The faked death of an anti-Putin journalist is being used to cast doubt over Moscow’s involvement in the Salisbury poisoning scandal, both in Russia and among UK-based critics.
The world was shocked on Wednesday when Arkady Babchenko turned up at a press conference about his own murder a day after police in Kiev announced the 41-year-old had been shot dead, with his distraught wife having discovered him in a pool of blood.
Ukraine has since been criticised for staging “fake news” as the security service said the death was staged in order to stop a Russian murder plot.
The knock-on effect of the bizarre plot has been to reignite conspiracy theories around the poisoning of Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia, which the UK Government has blamed the Kremlin for.
Konstantin Kosachev, head of the international affairs committee of the upper house of the Russian parliament, has compared Ukraine’s handling of the Babchenk story to the way the UK Government has presented the Skripal case.
“The logic is the same — to defame Russia,” Kosachev told the state news agency Tass.
In the UK, former British Ambassador Craig Murray highlighted the supposed Salisbury link.
Murray has been the leading sceptic on Twitter downplaying Russia’s involvement in the poisoning.
He has seized on scientists at the Porton Down defence research laboratory admitting they had not established that the nerve agent used to poison the Skripals was made in Russia as proof he was right all along.
The laboratory also said it was “not our responsibility” to identify who made the Novichok nerve agent.
On Wednesday, Murray wrote: “I would have thought it was impossible to come up with a ‘frame Putin’ story more implausible than the Skripals.
“But Christ, have they managed it with Babchenko fake death! MSM showing absolutely no shame, now pushing ridiculous ‘masterplan’ line.”
Former Labour MP George Galloway, who has perviously said he has “reason to believe” Putin was not behind the Skripal attack, also slammed the “liberal” media on Talk Radio for its reporting of Banchenko’s death.
“I honestly thought the Skripal story would be difficult to top but the story from the Ukraine yesterday is the number one. It takes the biscuit,” Galloway said.
The link between the two incidents has continued to spread across social media among pro-Russia supporters.
The UK Government has not wavered from its position, even when Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson was last month pranked by two Russians posing as the recently-appointed Armenian Prime Minster.
When quizzed about Russia, Johnson said “nobody wants a new Cold War” but he was “we’re almost 100% sure” of Russia’s responsibility for the attempted murder of the Skripals, calling it “disruptive and bad for Russia”.
He added: “If I have a message to Putin, it’s that we don’t want a cold war but we do want to see an improvement in the way Russia behaves.”
Russia’s foreign ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova described the Ukrainian operation as “a masquerade” done for “propagandistic effect”.
In a statement on Thursday the Kremlin said it was glad that Babchenko was alive, but said the death plot was “strange”.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov added that Moscow still considers Ukraine a dangerous place for journalists to work.
Russian state media earlier mocked Ukraine for solving a murder it had staged itself as the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists said it was also unimpressed.
“We are relieved that Arkady Babchenko is alive,” said the CPJ’s Nina Ognianova, before urging Ukrainian authorities to disclose “what necessitated” the rouse.
Media organisations have deleted tweets announcing Babchenko’s murder and have suggested the staged event may backfire on Ukraine’s credibility.
“There’s one nuance - if somebody’s shot now, nobody will believe it,” journalist Mustafa Nayyem, who became a parliament member in Ukraine, told the Associated press.
In Kiev, journalists who had gathered in the central Maidan square to mourn Babchenko cracked open champagne after he turned up alive.
“That was the best news conference in my life,” said Olga Musafirova. “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.”
On Thursday, following pressure to reveal more details around Babchenko’s case the Ukranian Embassy released a statement saying that the “hybrid war waged” by Russia requires “unorthodox approaches”.
THE SUPPOSED PLOT
Ukraine’s SBU security service had claimed it received information about a plot to kill 30 people in Ukraine, including Babchenko, but had thwarted it.
The security service declined to say who the other 29 people were but said it had detained a Ukrainian citizen recruited by Russia to find someone to kill Babchenko. He was given $40,000 to organize the murder, $30,000 for the killer and $10,000 for being an intermediary, the SBU said.
The detained man had been ordered to buy weapons, including 300 Kalashnikovs, grenade launchers, and explosives which were to be stashed in central Ukraine, it added. A video of the man being detained was shown to reporters.
“We managed not only to break this cynical provocation, but also to document the preparation of this shameful crime by Russian special services,” SBU chief Vasyl Hrytsak said.
General Prosecutor Yuriy Lutsenko, who appeared alongside Babchenko, said it had been necessary to fake the journalist’s death so that the organisers of the plot to kill him would believe they had succeeded.
Taking to the podium at the press conference into his death on Wednesday, Babchenko apologised “for what you have all had to go through”.
He added: “There was no other way of doing it. Separately, I want to apologise to my wife for the hell that she has been through.”
Babchenko has been a critic of President Vladimir Putin and Russian policy in Ukraine and Syria and the case has further soured relations between the two countries that have been at odds since a revolt in Ukraine in 2014 toppled a Russian-backed government in favor of a pro-Western one.