Late Tuesday evening, Arkady Babchenko, a Russian journalist who’d fled from mounting death threats in Moscow to Ukraine, dressed in a sweater riddled with bullet holes and lay down in a puddle of pig’s blood to stage his own assassination.
He even had a makeup artist help him to make sure the photos looked real.
Babchenko was then thrown into an ambulance and rushed to the city morgue, where the doors were shut behind him.
Soon after, he changed his clothes, and slipped into hiding.
Babchenko’s staged death was the final act of an extraordinary plot that Ukrainian intelligence officials now say was designed to protect the exiled Russian journalist and expose a wide-ranging, international scheme to kill some 30 Russian dissidents and outspoken Kremlin critics living abroad.
“I’ve seen good people killed by Russian agents here in Kiev.”
The ruse, revealed when Babchenko dramatically appeared at a government-led press conference the next day, has prompted a fierce debate about journalistic ethics and the tactics used by the Ukrainian intelligence service behind the plot, the SBU.
But the bizarre episode also shines a spotlight on the extreme threat exiled Russian dissidents face from shadowy forces widely believed to be aligned with or directed by the Kremlin, according to former intelligence officers and Babchenko’s colleagues who spoke with VICE News.
“I’ve seen good people killed by Russian agents here in Kiev,” said Yevgeny Kiselov, a prominent Russian journalist who left Russia for Ukraine himself after Putin’s regime seized control of the once-independent television station he used to run, NTV, in 2001. “I’m inclined to think that, yes, this was the first lucky case in which a conspiracy to kill a prominent opposition figure was uncovered before the tragedy happened.”
“It looks real”
At least 58 journalists have been killed in Russia since 1992, and 38 of those were targeted for murder, according to statistics by the Committee to Protect Journalists. Another 12 have died in Ukraine. And it’s not just journalists: Russian opposition leader Boris Nemtsov was gunned down just steps away from the Kremlin in Moscow in 2015.
Both Ukraine and Britain have blamed the Russian government for orchestrating assassinations on their territory, including the failed attempt on Babchenko.
The plot outlined by Ukraine’s intelligence service this week, in which Russian intelligence allegedly aimed to kill dozens of Russian dissidents living in Ukraine starting with Babchenko, has the ring of truth, said John Sipher, a CIA officer formerly based in Moscow.
“The Russian desire to do this makes sense. Outsourcing someone to do it makes sense. Intelligence services setting up a sting makes sense,” Sipher told VICE News. “It looks real.”
In 2006, the Russian government legalized the targeted killing of people living abroad who pose a terrorist threat, although the Kremlin has never admitted actually using the law to kill anyone. Russian officials have always denied any specific allegations.
But two years ago, an inquiry led by British authorities accused the FSB, a Russian spy agency, of poisoning an ex-Russian intelligence officer, Alexander Litvinenko, with a radioactive isotope called polonium 210. “The FSB operation to kill Mr. Litvinenko was probably approved by [then FSB director] Mr. Patrushev and also by President Putin,” British investigators wrote.
“Intelligence services setting up a sting makes sense.”
In March, Britain accused Moscow of using a rare chemical agent to poison the former Russian intelligence officer Sergei Skripal, along with his daughter, in a botched assassination attempt in the English town of Salisbury.
In Ukraine, just two years ago, a car bomb killed Pavel Sheremet, a journalist born in Belarus who had published articles critical of the authorities in Russia, Ukraine and Belarus. The killing remains unsolved. In 2017, The New York Times reported a botched assassination targeting a volunteer fighter in the conflict in eastern Ukraine by a man from the Russian region of Chechnya posing as a French journalist.
“It was necessary”
The elaborate ruse has sparked criticism from those who argue it undermined journalists’ credibility, and stretched the limits of credible police investigations.
Valentyn Nalyvaichenko, a former head of the SBU, said the “bizarre charade” should never have been authorized.
“The Ukrainian government was completely wrong to lie to international leaders about such a serious matter,” he said. “While I headed the SBU, such methods would never be accepted and we never operated this way.”
“The SBU needed to trace the connections, and follow the footsteps.”
But Ukrainian officials and politicians have stood by the plot.
“Yes, it was necessary,” Volodymyr Ariev, a member of the Ukrainian parliament, told VICE News. “The SBU needed to trace the connections, and follow the footsteps, of the Russian assassination network in the moments after their first attempt appeared to be successful."
The Ukrainian intelligence agency, the SBU, claims the outspoken Russian reporter was just the first name on a list of 30 targets selected by Russian spies in a new wave of killings focused on Russian dissidents who fled to Ukraine.
The SBU said Russian intelligence hired a Ukrainian citizen — dubbed “Citizen G” — and paid him $40,000 to organize the hit on Babchenko and others. Citizen G then tapped a “friend,” who’d previously fought with the Ukrainian government against pro-Russian rebels, to actually pull the trigger. The gunman was offered $30,000 — half up front, and half after the job.
When the SBU caught wind of the operation, they managed to flip the hired gunman into a cooperating informant, according to Ariev.
On Thursday, a court in Ukraine granted a request by prosecutors to detain a man named Borys Herman, the co-owner of a weapons manufacturer, as a suspect in the case. Herman said he had been contacted by someone close to the Kremlin about plans to kill Babchenko, but claimed he had turned the information over to the Ukrainian authorities, Reuters reported.
“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.”
Kiselov, a prominent Russian journalist in exile, said the authorities now have a responsibility to justify the operation in the eyes of the public by releasing more details, including about why the fake death was really necessary.
But if the SBU had come to him, instead of Babchenko, and told him to play along in a scheme aimed at saving his life, he would have accepted.
“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,” he said. “I would not hesitate.”
Cover image: Russian journalist Arkady Babchenko, reacts during a news conference about his staged assassination.