Arkady Babchenko's fake murder: questions that need answering

A day after it was revealed the Russian reporter was not dead, much remains unclear

The “murder” of Arkady Babchenko plunged his friends and colleagues into mourning until it emerged the Russian reporter had not been killed after all but had in fact played an active role in a staged shooting orchestrated by Ukrainian authorities. A day after the stunning revelation, much remains unclear. Luke Harding and Christopher Miller look at what we know – and what we don’t.

What exactly happened?

For about 20 hours, friends, colleagues and fellow journalists were mourning the death of Babchneko. On Tuesday night Ukraine announced he had been fatally shot in the back while returning to his Kiev flat. It blamed his murder on Russia. On Wednesday, Babchenko appeared at a press conference held by Ukraine’s SBU security service, very much alive. He explained he had decided to hoax the world after the SBU detected a real plot organised by Moscow to kill him. A middleman who had hired a former soldier to carry out the hit was now in custody, the SBU said.

News of Babchenko’s miraculous resurrection astounded the world. At a news conference on Thursday, Babchenko described how he was ferried out of his house on a stretcher and brought to a morgue. There he got up, washed, changed his T-shirt, and watched reports of his “death” on TV. The SBU’s methods triggered widespread criticism. The agency had discredited journalism and handed Russia a massive propaganda victory, critics claimed.

What don’t we know?

Quite a lot. Russia’s security services have been involved in political murders before, including the 2006 assassination of Alexander Litvinenko with a radioactive cup of tea. In this case, however, no proof has been produced linking Moscow to the apparent Babchenko hit. We do not know who masterminded the operation. Nor do we know the identity of the middleman or his alleged shadowy contacts. There are no details of other “terrorist” acts the middleman was seemingly plotting. The one thing we learned on Thursday was that Babchenko’s wife was in on the hoax from the beginning. She was aware he was alive, at a time when everyone else believed him to be dead.

What does Ukraine say?

Not much. The head of the SBU, Vasyl Grytsak, who on Wednesday produced the Lazarus-like Babchenko, had nothing to add. It was left to Ukraine’s embassy in London to mount a defence of a special operation that fooled everybody, including the British foreign secretary, Boris Johnson. It said “unorthodox approaches” were needed to counter Russia’s ongoing “hybrid war” in Ukraine, which has resulted in the annexation of Crimea and a covert Kremlin takeover in the east of the country. “As a result of the skilfully conducted covert operation, the journalist’s life was saved, the perpetrator of the assassination attempt detained, and its organisers discovered,” the embassy said.

What does Babchenko say?

Babchenko appears to be seriously fed up with the criticism against him. In his first post since coming back to life, published before his Thursday news conference, the journalist hit out at “moralisers”, and wrote: “God, it got so boring being dead.” He pledged “to die at 96 while dancing on Putin’s grave” and to drive an Abrams tank down Tverskaya, Moscow’s main boulevard. Babchenko was also unimpressed with British journalists, who wondered if his actions had done more harm than good. “Dear British press, will you, please, go fuck yourselves,” he posted on Facebook. He continued: “If you want to do something useful, you can give me a British passport and British sanctuary. Then you will have earned the right to lecture me on how I should save myself and my family. Fucking smart arses!”

What does the world think?

Governments have expressed relief that Babchenko is not dead, but are confused by Ukraine’s dramatic tactics. Germany’s foreign minister, Heiko Maas, said the case raised many questions and that he would try to get some answers during a trip to Kiev. Russia’s foreign ministry said it was happy Babchenko was alive, and noted darkly that Ukraine was a dangerous place for journalists.

The reaction from media groups and reporters has been largely negative. The stunt, they argued, would allow Russia and other unscrupulous governments to dismiss real events as fake. The International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) called Babchenko’s hoax murder “intolerable”. “By falsely spreading the news ... the Ukrainian authorities have gravely harmed the credibility of information,” complained the IFJ president, Philippe Leruth. In a long, sympathetic piece, Babchenko’s former newspaper Novaya Gazeta said it was pleased to see him back. It paid tribute to his “hilarious and uncompromising nature” and said: “It would be much better if we just lived and worked boringly, and eastern Europe wasn’t turned into a field for operational games.”

What does the internet say?

Babchenko’s return sparked dozens of memes and online jokes. One shows the face of Vitkor Tsoi – a popular Soviet singer who died in a car crash aged 28 – superimposed on Babchenko’s head. Standing alongside is Grytsak, who presided over Wednesday’s bizarre press conference. The journalist Lucian Kim noted that the “Elvis meme” was currently in production.


Luke Harding and Christopher Miller in Kiev

The GuardianTramp

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