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Nothing New Under The Gun: Ukraine Deploys Old Ruse In Babchenko's Staged Slaying


Russian journalist Arkady Babchenko (right) shakes hands with Ukrainian Security Service chief Vasyl Hrytsak (left) as Prosecutor-General Yuriy Lutsenko looks on at a news briefing in Kyiv on May 30.
Russian journalist Arkady Babchenko (right) shakes hands with Ukrainian Security Service chief Vasyl Hrytsak (left) as Prosecutor-General Yuriy Lutsenko looks on at a news briefing in Kyiv on May 30.

While the staged assassination of journalist Arkady Babchenko in Kyiv this week sent shock waves through Ukraine and Russia, the stunt deployed by the Ukrainian Security Service in the operation is nothing new in either country.

Ukrainian authorities -- who say the Babchenko ploy led to the detention of the organizer of a Russian murder plot against the Kremlin critic -- have staged at least two killings and one kidnapping over the past three years in operations to flush out suspected perpetrators, according to officials.

In Russia, where the Foreign Ministry denounced the staged killing of Babchenko as "the latest anti-Russian provocation," such operations are frequently -- if not regularly -- chronicled in crime sections of the country's newspapers.

"In the past, I've probably written 10, maybe 12, pieces myself that involved specifically these kind of tactics," Yevgeny Vyshenkov, a former St. Petersburg police detective and deputy editor in chief of the Russian news portal, told RFE/RL.

Just last month, investigators in Russia's Urals region said detectives learned a man had taken out a 110,000-ruble ($1,770) contract on the life of a woman he knew. Police intervened and videotaped the simulated killing of the woman to be presented as evidence that she was dead, investigators said.

The alleged organizer was detained after he was shown the video of the faked killing and "was satisfied with the result," according to an official statement from investigators.

Unlike the Babchenko affair, however, most of these cases do not involve prominent public figures. "They don't make much news. But [in the Babchenko case], we have: 1) a journalist; 2) Kyiv; and 3) Russia. And so the whole world knows about it," Vyshenkov added.

A portion of a photo that purportedly showed journalist Arkady Babchenko shot dead in his apartment in Kyiv on May 29.
A portion of a photo that purportedly showed journalist Arkady Babchenko shot dead in his apartment in Kyiv on May 29.

'Unorthodox Approaches'

The announcement by Ukrainian authorities on May 29 that Babchenko, a veteran war correspondent who fled Russia last year citing threats, had been shot dead outside his apartment triggered an outpouring of mourning and condemnation from his supporters, rights groups, and Western governments.

But a day later, officials jolted observers when Babchenko, a withering critic of Russian expansionism in Ukraine, strode into a press conference in Kyiv where the head of Ukraine's Security Service (SBU) announced the killing was faked to foil a "cynical" Russian plot.

The operation -- complete with a photograph purporting to show Babchenko lying face down in a pool of blood -- was praised by Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko but drew criticism from media-rights activists, journalists, and Western officials.

"We do not fight fake news with other fake news," Belgian Foreign Minister Didier Reynders said in a May 30 television interview.

Fake Death Journalist Babchenko: 'I Chose To Stay Alive'
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The Ukrainian Embassy in Britain hit back on May 31, saying the "hybrid war waged" by Russia "demands unorthodox approaches."

Ukrainian authorities later on May 31 named Borys Herman, the director of a Ukrainian-German arms manufacturer called Schmeisser, as the Ukrainian citizen they say had been detained as the suspected organizer of the alleged plot on Babchenko's life that they say was ordered by Russian security services.

Whatever the politics and ethics surrounding the charade, it appears to have been pulled off skillfully from a technical standpoint, Vyshenkov said. "What makes me wary is that the Ukrainian side didn't present further evidence," he told RFE/RL. "You conducted a flawless operation. Nice job. After that, you probably have to come out and provide names, photographs, and so forth."

Mirror Cases

The staged slaying of Babchenko echoes three high-profile cases in Ukraine in recent years.

In February 2017, Ukrainian officials announced that lawmaker and Poroshenko ally Oleksiy Honcharenko had been abducted. But Honcharenko reappeared a day later, saying his abduction was staged by the SBU in an operation to nab members of an organized crime group.

In May 2016, Ukrainian authorities announced in an official statement that an Odesa-based lawyer, Oleksandr Pohoreliy, had been shot dead. The statement included a staged crime-scene photograph of the Lexus SUV he was supposedly killed in and what appeared to be a body wrapped in a sheet and lying on the street.

The following day, however, the head of Ukraine's National Police revealed on Facebook that the crime had been faked and that the operation had led to the detention of several suspects accused of plotting to assassinate Pohoreliy.

A month prior to the Pohoreliy sting, Ukrainian authorities released information that a businessman had been killed in car-bomb attack in the southwestern city of Zaporizhzhya. That was also staged, authorities said days later. Ukrainian police even released a video of the alleged target being painted up with fake blood and posing for photographs at the simulated crime scene.

Police said the alleged organizer of the attempted murder was detained after paying the man he allegedly hired to assassinate the businessman.

In one of the more high-profile Russian cases over the past decade, police in April 2009 leaked information that the rector St. Petersburg's State Polar Academy, who was 34 years old and pregnant at the time, had been stabbed by an assailant and later died in the hospital.

Investigators said following the staged murder, during which the intended victim -- Kermen Basangova -- was guarded by police while hiding in a hospital, that three employees of the academy were detained on suspicion of plotting to kill her.

Two of the suspects ultimately agreed to a plea deal with prosecutors, while the third -- a senior administrator at the academy -- was acquitted by a jury.

The news site Mediazona, a dogged chronicler of Russia's criminal-justice system, has tracked at least nine other killings staged by Russian authorities in operations aimed at catching alleged masterminds of attempted assassinations.

'I Knew Everything'

Such operations appear to be less frequent in Western countries, though U.S. authorities have also resorted to the tactic in recent years.

"From our point of view, from the West, it is pretty unusual, and you hope that this brings so much evidence that you could not have gathered otherwise, to offset the costs," Frederico Varese, a professor of criminology at the University of Oxford, told RFE/RL in a telephone interview. "But it seems a very risky strategy from our point of view."

Vyshenkov said that in the typical case of a staged killing, a handful of law-enforcement operatives and their bosses would be aware of the operation. In the case of the magnitude of Babchenko's, those in the know would go much higher up the chain.

"If it was just some minor operation, I tell my immediate boss, he signs off, and we go to work. But when it's something like that, you have to be on the safe side and get authorization at every level -- all the way to Poroshenko," he said.

Meeting with Babchenko in Kyiv on May 30, Poroshenko said, "I knew everything about this, and no one in my administration did."

  • 16x9 Image

    Carl Schreck

    Carl Schreck is an award-winning investigative journalist who serves as RFE/RL's enterprise editor. He has covered Russia and the former Soviet Union for more than 20 years, including a decade in Moscow. He has led investigations into corruption, cronyism, and disinformation campaigns in Russia and Central Asia, as well as on poisoning attacks against Kremlin opponents and assassinations of Iranian exiles in the West. Schreck joined RFE/RL in 2014.

  • 16x9 Image

    Christopher Miller

    Christopher Miller is a correspondent based in Kyiv who covers the former Soviet republics.

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