'Murdered' reporter shines spotlight on Kremlin's campaign of silencing dissent
KYIV, Ukraine -- The Kremlin's ongoing campaign to silence dissent inside Russia and around the world was thrust in the spotlight Wednesday (May 30) when a reporter showed up alive less than 24 hours after he was "murdered".
Onlookers at a Kyiv press conference gasped and applauded as journalist Arkady Babchenko was introduced by Vasyl Grytsak, the head of the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU), who said the murder had been staged in order to foil an attempt on Babchenko's life by Moscow.
Less than 24 hours earlier, Ukraine said the reporter, a long-time critic of Russia who himself has accused Russian authorities of killing Kremlin dissenters and unleashing wars in Ukraine, Syria and elsewhere, had died from three gunshots to the back.
"Thanks to this operation we were able to foil a cynical plot and document how the Russian security service was planning for this crime," Grytsak said at the press conference.
Authorities have arrested the alleged mastermind of the plot, saying a Ukrainian citizen identified as Boris German had offered to pay a hitman after being recruited by Russian special forces and paid $30,000.
Babchenko fought in Russia's two Chechen campaigns in the 1990s and early 2000s before becoming a war correspondent and author. He repeatedly said he faced death threats for his coverage of the Kremlin.
The one whom Russia fears
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko later met Babchenko and wrote triumphantly on Facebook that "millions of people are celebrating" the journalist's new lease of life.
The planned attack was "organised from Russian territory" with the aim of "destabilising Ukraine" and "killing one whom Russia fears most of all", he said.
Anton Guerachtchenko, an adviser to Ukraine's interior minister, likened the plot to "Sherlock Holmes [using] the method of staging his own death to efficiently solve complicated crimes".
The operation fooled the world's media and angered press freedom groups that raised fears about the impact it could have on the work of journalists around the globe.
Babchenko, who told the press he had been preparing to stage his death with secret services for several weeks, dismissed the criticism.
"I wish all these moralisers could be in the same situation -- let them show their adherence to the principles of their high morals and die proudly holding their heads high without misleading the media," he wrote on Facebook.
"The main thing is that the killing of a journalist was foiled, the organisers are caught and the journalist is alive," said Russian political commentator Yevgeny Roizman.
Moscow's denials fall on deaf ears
Russia's Foreign Ministry denounced the scheme as "yet another anti-Russian provocation".
But from Moscow to London to Kyiv, numerous critics of the Kremlin have either been killed or grievously injured, making Babchenko's "death" all the more believable.
Just last month, Maksim Borodin, a Russian journalist who wrote in detail about Russian President Vladimir Putin's 'shadow army', the so-called Wagner Group, died suspiciously when he "fell" from the balcony of his fifth-floor flat in Moscow.
In March, Kremlin operatives are said to have carried out a nerve agent attack against Russian former double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter in Britain.
Denis Voronenkov, a former Russian politician who had spoken out against the Kremlin, was gunned down on a Kyiv street in broad daylight in March 2017, while Russian and Ukrainian journalist Pavlo Sheremet was killed in July 2016 when his car exploded.
In 2006 in London, the Kremlin is accused of carrying out a radiation attack using polonium against Alexander Litvinenko, a former officer of the Russian Federal Security Service who fled prosecution in Russia and later wrote critically of Putin.
Viktor Yushchenko, a Ukrainian politician who stood up to Russia, suffered a disfiguring dioxin poisoning in 2004 during his eventually victorious campaign for president.
Kremlin credibility plummeting
As the death toll has risen, Moscow's denials of involvement in suspicious deaths have become ever more threadbare. So has the credibility of its promises in other matters -- diplomatic, economic and military.
The former Soviet republics of Central Asia, for example, seem to be increasingly steering their own course, wary of a closer relationship with Russia.
Kazakhstan surprised Russian observers in April when it abstained on a UN Security Council vote on Syria rather than back Russia. Tajikistan has also repeatedly parried hints from the Kremlin that it wants to regain responsibility for patrolling the Tajik-Afghan border -- which Tajikistan took over in 2005.
Countries inside the Kremlin-backed Eurasian Economic Union are counting their losses rather than celebrating Russia's promised prosperity.
Moreover, Moscow is using the threat of terrorism as a pretext for building up its presence in Central Asia, but observers say the reality may be more self-serving.
And, last November, Russia's credibility was further damaged when it was caught spreading a 'barrage of lies' on social media.