It’s the greatest fake news story of all time.
Grieving reporters gathered in Ukraine on Wednesday evening for a press conference about an anti-Kremlin Russian journalist who’d been gunned down in his home a day earlier.
Veteran war correspondent Arkady Babchenko — who’d fled Moscow for Kiev last year due to fears for his life — was surely just the latest person to meet a grisly end after crossing President Vladimir Putin, and news outlets across the world were hungry for more information.
Yes, the head of Ukraine’s security service told the press — and authorities had now arrested a man who’d received $40,000 from Russian intelligence to organize a hit on Babchenko.
And that’s when Arkady Babchenko walked into the room — sheepish but very much alive.
His “death” had really been an elaborate ruse to foil the very real assassination plot against him, he explained, “I’m still alive, and I’m not going anywhere,” the 41-year-old told the stunned room.
The stunt had been in the works for two months, Babchenko explained — when the Ukrainian Security Service first learned there was a bounty on his head. The agency contacted him a month ago.
“We were in touch the whole time, thinking things through and working them out,” he said Wednesday.
They finally went into action Tuesday, when Ukrainian authorities announced that the high-profile reporter’s wife had found him bleeding out inside their apartment — and he’d later died on the way to a hospital.
A gunman had been lying in wait outside their apartment, and pumped three bullets into Babchenko when he left to buy bread, police had said.
The authorities went all-out making it seem like a real investigation.
Graphic photos of the reporter apparently lying facedown in a puddle of blood with three gunshot wounds in his back were released to the public.
The government circulated a police sketch of his alleged assassin — a bearded man in his 40s wearing a blue baseball cap, denim jacket and jeans.
Friends and colleagues posted tributes online, while weeping neighbors laid a makeshift shrine of flowers and photos outside his home.
Vigils were in the works and people had began fundraising for the futures of his six children.
The slaying made headlines around the world, and set off a diplomatic spat between Moscow and Kiev — with the Ukrainian government pointing the finger at the Kremlin for the “murder” while Russia hit back that its former ally “is becoming the most dangerous country for reporters.”
The whole hoax lasted 20 hours, before the big reveal at Wednesday’s surreal press conference.
Babchenko apologized to his wife for “putting her through hell over the past two days” — although she and their kids were in on the scheme.
“Only people who had to know about this operation knew about it,” said Vasiliy Gritsak, head of the Ukrainian Security Service.
Friends and coworkers weren’t among them. In Babchenko’s own newsroom at Ukrainian television station ATR, some colleagues erupted in exuberant cheers while others covered their mouths in shock as they watched the scene play out on TV, footage of the moment shows.
“I should probably apologize for putting everyone through this, because I’ve buried friends and colleagues many times, and I know the sickening, disgusting feeling when you have to bury your colleagues,” he said.
“I’m sorry that you were forced to go through all this, but there simply was no alternative.”
Babchenko and Gritsak didn’t explain specifically why the mastermind behind the assassination needed to believe the journalist was dead before he could be arrested — but the security chief insisted it was necessary.
The man, who officials dubbed Citizen G, had allegedly approached several acquaintances to carry out the hit — and one of those people had tipped authorities off to the plot, the BBC reports.
Citizen G ultimately recruited a Ukrainian war veteran for the job, and promised to pay him $30,000. The middleman was set to pocket $10,000 for his own efforts.
Authorities released footage of two men exchanging money inside a car — and of Citizen G’s arrest on a public street.
Citizen G was also paid to stockpile weapons for larger terror attacks in the Ukraine, including hundreds of Kalashnikovs, bullets, grenade launchers and explosives, authorities said.
After the slaying, he planned on fleeing the Ukraine for Russia, Gritsak said.
Babshenki said it was clear Russia was behind the plan because the would-be killers had received information on him that could only have come from the Kremlin — including a photo from a decades-old passport.
“As far as I know, this information could only be obtained by the intelligence agencies and only at the passport office,” he said.
They were also given negative comments Babchenko had made about Putin annexing Crimea, such as, “Putin is an usurper who got power through force. There are no elections. Because elections are the FREE will of the people,” according to Buzzfeed.
The story may sound like something out of a bad thriller novel — but Babchenko had very real reasons to fear for his life.
The Moscow native had begun his adult life as a soldier, drafted into the Russian Army at 18 and sent to first in the first Chechen War before volunteering for the second.
But he became an outspoken critic of Putin when he started working as a war correspondent — railing against military action in Georgia, Syria and Ukraine.
“It was hard for him to justify the endless repetition of his Chechen experiences for others,” Russian reporter Leonid Bershidsky wrote in a column for Bloomberg.
But in December 2016, Babchenko really pissed off the regime when a Red Army plane carrying a military choir to sing for troops in Syria fatally crashed — and he wrote a Facebook post saying he felt no sympathy for the dead.
“After all these wars and deaths, I felt only one thing when I heard that the representatives of Russia’s military had died: indifference. But for some, expressing this on Facebook was not patriotic enough. And so it began,” he later wrote in another post explaining why he was leaving Russia.
Politicians and state media said he should be deported, his home address and phone number were published online — and he was inundated with death threats, he wrote.
“A pro-government ultranationalist TV channel, Tsargrad, recently released a list of the — I’m number 10, and I fought twice for this country. A country I no longer feel safe in,” he wrote in the post.
He fled to Ukraine months later in early 2017 — but still feared he wasn’t out of reach of the Kremlin.
Former Russian politician Denis Voronenkov had escaped to Kiev after speaking out against Putin in 2016 only to be gunned down in public last March — leaving Babchenko wondering if he’d be next, friends said.
“Today we got the answer to that question — he was right, famous Russian public figures are vulnerable in Ukraine,” Moscow-based BBC report Ilya Barabanov told the Daily Beast before Babchenko’s fake-out was revealed.
After Babchenko’s remarkable return from the dead Wednesday, reporters gathered in Kiev’s Maidan square to crack open champagne.
“That was the best news conference in my life,” Olga Musafirova told Reuters.
“I have never experienced such emotions at any official event. We watched … at a studio of a TV channel and I realized that I burst into tears and it was tears of joy.”
But the news was met with scorn from Russian officials, who denounced the whole episode as a “propagandistic effect” — as well as press advocates.
“[Reporters Without Borders] expresses its deepest indignation after discovering the manipulation of the Ukrainian secret services, this new step of a war of information,” the group’s secretary tweeted.
“It is always very dangerous for a government to play with the facts, especially using journalists for their fake stories”
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