A Kremlin spokesman said Thursday that Russia is glad journalist Arkady Babchenko is alive, but that the faking of his death was “strange.”
The prominent Russian war correspondent and Kremlin critic had been reported to be shot dead in the stairwell of his Kyiv apartment on Tuesday. But Babchenko stunned reporters when he appeared alive and well Wednesday as Ukrainian security officials explained the death had been faked as part of a sting operation to save the reporter’s life.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Thursday he did not know if the result of the case justified the actions taken, and that the situation does not change Russia’s view that Ukraine is a dangerous place for journalists.
Reporters Without Borders condemned Babchenko’s faked death, saying it was “distressing and regrettable” for Ukraine’s Security Service (SBU) to play with the truth.
“Was such a scheme really necessary? There can be no grounds for faking a journalist’s death,” said the group’s secretary-general Christophe Deloire.
SBU chief Vasyl Hrytsak stood alongside Babchenko at Wednesday’s television briefing as he recounted events leading up to the foiled assassination attempt.
Operation fake death
The operation began with a tip from an anonymous source who said an unidentified Ukrainian national had been inquiring about buying weapons for a contract assassination in Kyiv, which triggered the SBU probe. Officials said he had been asked to find and hire someone to carry out the contract killing.
During the negotiations, Hrytsak said, the man claimed Russia’s Secret Service had offered him $40,000 to organize and carry out the hit. He said the suspect was a former separatist fighter who had fought in eastern Ukraine.
SBU investigators then recruited Babchenko into the sting operation designed to catch Russian agents in the act of conducting an extrajudicial killing on foreign soil.
Investigators said the intermediary who had been tasked with hiring the gunman was in custody, and officials said they had additional hard evidence linking Russia’s secret service to the assassination plot, though they did yet want to unveil that evidence.
Addressing reporters, Babchenko told his family he was sorry for faking his own death.
“I’d like to apologize for everything you’ve had to go through,” he said. “I’ve been at the funeral of many friends and colleagues, and I know this nauseous feeling. Sorry for imposing this upon you, but there was no other way.
“Special apologies to my wife for the hell she’s been through these two days,” he added. “Olya, excuse me, please, but there was no other option.”
Police reports that followed initial reports of the shooting say it was Babchenko’s wife who discovered him lying in a pool of blood at the entry of their Kyiv apartment.
It is not clear whether his wife was involved in the sting.
“As far as I know, this operation was prepared for two months. A result of that was this special operation,” Babchenko told the briefing. “They saved my life. I want to say thanks. Larger terrorist attacks were prevented.”
Tuesday’s news of the shooting shocked the Ukrainian capital, prompting Kyiv and Moscow officials to blame each for the reporter’s death.
Ukrainian Prime Minister Volodymyr Groysman suggested Russia had orchestrated the killing, while Kremlin spokesman Peskov rejected that claim.
Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said after Babchenko’s reappearance Wednesday that Ukrainian officials had circulated a false story as “propaganda.”
Kyiv police and officials from Ukraine’s Interior Ministry had announced on Tuesday Babchenko had died in an ambulance on the way to a hospital after being shot in the back at his home in Kyiv, where he has lived in exile since August 2017.
News of the 41-year-old’s reported death had shocked colleagues and added to tension between Moscow and Kyiv, whose ties have been badly damaged by Russia’s seizure of Crimea and backing for separatist militants in a devastating war in eastern Ukraine.
This story originated in VOA’s Ukrainian Service, with some reporting by AP and RFE