The head of Ukraine’s security services shocked the world when he introduced Arkady Babchenko at a press conference Wednesday, less than 24 hours after the Russian journalist was reportedly shot dead outside his apartment in Kiev. The faked death, Babchenko said, was part of a sting operation to catch the Ukrainian hired by a Russian security service to assassinate him for his critical coverage of Putin.
But critics worry about serious repercussions from the incident, particularly damaging trust in media and giving Russia an opening to dismiss any and all allegations made against the Kremlin. Which has already launched into full force.
Within hours of Babchenko’s resurrection, state-run Russian media outlets, social media accounts, and government officials labeled him a “low-quality [Sergei] Skripal” and said the incident had exposed “conspiracy nutters and chancer hacks” who wanted to discredit Moscow.
“This extreme action by the Ukrainian authorities has the potential to undermine public trust in journalists and to mute outrage when they are killed,” the Committee to Protect Journalists said in a statement, adding that there are a lot of questions still to answer.
And it’s no surprise Russia has jumped on it. “Faking always hands a golden goal to the other side, especially when the other side has a long track record of acting in bad faith,” Ben Nimmo, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab, told VICE News. “This is no exception. Russian and pro-Russian sites have already jumped on it to cast doubt on the chemical attacks in Salisbury [of Skripal and his daughter] and Syria, and you can rely on them to keep doing this every time Russia is accused of anything.”
Just hours after Babchenko reappeared in Kiev, RT, the pro-Kremlin propaganda outlet, ran an opinion piece saying the incident “mortally wounded the hive mind” of Western journalists and media outlets who continually accuse Russia of lying. Babchenko’s been a longtime critic of the Putin regime, especially its alliance with Syria and annexation of Crimea in 2014.
“This sordid little episode badly exposes Russia conspiracy nutters and chancer hacks, who have been taken seriously for too long,” the editorial says.
The editorial specifically references the MH17 crash blamed on Russian missiles, Russia’s “reintegration” of Crimea, and the Kremlin’s alleged meddling in the 2016 election, as examples of similarly unfounded allegations thrown at Russia.
RT also tweeted a direct comparison between the Babchenko case and the poisoning of Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in Salisbury in the UK in March.
A report on Strategic Culture, a well known pro-Kremlin disinformation website, makes things even more definitive: “Russia should be happy. Both affairs, the Skripal and the Babchenko stunt, have been proven to be factless propaganda against Russia.”
Tsargrad TV, owned by Russian oligarch Konstantin Malofeev, tried to match them with the headline “Why Babchenko turns out to be a bad Skripal,” but News Front went one better with its piece looking at who might be the next victim, in a piece entitled: “Syndrome of Babchenko-Skripal: Who will die next?”
The media backlash has not just been limited to Russia, however, with George Galloway, a regular contributor to RT, using his talkRadio programme in London to link the Babchenko case with the Skripals.
“I honestly thought the Skripal story would be hard to top. But Arkady Babchenko's fake death takes the biscuit,” Galloway said.
But it’s not just the media who are leveraging Ukraine’s fake operation to boost Russia’s moral authority.
Konstantin Kosachev, the head of the international affairs committee of the upper house of the Russian Parliament, said the situation was the same as the U.K. government making unsubstantiated claims about Kremlin involvement in the Skripal poisoning.
“The logic is the same: to defame Russia,” Kosachev told the state news agency Tass.
On her Facebook page, Maria Zakharova, spokesperson for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, took the opportunity to reinforce the Kremlin’s line that everything the Ukrainian government has said since 2013 is a lie.
Pravda.ru quotes Franz Klintsevich, a Russian senator, trumpeting a conspiracy theory about the timing of the two incidents. “The Skripal case was made before the presidential election in Russia. The case of Babchenko was fabricated on the eve of the World Cup in Russia. It is important for them to disrupt all political processes and develop the process of Russophobia instead.”
Russia has long been held up as the source of most of the fake news operations attempting to undermine democratic elections around the globe, but by faking a murder and allowing almost every major news outlet in the world report it as fact, Ukraine has added to the already dizzying amount of misinformation out there.
Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly attributed a comment to Ben Nimmo that actually appeared in an editorial in RT.
Cover image: Russian journalist Arkady Babchenko looks up during an interview with foreign media, with the portrait of Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, left in the background, in Kiev, Ukraine, Thursday, May 31, 2018. Arkady Babchenko detailed the deception to reporters Thursday for the first time since Ukrainian authorities revealed they had staged his death to foil an alleged plot on his life by Moscow's security services. (Valentyn Ogirenko/Pool Photo via AP)