The Babchenko stunt may end up feeding the Kremlin spin machine | Shaun Walker

While Kiev may have prevented a killing, the next time a Kremlin critic is murdered the first question will be: are they really dead?

As dramatic plot-twists go, it was top drawer: gasps all round at a press conference about a murder investigation, as the star guest turns out to be the victim himself, smirking and very much not dead.

The courageous, controversial and contrarian journalist Arkady Babchenko had not been shot in the back by an assassin, as Ukrainian government officials and gruesome leaked photographs had led everyone to believe. In fact, he had faked his own death as part of a top-secret Ukrainian security services operation to catch real would-be killers operating on Moscow’s orders.

At Moscow’s House of Journalists, a memorial plaque to Babchenko was hastily taken down; obituaries were taken offline or amended with a rather significant correction.

The incredulity, and the delight among friends and colleagues that their sorrow and anguish had been premature, soon gave way to questions about whether fooling the world – and, allegedly, Babchenko’s own wife – for a full day was really the only possible way to play this mysterious special operation.

“In half an hour I’m supposed to send the cover to the printers with a dead Babchenko and an article inside. What am I supposed to put on the cover now? Babchenko is alive?” wrote Vitaly Sych, the editor of Ukrainian weekly magazine Novoye Vremya, on Facebook. “Who does this? It’s good, of course, that he’s alive. But it’s a bit weird.”

The saga was reminiscent of the ultra-noir comic novellas of Kiev novelist Andrei Kurkov, which often revolve around contract killings: one involves a depressed man who uses a circuitous route to order his own assassination.

But this story, for all its absurdity, is clearly no laughing matter: Babchenko really did flee Russia in fear, and there may well have been a genuine assassination plot. The question is whether Ukrainian authorities, in preventing a killing (if that is indeed what they have done) did more harm than good, and whether there was any less provocative way to achieve the same ends.

The next time a Kremlin critic is shot to death, or poisoned, or falls curiously from their balcony to die on the concrete below, the first question is always going to be: are they really dead?

There’s no doubt that we can expect the “Babchenko defence” to be used as Moscow’s stock response to reports or even photographs of various Russia-linked atrocities for years to come.

“Next time you show me photos from Syria by ‘White Helmets’ I will show photo of ‘dead Arkady Babchenko killed by Putin’,” wrote one pro-Russian Twitter user, in a small taste of what is surely to come in large quantities.

Of course, that the Kremlin might spin something to its advantage is hardly a reason to abort a potentially life-saving mission. But even assuming there was an excellent operational reason for the subterfuge, questions about the way the stunt was handled remain. Was it really necessary to announce his death, rather than a severe injury, thus traumatising friends, relatives and Russian journalists who had already lost multiple colleagues to bullets?

More pertinently, the tone of the grand reveal seemed in remarkably poor taste. Rather than solemnly note the need for such an extraordinary twist of events, Babchenko was wheeled out at the press conference in a bid to create maximum shock effect, like a seaside magician revelling in the audience’s amazement as his sawn-in-half woman becomes whole again.

The Ukrainian president, Petro Poroshenko, hailed a “brilliant operation” while the interior ministry advisor Anton Gerashchenko could hardly control his excitement at the cloak-and-dagger plot: “Even Sherlock Holmes successfully used the method of faking his own death to effectively investigate difficult and complicated crimes, however painful that may have been for his relatives and for Dr Watson,” he wrote on Facebook.

Volodymyr Groysman, Ukraine’s prime minister, said earlier on Wednesday that Babchenko had been killed by the “Russian totalitarian machine” and demanded that “the murderers must be punished”. It was unclear whether it was all part of the plot to fool the would-be assassins, or whether he was in the dark about the faked death.

Now, all will hinge on what hard evidence of the Russian plot Ukraine is able to produce. If Kiev has bagged cast-iron proof that the would-be assassin’s orders came from Moscow, then the whole episode may go down as an audacious, if controversial, success.

If not, many are likely to agree with the head of Reporters without Borders, Christophe Deloire: “It is pathetic and regrettable that the Ukrainian police have played with the truth, whatever their motive ... for the stunt,” he said.


Shaun Walker

The GuardianTramp

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