MOSCOW - A fierce Kremlin critic and prominent Russian war correspondent, Arkady Babchenko, said on Wednesday he had faked his own death in order to foil a real plot against his life.
Babchenko showed up alive at a news conference in Kiev, one day after he was reportedly killed there, shocking a room full of journalists who had been covering his supposed murder. Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko blamed Moscow for wanting to kill Babchenko, and congratulated his country's security services for becoming stronger in the face of "Russian aggression."
Russia dismissed the charge as part of an "anti-Russian campaign," its foreign minister Sergei Lavrov said.
Babchenko, 41, fled his native Russia for Ukraine last year after receiving death threats for criticizing Russian military involvement in Syria. He told reporters Wednesday that his fake death was part of an operation with the security services in Ukraine that took two months to prepare.
Sporting a black hoodie and appearing somewhat perplexed, Babchenko first offered his wife "special apologies for the hell she's been through these past two days." His wife, according to the version that was reported Tuesday, had found his body after he had been shot several times by the entrance to their apartment in Kiev. It was not clear if she had been involved in the plot or not.
He matter of factly told reporters, "I've done my work. I'm still alive and not going anywhere." A few hours after his stunning appearance, Babchenko triumphantly took to Twitter to say he will live to the age of 96 and dance on the grave of Russian President Vladimir Putin. He also promised he would drive an American military truck through central Moscow.
Babchenko's resurfacing immediately brought cheers of jubilation from his colleagues at Radio Free Europe in Ukraine. But it also drew condemnation from Russians, wary of how his faked death could be manipulated by Russian authorities.
"What a wonderful day for Kremlin propaganda," Russian journalist Leonid Ragozin tweeted.
Russia's state-run RT network used the incident to draw parallels with the poisoning of former double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter earlier this year in England, which the West blamed on Russia, implying that both incidents were faked.
Ethical questions were also raised in the wider journalism community.
"It is always very dangerous for a government to play with the facts, especially using journalists for their fake stories," the head of Reporters Without Borders, Christophe Deloire, wrote on Twitter. "Thanks, Ukrainian security services," tweeted Lindsey Hilsum, international editor for Channel 4 in the UK. "That's really helpful to all who care about journalist safety."
No stranger to death, Babchenko served in the Russian army during Chechnya's two wars for independence, after which he wrote a powerful memoir about the everyday brutality of conflict before turning to journalism, writing about war for a range of Russian publications.
His alleged death was widely condemned by American and European officials as an attack on press freedom. Vigils and tributes to Babchenko popped up in Moscow, just moments before he dramatically re-appeared. The Russian government had demanded on Tuesday that Ukraine conduct a full investigation into his death, though many in Kiev suspected at the time that Russians were behind it.
Ukraine's chief of security services, Vasyl Gritsak, said Ukrainian police had detained one suspect involved in the real plot against Babchenko, a former rebel fighter in eastern Ukraine - in other words, one allied with Russia in the fighting there. Gritsak said he had been paid $30,000 to carry out the attack. Poroshenko ordered that Babchenko and his family be given round-the-clock security, warning that "Moscow is hardly likely to settle down."
Russia's foreign ministry expressed relief at Babchenko being alive. "If only it were always like this. It's a pity masquerading didn't happen in other situations," ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova wrote on her Facebook page.
Over the last two years, the streets of Kiev have witnessed the murders of two Russians critical of the Kremlin, former lawmaker Denis Voronenkov and investigative journalist Pavel Sheremet. In both cases, Ukraine's government blamed Russia for being involved.
Referring to Babchenko on Tuesday, Russia criticized Ukraine for not doing enough to investigate the murders of independent journalists on its soil.
Author information: Amie Ferris-Rotman is the Moscow correspondent for The Washington Post. She was previously with Foreign Policy in Russia, and Reuters senior correspondent in Afghanistan.