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When they still thought he was dead. Did trust die instead? Photo courtesy of Getty

Why Russia Is Celebrating A Journalist’s Fake Death in Ukraine

The Russian media is calling Ukraine’s sting operation a “gift to the Kremlin”

Perspective

When the news broke that the prominent Russian journalist and Putin-foe Arkady Babchenko had been murdered in exile in Kiev, it looked like everything was following a sadly familiar script.

As tributes began pouring in, his fellow journalists across the world wrote up their obituaries about the third critic of the Russian leader to be killed in the Ukrainian capital in the last 18 months alone.

Reportedly shot in the back at home, Babchenko’s murder, as Ukraine’s prime minister was quick to point out, appeared to have had all the hallmarks of another Kremlin-ordered contract killing.

The Russian government and the many media outlets it controls looked like they were on script too — circling the wagons in a familiarly defensive ring against the accusations that Moscow was responsible.

But then, to the sound of ringing phones at a hastily organized news conference in Kiev, the script was ripped up. Babchenko walked into the room, very much alive. His death was fake news.

Standing next to Ukraine’s top security officials, Babchenko explained that he had just taken part in a sting operation aimed at catching real assassins who had been sent by Moscow to kill him and others.

As the Ukrainian officials revealed the very undead journalist turned special service agent, they looked pleased. But it was, arguably, the Russian government that could not believe its luck.

In the words of “Moskovsky Komsomolec,” one of Russia’s biggest tabloids, the fake death of Babchenko was “a gift for the Kremlin.”

Since Babchenko’s stunning comeback, the Russian state-controlled media has gone into overdrive to exploit this unexpected propaganda present. After so long on the back foot, they now have the high ground.

Many outlets were also quick to make a link with the survival of former Russian double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia, after they were poisoned in the British town of Salisbury in March with what the U.K. government says was a Russian nerve agent.

It is a “continuation in a series of miraculous resurrections,” was how the main evening bulletin of Russia’s Channel 1 described it, adding “the so-called child victims” of the “alleged chemical attacks” in Syria to the list as well.

“Copying the British” read the headline of the government-run Rossiskaya Gazeta. “Back then in London, just like now in Ukraine, they blamed Russia for everything before the case was even closed,” the newspaper said.

“A bad parody of Skripal,” read the headline on RIA-Novosti.

The conservative pro-Kremlin Tsargrad took a slightly different tack, calling Babchenko’s staged death a “low quality Skripal.” It claimed the Western security services had helped the Ukrainians to carry out the operation, but they had failed to give it a “flare of professionalism we saw in Salisbury.”

The Ukrainian authorities are now under pressure to justify the way they handled the operation, with many asking whether lying about his death so publicly was necessary. But in some ways, that part of the story is already being obscured by concerns over the impact on public trust.

For the Russian government and its media machine, what has just happened in Ukraine is proof, as they see it, for what they have been saying all along. Moscow is the victim, not the perpetrator, in the disinformation war with the West.

“Regardless how the plot twists, the finale will be the same,” read an editorial on Vesti.ru, part of the Rossiya-24 network. “Everyone thought that Babchenko was dead and Moscow is to blame. We learn that Babchenko is alive, but it’s still the Russians who are to blame.”

The more independent business daily Vedomosti said the Babchenko affair takes the concept of “fake news” to a whole new level. “After the ‘murder’ of Babchenko it will be much harder to believe not only the media, but also official announcements.”

It ran a well reported piece describing how other governments have used fake assassinations as a tactic in the past. But the Ukrainian case was different, it argued, because of the way it had so openly manipulated the public.

And Russian state-controlled media was suddenly able to turn to voices they normally choose to ignore: media-rights organizations and Western analysts.

Many reports enthusiastically quoted the Committee to Protect Journalists, which called the operation “extreme” or Reporters Without Borders which condemned “the manipulation of the Ukrainian secret services,” adding that “it is always very dangerous for a government to play with the facts.”

The “Moskovsky Komsomolets” tabloid even ran a long quote from the former U.S. deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense Michael Carpenter who said, “Russia will exploit this fake murder to accuse Ukraine of spreading fake news and to cast doubt on future attacks on dissidents and journalists inside and outside of Russia. The unfortunate reality is that the next time a real tragedy strikes, we will all pause to question whether the news reports are true.”

That’s a trust problem the Ukrainian authorities will face sooner, if and when they present evidence of why they needed to stage the journalist’s death for their sting.

The case has created a rare moment of agreement between Russia’s few independent media outlets and state-controlled newspapers and channels. For different reasons, they see this as a game changer for the Kremlin.

Meduza, an influential independent Russian publication, quoted the concerns of one of Babchenko’s friends, reporter Pavel Kanygin.

“Of course I felt a sense of gigantic relief, as if a weight fell off me,” said Kanygin, describing how he felt when he heard he was alive. “But these are complex feelings. I don’t understand why it was necessary to do it like this.”

Could it be then, that the strange non-death of Arkady Babchenko will end up having more far-reaching consequences than if he had really been killed?

Additional reporting by Grigory Vorontsov.