Ukraine and Russia traded accusations on Wednesday after a dissident Russian journalist and Kremlin critic was shot dead in Kyiv, in a homicide that sent shivers through the journalistic communities in both countries.
Arkady Babchenko, 41, died of his wounds in an ambulance on Tuesday, after a gunman shot him in the back several times as he returned home after buying bread — a murder which his colleague said was meant to "break the spirit" of exiled dissidents.
ATR deputy editor Osman Pashayev called Babchenko's death an attempt 'to break the spirit of that opposition that settled in Ukraine'.
Babchenko, a critic of Russian president Vladimir Putin and of Russian policy in Ukraine and Syria, relocated to the Ukrainian capital after receiving threats at home for saying he "did not mourn" the victims of a Russian military plane crash.
Ukrainian prime minister Volodymyr Groysman said in a social media post that he was convinced what he called "the Russian totalitarian machine" had not forgiven Babchenko for what Groysman called "his honesty".
Ukrainian foreign minister Pavlo Klimkin said it was too early to draw conclusions, but that there was "an astounding similarity to the methods Russia uses to provoke political destabilisation".
The Kremlin described such allegations as part of an anti-Russian smear campaign.
"This is the height of cynicism against the backdrop of such a brutal murder. It is anti-Russian bluster instead of talking about the need to conduct a thorough, objective investigation," Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov told reporters.
Babchenko fought in the Russian army in Chechnya, and then became a war reporter for several Russian newspapers.
He reported on Russia sending private military contractors into Syria and the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH-17 in July 2014 over eastern Ukraine, for which investigators last week held the Russian state responsible — something it denies.
On February 27 last year, he wrote on social media that he had left Russia, winding up in Ukraine, where he became a presenter on the Crimean Tatar channel ATR, which moved to Kyiv from Crimea after Russia's annexation of the peninsula in 2014.
We think this should attract a very tough international reaction that will move the Ukrainian authorities towards active measures to resolve the situation.Kremlin spokesperson
Osman Pashayev, ATR's deputy editor, said Babchenko reported on Russia with a blunt style and black humour, riling news outlets close to the Kremlin back home.
"This is the main reason why he irritated this criminal terrorist group called the Russian Federation," Pashayev said by phone.
He called Babchenko's death an attempt "to break the spirit of that opposition that settled in Ukraine".
"He did not want to be honoured as a refugee; he came temporarily to Ukraine and stayed here," he added.
Peskov said that Ukraine had become a dangerous country for journalists, and press freedom there was under severe pressure.
Babchenko's killing was the fourth of a Kremlin critic in the Ukrainian capital in two years. None of the others, which Kiev has also blamed on Russia, have been solved.
"We think this should attract a very tough international reaction that will move the Ukrainian authorities towards active measures to resolve the situation," said Peskov.
Russian investigators have opened their own investigation into the killing, and said they are ready to cooperate with Ukraine.
A Russian military plane carrying 92 people, including dozens of Red Army Choir singers, dancers and orchestra members, crashed into the Black Sea on its way to Syria in December 2016, killing everyone on board.
Babchenko sparked a backlash for his comments in a Facebook post on the crash, which he said resulted in thousands of threats, his home address being published online and calls for him to be deported.
Harlem Desir, OSCE representative on Freedom of the Media, said he was on his way to Kyiv to meet Babchenko's colleagues, as a slew of Western foreign ministers condemned the killing.
"I am outraged by this horrific act," Desir said in an earlier statement.
The European Union, Desir, and the Council of Europe all called on Ukraine to spare no effort in its investigation.
– Reuters. Additional reporting by Tom Balmforth and Maria Kiselyova in Moscow, Olena Vasina and Natalia Zinets in Kyiv; editing by Andrew Roche and Richard Balmforth