In late May, Russian journalist Arkady Babchenko was reportedly found dead in his apartment in the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv, in what authorities said was the Kremlin’s latest assassination of a dissident reporter.
Less than 24 hours later, the 41-year-old walked into the police press conference about his own assassination, alive and well.
His “murder,” he explained to the stunned room who might as well have just seen a ghost, had been part of an elaborate sting operation by Ukraine’s secret service, the SBU, to catch Russian hitmen who were really out to kill him and as many as 29 others, according to Ukrainian intelligence.
The stunt grabbed headlines around the world — and soon triggered a wave of condemnation from fellow journalists. Now, they argued, any time a reporter actually was killed by Russia or any other repressive government, critics would dismiss the reports as “fake news.”
Despite the blowback, Babchenko has remained unrepentant, telling VICE News that the plot to murder him left him with little choice but to cooperate with the SBU’s plan.
“There was no question about whether this was hard or easy. The question was: Your life has changed, buddy.”
“There are some who think that I broke some ethics of journalism, worked with the secret service,” he said.
“Whatever, guys. When they come to you and tell you the KGB wants to kill you, just try and keep your morals and say, ‘No, I cannot work with the secret service. It violates my journalistic ethics.”
Babchenko, a former soldier and war correspondent who fled Russia in 2017, fearing for his safety over his repeated criticism of the Kremlin, said once he was made aware of the plot to kill him, he became powerless against the larger forces at play. “I didn’t determine my destiny from that moment, you know.”
About a month before his staged assassination, he said, SBU operatives revealed to him that a contract had been taken out on his life.
“They showed me the hit that was out for me, the transcripts of conversations between the supposed organizer and the supposed killer. They showed me the money that had already been paid,” he said.
“There was no question about whether this was hard or easy. The question was: Your life has changed, buddy. There are new circumstances, and you need to exist in them.”
While some journalists argued that Babchenko’s participation in the sting undermined, even imperilled journalists, others said they sympathized with his decision.
“If the Ukrainian security services convinced me there was a plot to assassinate me, yes, I’d agree to take part in a counter-operation, even if I had to stage my own alleged murder in order to catch the bastards,” Yevgeny Kiselov, a prominent Russian journalist who has also left his homeland for Ukraine, told VICE News last month. “I would not hesitate.”
Ukrainian intelligence officials have said the faked murder was intended to disrupt a Kremlin scheme to kill Russian dissidents living abroad.
Authorities there have detained Borys Herman, the man suspected of overseeing the alleged plot, and prosecutors said they have evidence that paid someone $15,000 to kill Babchenko.
“We are now hiding with my family from hired assassins.”
Herman has said that while he had been contacted by someone close to the Kremlin about plans to kill Babchenko, he claims he passed on this information to Ukrainian officials and worked with them to foil the plot.
Meanwhile, Russia has denied any plot to kill Babchenko, calling the allegations an “anti-Russian provocation.”
Whatever the facts in this murky case, the situation has changed Babchenko’s life forever. As one of 18 journalists under the protection of the SBU, he said, he — and his family — now lead a highly restricted life, with round-the-clock supervision.
“We are now hiding with my family from hired assassins,” he said. “This is my life now, you know.”
Watch Babchenko's full interview on VICE News Tonight on HBO, which airs at 7:30 p.m. ET.
Cover image: Russian dissident journalist Arkady Babchenko (R) takes his portrait from deputy chief of the Crimean Tatar channel ATR Aider Muzhdabaiev as he visits the office of the channel in Kiev, Ukraine May 31, 2018. REUTERS/Valentyn Ogirenko