a "masquerade," according to report by Natasha Betrand of The Atlantic magazine.
A Russia-based reporter for Britain's Telegraph newspaper, Alec Luhn, blasted the death hoax, saying that it "is basically doing (The Russians') job for them," and adding that the staged murder made Kiev appear "deceitful and hapless" — exactly the image of the Ukrainian government that the Russian government promotes.
The elaborate hoax may have actually increased the risk to Babchenko's life. Ukraine's President Petro Poroshenko has now ordered a 24-hour security detail to guard the Russian dissident journalist and his family, according to a report by the Kyiv Post.
While details of the sting operation remain murky, a Radio Free Europe report revealed Wednesday that the staged "death" photo of Babchenko, which may be viewed at this link, was circulated by Yevhen Lauer, a former Ukrainian journalist who now works for Trident Group LLC, a shadowy private security firm based in Arlington, Virginia.
Babchenko appeared unworried for his safety and pleased with the outcome of the sting operation. "I did my job, I'm still alive," he said — adding later that he now plans to live until the age of 96 and sees himself "dancing on Putin's grave."