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Babchenko: The man who came back from the dead

Nick Connolly Kyiv
May 31, 2018

Kremlin critic Arkady Babchenko is the man who returned from the other side. At least, that was how it seemed for startled journalists who had gathered to hear about a "murder" probe. DW's Nicholas Connolly was in Kyiv.

Arkady Babtschenko in Kyiv, at the press conference
Image: Reuters/V. Ogirenko

And there he was again: the man for whom dozens of obituaries had just been written and whose name had been added to a memorial for slain journalists in Moscow only hours before.

Arkady Babchenko returned to the land of the living in the company of Ukraine's secret service chief and prosecutor general.

The journalist was found by his wife outside the couple's apartment, bleeding and apparently having been shot multiple times. Reporters had gathered on Wednesday to find out more about the "murder" investigation, with the official line being that he had died.

It was then that Vasyl Hrytsak, head of the Ukrainian Security Service, announced that the press would have the opportunity to speak to Babchenko themselves.

The 41-year-old entered the room, clad in a black sweater, to applause and gasps.

"I'm still alive," he said.

Proving a link?

Babchenko thanked Ukraine's security services for saving his life before apologizing to his wife for putting her through such an ordeal. His hosts explained that the stunt had been necessary to lull the individuals suspected of ordering and organizing a hit against the Kremlin critic into a false sense of security. The aim all along had been to collect evidence to link the plot to Russian secret services.

Read more: 'Killing' of Babchenko: A big show raises lots of questions

Officials presented grainy footage that they said showed the plot's organizer handing over thousands of dollars to the man tasked with shooting Babchenko. The contracted killer turned out to be working for Ukrainian security services. Minutes later yet more footage was shown: this time of a middle-aged man being arrested on a busy city street before being bundled away by plainclothes agents. This, officials said, was the organizer of the plot to kill Babchenko — and not only Babchenko, but as many as 30 other Russian exiles in Ukraine.

Barely able to contain his satisfaction, Ukraine's Prosecutor General Yuriy Lutsenko read out a series of earlier comments from political opponents inside and outside the country — slamming Ukraine's inability to protect journalists like Arkady Babchenko. The critics, he said, had been proved wrong.

'The sovereignty test'

President Petro Poroshenko hailed the news as a sign that Ukraine had "passed the sovereignty test" and called the day a "birthday" of sorts for the nation. Even beyond government circles, there was much vocal approval online for the government's strategy and its willingness to take risks.

Read more: Ukraine foreign minister urges tougher Russia action, World Cup boycott

But what about the cost to Ukraine's international credibility? The hours following Babchenko's "killing" saw Prime Minister Volodymyr Groysman slam Russia's "totalitarian machine" and call for his "killer" to be punished in a late-night Facebook post. Could Groysman not have known what was going on? At about the same time, Foreign Minister Pavlo Klimkin was at the UN in New York, where he spoke of his government's reasons for believing that Russia would not shy away from political killings to destabilize Ukraine. But, he stressed, the investigation had only just gotten underway. With hindsight that seems like a remarkably measured statement. Was it an attempt to avoid saying anything more compromising? Perhaps we'll never know.

Elementary methods

Ukrainian MP Anton Gerashenko was adamant that the ends very definitely justified the means: "Even Sherlock Holmes successfully faked his own death in order to get to the bottom of difficult and complex crimes, however painful that might have been for his family and Doctor Watson" — a sentiment that was echoed by many in Kyiv's political class.

Read more: Ukraine: The forgotten victims of Donbass

Beyond Ukraine the reaction has been much less forgiving. The head of Reporters Without Borders, Christophe Deloire, called the day's developments "pathetic and regrettable." The OSCE's representative on media freedom, Harlem Desir, was on his way to Kyiv when news emerged that Babchenko was not after all dead. So far Ukraine's EU allies have yet to respond, but they are unlikely to appreciate being dragged into a stunt that saw everyone from Germany's president to the British foreign secretary expressing their dismay and offering their condolences to Babchenko's family.

The onus is now firmly on Ukrainian investigators to prove that this abuse of public trust was really worthwhile. They'll need to show that Babchenko's disappearance allowed investigators to conclusively prove a connection between the suspected organizer of this plot and Russia's secret services. The outside world is waiting.

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