Arkady Arkadyevich Babchenko, in August 2008

The Life, Death, & Life of Arkady Babchenko

In a surprising twist on the latest story of the international assassination of a dissident by Russia’s security apparatus, journalist Arkady Babchenko – reported to have been shot several times outside his Kiev apartment building – has reappeared alive and well in front of a televised press conference. In this piece, Eamon Driscoll examines the bizarre events playing out in Ukraine.

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Like a scene from a Hollywood spy thriller, dissident Russian journalist Arkady Babchenko rose from the dead after reportedly faking his own death with the help of Ukrainian secret service agents in order to protect him from a suspected Russian assassination plot. His killing was broadcast on Ukrainian media on Tuesday, May 28th, only for him to make a stunning reappearance the next day on live television during a press conference about his death. During the press conference, Babchenko apologized to his colleagues, his friends, and his wife. He explained that he did not want to end up like Sergey Skripal and his daughter Yulia, or worse, claiming that the ruse was necessary to root out his would-be killers.

A fair point regarding the Skripals, to be sure; Russian dissidents have a history of suspiciously accidental mishaps, such as a journalist who tumbled from his fifth-floor balcony in April 2018, an oligarch whose March 2013 death was “consistent with hanging”, and other famous departed Russians like Anna Politkovskaya and Aleksandr Litvinenko. Babchenko, who had been conscripted into the Russian army and served in the Communications Corps until 2000, covered the First and Second Chechen Wars. In 2014 he was in Kiev covering the Maidan revolution which overthrew then-president Yanukovich and sparked the continuing conflict between Russia and Ukraine, once considered brethren nations. Accounts of his experiences in Chechnya were published in the opposition news magazine Novy Mir (New World); a magazine primarily noteworthy for publishing Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s 1962 novel One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, the first published acknowledgment of Stalinist repression.

In 2017, Babchenko felt forced to flee Russia after publishing a post on Facebook expressing his lack of sympathy for the plane crash which killed sixty-four members of the Aleksandrov Ensemble (Red Army Choir) on 25 December 2016. Babchenko wrote of his reaction:

“I have only one feeling – I do not care. I did not oppose this state and its servants. This state and its servants opposed me. It appointed me an enemy and a national traitor.”

In February 2017, another Facebook post by Babchenko ended up being translated and published in Western media. By his account, he had reason to flee Russia, and he did so, ultimately finding work with Ukraine’s ATR television channel, aimed at the Crimean Tatar community and itself an exile after Russia refused to renew its license following the annexation of Crimea. So it was that Babchenko found himself in Kiev, with the Russian security apparatus apparently looking for any opportunity to silence yet another dissident.

Yet the staged assassination has drawn criticism from a variety of organizations, notably the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), the International Federation of Journalists, and Reporters Without Borders. No matter what threats may have been uncovered against Babchenko’s life by Ukrainian security services, he is now being criticised for undermining journalistic trust and integrity. Andrei Soldatov, a colleague of Babchenko, said that the police sting crossed a line “big time”, Reporters Without Borders called the operation a “pathetic stunt“, and the Committee to Protect Journalists, an organisation promoting press freedom, tweeted that the evidence that led to the staged assassination must be made public. Despite the pressure Ukraine is under for having conducted a sting operation, officials in Kiev must have deemed it a cost-effective operation in terms of intelligence gathered.

Nevertheless, there is a degree of suspicion surrounding the revelations. It makes little sense to so publicly announce that Russia’s attempts to find Ukrainian hit-men were compromised. After all, during the Second World War, Winston Churchill allowed Coventry to be bombed by the Luftwaffe rather than allow the Germans to realise that their enigma code had been broken. So what benefit is there from having Babchenko show up in the middle of the press conference about him? It also served Ukraine’s purposes in drawing the world’s attention back to Ukraine and to Russia’s very active interference in that country, and in raising national morale by beating the Russian security apparatus. Yet in terms of gathering intelligence on Russia’s clandestine operations inside Ukraine, the staged assassination has likely utterly failed. Had Babchenko been disguised and quietly moved to L’viv or another western Ukrainian city, he could have carried on his work while Borys Herman – the man who was paid by the Russian network to plot Babchenko’s murder – would have been free to work within that network, collecting valuable information and secrets while the Russians were none the wiser.

Perhaps in time the truth will be revealed, and we will know the reason why Babchenko made his very public reappearance. But until that happens (and it may never happen), we are left to speculate on the why; on what it was precisely that made this sting operation the best of all possible options. Speculation, left unattended, feeds suspicion and conspiracy theories, and Russia is feasting on the golden opportunity to extend a shadow of doubt  over the Skripal poisonings and to exploit the incident as evidence of Ukraine’s malleable relationship with the truth. As is so much else in international politics and intrigue, the truth behind the revelations may themselves never be revealed. For now, all that can be said for certain is that Babchenko lives.

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Eamon Driscoll is a graduate of the University of Ilinois and postgraduate of Geopolitics, Territory and Security at King’s College, London. Eamon focuses on issues in Russia and the wider Commonwealth of Independent States, which has furnished him with extensive experience on the topic of breakaway states. His current academic focus is on the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad and how its unique position has forced the region to develop differently from other Russian territories, especially in the shadow of the ongoing crisis in Ukraine.

For an in-depth, bespoke briefing on this or any other geopolitical topic, consider Encylopedia Geopolitica’s intelligence consulting services.

Photo credit:  Автор снимка неизвестен, владелец прав – Аркадий Бабченко