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Why A Prominent Russian Journalist Faked His Own Death

News Brief

A day after he was reported to have been murdered in Kiev, a prominent Russian journalist and critic of Vladimir Putin has turned out to be very much alive, after agreeing to fake his own death as part of a sting operation mounted by the Ukrainian security services.

In an extraordinary development, Arkady Babchenko appeared at a news conference in the Ukrainian capital saying that he had agreed to take part in the operation to catch people who had been sent to kill him, and apologized to his wife for deceiving her.

He said Ukrainian security agents told him a month ago that assassins had been paid $40,000 to kill him. “They showed me my documents, my passport photo and I understood that the information is coming from Russia,” he told the news conference. “They offered me to take part in this special operation. I agreed.”

One person is reportedly in Ukrainian custody, but the news has prompted confusion in Ukraine and a backlash from Russia which was widely accused of ordering Babchenko murder.

In a social media post soon after news of his death emerged, the Ukrainian Prime Minister, Vladimir Groysman, said it held Russia responsible.

Maria Zakharova, the Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman, welcomed the news that the journalist is in fact alive but said “it’s obvious that a propaganda effect was part of this story.”

Mark Galeotti, a veteran commentator on Russia said the Ukrainian sting operation would play into Moscow’s hands. “Next time there’s some killing, Russia will be able to play the “do you know this is real?” card,” he said on Twitter.

What some are calling Ukraine’s fake news operation comes just months after heightened tensions between Russia and the U.K. over allegations Moscow used a nerve agent to poison Sergei Skripal, a former Russian double agent, and his daughter.

“Counting down until Simonyan, Zakharova or the Russian Embassy tweets that Babchenko’s faked hit is proof that the Skripal case was a set-up, too,” commented Sam Greene, director of the Russia Institute at Kings College London, referring to the editor of Russia’s RT network, as well as the Foreign Ministry spokeswoman.

An outspoken opponent of Russia’s annexation of Crimea and invasion of eastern Ukraine, Babchenko fled to Kiev last year after receiving death threats. He has been widely praised for his work, and reports of his murder prompted widespread mourning and worldwide tributes.

Now, it seems, Babchenko has some explaining to do.