After faking a journalist’s killing in a ploy to nab his assassins, Ukraine is warning its best-known media personalities that Russian spies may want them dead, too.
Ukrainian authorities have summoned several of the country’s top journalists to inform them they appeared on a hit list of 47 targets allegedly drawn up by Russian intelligence for potential assassination, a senior Ukrainian official told VICE News.
The dire warnings come as Ukraine faces fierce criticism over its treatment of the press after staging the fake assassination last week of Russian reporter Arkady Babchenko, who had fled to Ukraine from mounting death threats in Russia. Critics say the operation undermined journalists’ credibility, and handed the Kremlin a propaganda victory by allowing Russia to dismiss any future targeted killings as deceptions.
Ukrainian officials argue the bizarre operation — after which Babchenko shocked his friends and colleagues by appearing at a press conference about his own killing — allowed them to uncover the list of 47 names by surveilling and wiretapping the alleged Russia-backed organizers in the moments after they thought their first target had been hit.
Most of the names on the kill-list are prominent Ukrainian and Russian journalists or bloggers, and a significant number of those have been called in for briefings about their own security, Ukrainian Deputy Prosecutor General Yevgeny Enin told VICE News Tuesday.
“The plan was to assassinate a couple of them in order to make Ukraine explode”
During the meetings, journalists are sworn to secrecy about the details of the alleged Russian plot and offered protection, he said.
Those organizing the assassinations discussed dozens of names, but planned on eventually picking just a few of them, Enin said. The goal was to take out a handful of well-known public figures to destabilize the country, which is locked in a grinding civil conflict with pro-Russian rebels in its eastern provinces.
“The plan was to assassinate a couple of them in order to make Ukraine explode,” said Enin.
“Most of them applied for additional security measures, which have been provided.”
Reporters emerged from the briefings visibly shaken, according to Enin.
“Everybody can joke until the moment when it touches your own personal security,” he said.
The death list
Several well-known reporters have come forward to identify themselves after getting the talk by authorities.
One of those is Yevgeny Kiselov, a Russian TV presenter who famously clashed with Russian President Vladimir Putin’s regime shortly after Putin first came to power almost two decades ago.
Kiselov left Russia for Ukraine after Putin’s government seized control of the once-independent television station Kiselov once ran, NTV, in 2001.
Kiselov told VICE News that he was given, along with other journalists, what he described as a stark personal security briefing by Ukrainian security officials
“We were given certain proof that this is all for real, that it’s not something that was made up,” said Kiselov, who signed a non-disclosure agreement to keep the details secret. “I have no reason to think this proof was faked. It was very, very convincing.”
Even before the briefing, Kiselov told VICE News he was taking the issue of his own security seriously.
At least 58 journalists have been killed in Russia since 1992, and 38 of those were targeted for murder, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. Both Ukraine and Britain have blamed the Russian government for orchestrating assassinations on their territory.
Two years ago, a car bomb in the Ukraine’s capital, Kiev, killed Pavel Sheremet, a journalist born in Belarus, in a murder that remains unsolved. This spring, Britain accused Moscow of using a rare chemical agent to poison a former Russian intelligence officer named Sergei Skripal in a botched assassination attempt.
“I’ve seen people killed here. I’ve seen them killed in Moscow. I’ve seen them killed in the West,” Kiselov said last week. “They [critics of the government] have the luxury of not taking these issues seriously. I don’t have that luxury. I can’t afford it.”
“For sale: a spot on the list. Expensive.”
Kiselov joined another reporter on the list, Matvey Ganapolsky, for an interview on Ukrainian TV Friday after the two met with authorities.
“The point [of the meeting] was that we need to be careful, because those who organized the attempt on Babchenko, or Babchenko’s ‘murder,’ are people who, of course, will try to take revenge, so everyone should be attentive,” Ganapolsky said.
Osman Pashayev, a Ukrainian journalist reportedly also on the list, cracked a joke about his status on Facebook.
“For sale: a spot on the list. Expensive,” Pashaev wrote.
Real killings, fake news
Babchenko was approached by Ukrainian authorities over a month ago and told that staging his own death would both save his life and blow the lid off the plot to kill him. But the trickery raised lingering questions about whether the authorities should be believed — including about the supposed death-list itself.
For example, in a discrepancy that has not yet been explained, officials first announced there were 30 names in the wake of Babchenko’s surprise return on Wednesday, then updated the total to 47 by Friday.
Dmytro Gnap, an independent Ukrainian journalist not on the list, wrote a bitingly sarcastic Facebook post demanding an explanation for the mysterious increase.
Ukrainian officials have been on the defensive about their tactics and credibility. The country’s General Prosecutor, Yurity Lutsenko, personally briefed representatives of the G7 countries, including the U.S. and Britain, about the plot. Ukraine’s London embassy posted an “extended comment” in English arguing Babchenko’s fake death was absolutely necessary.
Volodymyr Ariev, a member of Ukraine’s parliament, told VICE News the episode has left reporters in Ukraine concerned for their safety.
“I do know that those invited to the meetings left seriously concerned,” he said.
Russian officials have denied any role in the alleged plot. But Ariev said the fear now rippling through Ukraine’s media world appears to serve Moscow’s goal of destabilizing the country ahead of next year’s elections, then taking advantage of the chaos to increase its influence over Ukraine.
“Muddy waters are always useful for fishermen,” he said.
Cover image: Ukrainian National guard servicemen stand in front of Russian embassy in Kiev, on May 30, 2018, where portraits of journalist Arkadi Babchenko have been hung by activists to the fence one day after he was alleged to have been shot in his apartment building in the Ukrainian capital. (Photo by Sergei SUPINSKY / AFP)