Ukraine rejects criticism over fake murder of Russian journalist
Arkady Babchenko watched breaking news of his own ‘death’ in the morgue
Ukraine has strongly rejected international criticism of a sting operation that saw dissident Russian journalist Arkady Babchenko help fake his own shooting in Kiev to foil an alleged multiple-murder plot devised by Moscow.
To near universal astonishment, Babchenko (41) walked into a press conference on Wednesday called by Ukraine’s SBU security agency to give details of his reported death the night before.
On Thursday, he said he had used pig’s blood to stage photos of his “corpse” and had actually been taken to a morgue, where he watched breaking news of his supposed murder.
The SBU said the sting thwarted a plan to kill Babchenko and some 30 other Russian exiles in Ukraine, but international press watchdogs berated Kiev for issuing fake news that could further undermine public faith in officials and the media.
“The aggressor does not stop trying to destabilise the situation in Ukraine from within,” Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko said on Thursday, referring to a multifaceted yet undeclared war that Russia has waged against his country for four years.
“Everything that you saw yesterday was a the result of a brilliant special operation by heroes from the [SBU]. The whole world saw the true face of our enemy,” he added.
“When we caught them red-handed, people say we didn’t act correctly. But it is not Ukrainians who should be condemned, but Russia. Ukrainians are doing everything possible to stand their ground and defend themselves.”
Reporters Without Borders expressed its “deepest indignation after discovering the manipulation of the Ukrainian secret services, this new step of a war of information”.
Meanwhile Harlem Desir, the OSCE’s media freedom representative, said: “I deplore the decision to spread false information on the life of a journalist. It is the duty of the state to provide correct information to the public.”
Russia called the operation a “propaganda” exercise and deputies and state media compared it to the poisoning of Sergei and Yulia Skripal in Salisbury, which Moscow claims was staged to discredit the Kremlin.
Kiev appeared to receive some backing from Brussels, however, where Ukrainian media quoted EU spokeswoman Maja Kocijancic as saying Ukraine was “in a very particular situation as regards its security, considering the situation in [annexed] Crimea and the conflict in the east of the country.
“Ukraine has the right to defend its national interest and territory.”
Ukrainian prosecutors insist it was vital to give the impression that Babchenko had been killed, to ensure that the organiser of the attack continued to communicate with the person or group who ordered it, and to discover their other alleged targets in Ukraine.
Prosecutors say Russia’s security services paid a Ukrainian citizen $40,000 to hire a killer to eliminate Babchenko.
The SBU incorporated the would-be killer into the sting, however, and the organiser was arrested. His lawyer identified him as Boris Herman, executive director of a firearms producer in Kiev.
Ukrainian interior minister Arsen Avakov also rejected criticism of the operation. “Did you want Babchenko to be killed, and then you’d use it as an example and say, Look ... there’s another dead journalist in your country?” he said.
Following several high-profile and still unsolved murders in Kiev – including those of Russian journalist Pavel Sheremet and former Russian deputy Denis Voronenkov – Mr Avakov said, “If we could do such operations in all the other major cases, then we would do it every day.”
Babchenko moved to Kiev last year after receiving death threats for his criticism of Russia’s leaders and military operations in Ukraine and Syria.
On Facebook he dismissed critics of the sting in colourful terms, and said: “How good it feels not to be a target ... I’m happy.”