Back From the Dead: the Bizarre Story of Journalist Arkady Babchenko
By faking a journalist’s death and blaming it on Russia, Ukraine is fighting fire with fire — and setting its own house ablaze.
On May 29, the news broke that another Russian journalist critical of President Vladimir Putin’s regime had been killed, gunned down outside his apartment in Kiev. Pictures were circulated of his bloodied corpse, and the Ukrainian prime minister blamed “the Russian totalitarian machine.” On May 30, the journalist stood up, alive and well, at a press conference to admit it had been a sting operation by the Ukrainian security services to catch a Russian-paid killer. A cunning stratagem? A self-defeating gimmick? Welcome to the world of post-truth geopolitics, where it can be both.
The journalist, Arkady Babchenko, is a legendary figure. He served as a soldier in both of Russia’s brutal wars in Chechnya, and wrote a powerful memoir, One Soldier’s War, as a result. He went on to become a war correspondent, covering Russia’s imperial incursions into Georgia and then Ukraine, never hesitating to criticize the Kremlin and its aggressive foreign policy. He was no stranger to scandal or threat, either, and in 2017 finally left Russia when a Facebook post of his expressing indifference over the deaths of a military choir when a plane crashed on its way to Syria sparked a nationalist firestorm of protest.
Babchenko ended up in Kiev, home to many Russian dissidents and critics, albeit a rather dangerous one. The tally of assassinations of such dissidents — some likely organized by the Kremlin, others equally likely linked to other causes — is a depressingly long one.
But there was a twist this time, as his death turned out to be part of a sting that, according to Vasyl Hrytsak, head of the Security Service of Ukraine, brought out proof that Russian intelligence agents had paid a Ukrainian $40,000 to kill Babchenko. The Ukrainian government seemed to consider the operation a success — but, more likely than not, it will eventually be considered a strategic setback for Kiev.
Staged murder is a tactic that raises eyebrows in the West. While not totally unknown, it is certainly considered only fit for very special circumstances. One British police officer to whom I spoke called it “the kind of thing you see more often on film than real life; it is almost always the case that there are other, better options than this kind of theatrical.” Indeed, this theatricality was even invoked by the Ukrainians, who cited Sherlock Holmes in defense of the tactic.
But it is also an approach the Security Service of Ukraine appears especially to favor. In 2016, for example, it staged the death of a local councilor in the town of Pokrovsk to catch the gangster who had put a hit out on him. (In another operation, the Ukrainian national police faked the killing of a human rights advocate in Odessa.) In January, the alleged mastermind behind the attempted killing of an official in Kharkov was reportedly flushed out by the same tactic — apparently it was his mother-in-law.
Whether or not this was the best tactic to use to keep Babchenko alive and catch those who were allegedly seeking to have him killed is impossible to know at this stage. One could argue that anything that achieves these goals is a success. However, this is not just a law enforcement operation. Ukraine is locked in a political war with Russia and is understandably using the operation to advance its cause, by blaming the attempted assassination on Moscow’s intelligence agents.
So, this is at once a police procedural and a war of national brands. In the so-called post-truth era, what often matters is not the objective facts on the ground so much as the subjective assumptions in people’s heads. Kiev saw a chance to take advantage of everyone’s assumptions — mine included — that Putin’s Russia is a murderous state when it originally claimed Babchenko had been killed. No one, including even the Russians, queried the death, even as Moscow denied any role in it.
After all, it is not just that it is an unavoidable truth that many of Putin’s enemies end up marked for death. A regime that dislikes critics but actively loathes those it considers traitors has shown no qualms about expressing that enmity with guns, poison, bombs, and radioactive isotopes. Beyond that, though, this is a regime that seems to actively cultivate what I call “dark power,” the ability to get your way both at home and abroad through intimidation and fear, hoping that the threat of violence will obviate the need for the violence itself.
Thus, Russia’s denials tend to come with a knowing smirk and a wink, whether the claims that the “little green men” special forces capturing Crimea were locals who had simply bought Russian uniforms in army surplus stores, or the observation after the poisoning of the Skripals in London that Britain is a dangerous place for traitors: “Maybe it’s the climate, but in recent years there have been too many strange incidents with grave outcomes there. People get hanged, poisoned, they die in helicopter crashes and fall out of windows in industrial quantities.”
This implausible deniability has had its benefits for the Kremlin but also leaves it vulnerable to such gambits as Kiev’s. But what seems to have been a tactical win for Ukraine might prove something of a strategic defeat.
First of all, Moscow now gets to play the “Babchenko defense” next time its fingerprints appear to be on some similar black operation. In the past, these claims of Western false flag operations rang hollow, but now they may have a little more plausibility.
Secondly, while it is entirely understandable that Babchenko would want to do anything he could to flush out his potential killers, this was not just a police sting but also used, from the first, to score political points against the Kremlin. For a journalist to take part in an act of deception also mobilized to this end plays into the Russians’ hands. They have long claimed that journalists are not impartial witnesses of the world but instead instruments, whether of states, big business, or other vested interests. They will no doubt use this to try to further their case.
After all, Moscow cannot be beaten by playing its own game. It may be tempting to try to turn its tactics of disinformation, bluff, and bluster against it, and satisfying at the time. But the Russians have been trying to cultivate the very notion that, in the words of propagandist-in-chief Dmitry Kiselyov, “this period of ‘distilled’ journalism is over.”
By engaging in information operations that raise questions about the objectivity and reliability of the media and even the prime minister, Kiev contributes to the growing sense that the truth is unknowable, that today’s fact is tomorrow’s myth, and that one theory, rumor, or allegation is as credible as the next.
This is the information environment in which the Kremlin thrives. It is essentially nihilistic, less interested most of the time in convincing people of the accuracy of its facts so much as the impossibility of knowing the truth. It seeks to conjure a world in which every media source lies to further its agenda, in which every photo might be a retouched piece of propaganda, and in which every eyewitness could be an actor or a provocateur.
The answer to this is not to try to turn its tactics against it, whatever the temptation. If anything, fighting fire with fire actually hastens the burning down of the structures of credibility and professionalism on which Western media depend.
That Babchenko is still alive is great news. That someone who was trying to kill him is reportedly in custody is an excellent outcome. But to give the last word to that British police officer I spoke to, “there must have been some other way to have achieved this.” He paused, sighed. “Sometimes people can just be a bit too clever for their own good.”
Mark Galeotti is a senior research fellow at the Royal United Services Institute in London and an honorary professor at UCL School of Slavonic and East European Studies. His recent books include We Need To Talk About Putin and the forthcoming A Short History of Russia. Twitter: @MarkGaleotti