A Russian journalist, who helped stage his own death to avoid an alleged Russian plot to murder him, says the operation involved pig’s blood and him being transported to a morgue.
Ukrainian authorities disclosed Wednesday they planned his mock death after learning Russian security officials supposedly had ordered his murder a month ago.
In his first detailed accounting of the sting since its revelation, Arkady Babchenko said at a news conference in Kyiv, Ukraine, he could have chosen not to participate when he was approached about a month ago. Instead, he promptly agreed.
“I said, ‘Great!’ Why have you been waiting for a month?”
Babchenko said after he arrived at the morgue, he changed his clothes and began watching the news.
A Kremlin spokesman said Thursday that Russia is glad Babchenko is alive, but called the staging of his death “strange.”
The prominent Russian war correspondent and Kremlin critic had been reported to be shot dead in the stairwell of his Kyiv apartment building on Tuesday. But Babchenko stunned reporters when he appeared alive and well Wednesday as Ukrainian security officials explained the death had been faked.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Thursday he did not know if the result of the case justified the actions taken, and that the situation does not change Russia’s view that Ukraine is a dangerous place for journalists.
Reporters Without Borders condemned Babchenko’s fake death, saying it was “distressing and regrettable” for Ukraine’s Security Service (SBU) to play with the truth.
“Was such a scheme really necessary? There can be no grounds for faking a journalist’s death,” said the group’s secretary-general Christophe Deloire.
On the ethics of the operation
Babchenko responded to the criticism in front of his colleagues Thursday at a news conference in Kyiv.
“Do you want to survive or do you want to preserve the ethics, morals, purity and spiritual standards of your profession? You are welcome to preserve the ethics, morals and purity of your profession. I chose the option to survive.”
At a televised briefing Wednesday, SBU chief Vasyl Hrytsak stood alongside Babchenko as he recounted events leading up to the foiled assassination attempt.
The operation began with a tip from an anonymous source who said an unidentified Ukrainian national had been inquiring about buying weapons for a contract killing in Kyiv, which triggered the SBU probe. Officials said he had been asked to find and hire someone to carry out the assassination.
During the negotiations, Hrytsak said, the man claimed Russia’s Secret Service had offered him $40,000 to organize and carry out the hit. He said the suspect was a former separatist fighter who had fought in eastern Ukraine.
SBU investigators then recruited Babchenko into the sting operation designed to catch Russian agents in the act of conducting an extrajudicial killing on foreign soil.
Investigators said the intermediary who had been tasked with hiring the gunman was in custody, and officials said they had additional hard evidence linking Russia’s secret service to the assassination plot, though they did not provide details.
Addressing reporters, Babchenko told his family he was sorry for faking his own death.
“I’d like to apologize for everything you’ve had to go through,” he said. “I’ve been at the funeral of many friends and colleagues, and I know this nauseating feeling. Sorry for putting you through this, but there was no other way.
“Special apologies to my wife for the hell she’s been through these two days,” he added. “Olya, forgive me, please, but there was no other option.”
Police reports that followed initial reports of the shooting say it was Babchenko’s wife who discovered him lying in a pool of blood at the entrance of their Kyiv apartment.
It is not clear whether his wife was involved in the sting.
“As far as I know, this operation took two months to prepare,” Babchenko told the briefing. “They saved my life. I want to say thank you.”
Tuesday’s news of the shooting shocked the Ukrainian capital, prompting Kyiv and Moscow officials to blame each for the reporter’s death.
Ukrainian Prime Minister Volodymyr Groysman suggested Russia had orchestrated the killing, while Kremlin spokesman Peskov rejected that claim.
Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said after Babchenko’s reappearance Wednesday that Ukrainian officials had circulated a false story for purposes of “propaganda.”
Kyiv police and officials from Ukraine’s Interior Ministry had announced on Tuesday that Babchenko had died in an ambulance on the way to a hospital after being shot in the back at his home in Kyiv, where he has lived in exile since August 2017.
News of the 41-year-old’s reported death had shocked colleagues and added to tension between Moscow and Kyiv, whose ties have been badly damaged by Russia’s seizure of Crimea and backing for separatist militants in a devastating war in eastern Ukraine.
This story originated in VOA’s Ukrainian Service; some reporting by AP and RFE/RL.