Kiev, Ukraine – The fake killing of Russian reporter Arkady Babchenko amazed, perplexed and polarised his peers and politicians in Russia and Ukraine that have been at real and “information” war with each other since Crimea‘s 2014 annexation.
The 41-year-old’s unexpected “resurrection” gladdened many of his colleagues used to hearing that yet another journalist killed under suspicious circumstances. Fifty-eight reporters have been killed in Russia since 1992, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists, a media freedom watchdog.
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A crowd of reporters gathered on Wednesday night at the Independence Square in the Ukrainian capital, Kiev, to celebrate the comeback of Babchenko, who had faked his own murder.
“We’ll drink to Arkady, but only with clinking,” one of them said, referring to a Slavic superstition to commemorate the dead without touching glasses.
‘A pathetic stunt?’
“Everyone was celebrating, while most of those I know had second thoughts: to what extent the whole ‘operation’ will undermine, or even ruin, the remnants of trust Ukrainians still have towards the authorities?” human rights advocate and publicist Maksym Butkevych told Al Jazeera.
“What did actually Ukrainian security services uncover, and will they present anything more detailed and fact-based than just generalisations?” he added.
“We still don’t know.”
Babchenko’s “killing” was the culmination of a two months-long sting to apprehend the alleged Russia-sponsored organiser – a balding, pudgy, middle-aged man who was rounded up in broad daylight by plain-clothes security officers and thrown into a van.
SBU head, Vasily Hrytsak, claimed the unidentified man is a Ukrainian national hired by Russian intelligence to buy weapons and ammunition for a string of bigger “terrorist” attacks in central Ukraine.
Hrytsak, however, did not identify the presumed Russian bosses.
Babchenko’s participation in the sting signified his “ethical” and “professional” death, a former colleague from the Novaya Gazeta daily wrote.
Babchenko “died as a journalist by breaking professional ethics and engaging in an unprecedented collaboration with secret services”, Pavel Kanygin wrote in an opinion piece on Thursday.
Reporters Without Borders also criticised the theatrics as a “pathetic stunt”.
“It is pathetic and regrettable that the Ukrainian police have played with the truth, whatever their motive … for the stunt,” Christophe Deloire, head of the Paris-based media freedom monitor, told AFP news agency on Wednesday.
Babchenko’s boss and friend disagreed.
“They are absolutely wrong,” Ayder Muzhdabayev told Al Jazeera. “They’re vermin.”
It was Muzhdabayev, deputy director general of the ATR television network, who talked Babchenko into staying in Ukraine after the reporter fled Russia in 2017.
Muzhdabayev was also first to report his death – and decry his role in it.
“I convinced him to stay in Ukraine. I should be damned,” Muzhdabayev wrote on Facebook on Tuesday, hours after hearing about Babchenko’s “death”.
It is pathetic and regrettable that the Ukrainian police have played with the truth
Ukraine’s president also rejected the criticism.
“The whole world saw the real face of our enemy,” Petro Poroshenko said in televised remarks on Wednesday. “It is not Ukraine you should condemn but Russia.”
Amnesty International, another international rights watchdog, said it was glad Babchenko was alive, but criticized Kiev for failing to ensure the safety of other journalists and Kremlin critics who were killed in Ukraine.
“Our concerns about the safety of journalists and activists in Ukraine remain real, with past killings and attacks unresolved,” the group said on Twitter on Wednesday.
The car of Pavel Sheremet, an investigative reporter from neighbouring Belarus, was blown up in Kiev in 2016. Russian legislator-turned-Kremlin critic Denis Voronenko was shot here a year later.
Ukraine’s Interior Minister Arsen Avakov bristled at the remark – and made a controversial statement that cast doubt on the country’s commitment to democratic values.
“Did you want Babchenko dead? And use him as an example?” Avakov told a news conference on Thursday.
“I think that in the future, Ukrainian intelligence and law enforcement agencies will not be led by public opinion – by what this or that pseudo-moral compass will say – but will be led by assurances that things are calm [in Ukraine], that a person has not been assaulted and killed,” he said.
Predictably, Russia lambasted the “killing” and allegations of Moscow’s involvement.
“A typical and cynical vaudeville, Kiev-style,” senator Alexey Pushkov tweeted on Wednesday. “It was known before that Kiev can’t be trusted. Now it is clear that it can’t be trusted categorically.”
“This is a shameful manipulation of public opinion by the current Ukrainian authorities that completely lack any political ethics,” Deputy Foreign Minister Grigory Karasin told the Interfax news agency on Thursday.
The Kremlin was much more restrained.
“We won’t comment it at all,” Russian President Vladimir Putin‘s spokesman Dmitry Peskov told a news conference on Thursday. “The story is strange at the very least, and I don’t know how the end justifies the means in this story.”
The story is strange at the very least, and I don't know how the end justifies the means in this story.
And average Russians responded with cheers and jokes.
“The Black Mirror is yet again nothing compared to the usual Russia-Ukrainian reality,” one Twitter user said referring to a television series that offers satirical or deeply shocking versions of encounters with new technologies.
A Moscow-based author compared the situation to Oscar Wilde’s idiom about “life imitating art”.
“Situations when life is yet again more inventive than literature are more precious than gold for a man of letters” such as Babchenko, Sandjar Yanyshev told Al Jazeera.
“SBU’s plot, perhaps, was rudely utilitarian and trivially ‘fictional,’ but the greatness of life is beyond arguments,” he said.