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Kiev says Russian intelligence tried to kill 30 people in Ukraine, and wow there are a lot of unanswered questions

Meduza
Ukrainian national security agents detain Boris German, the man who allegedly organized the attempted murder of Arkady Babchenko
Ukrainian national security agents detain Boris German, the man who allegedly organized the attempted murder of Arkady Babchenko
Ukrainian National Security Service / YouTube

On May 29, police in Kiev reported the murder of the Russian journalist Arkady Babchenko. A day later, however, Babchenko appeared at a press conference held by Ukraine’s National Security Service, revealing that his death had been staged to flush out the man allegedly recruited by Russian intelligence to organize his killing. There are still a lot of unanswered questions about this enormously convoluted story. Meduza reviews some of the biggest.

Why couldn’t they arrest the suspect earlier? Why did they need to stage Babchenko’s murder at all?

Speaking to reporters, Ukrainian National Security Agency head Vasyl Hrytsak explained that the man who allegedly tried to have Babchenko killed also planned to organize the murder of another 30 people. Officials arranged the sting operation in order to make the suspect believe that the first murder had been carried out, so he would supply the hitman (who was working with the authorities) with a list of the 30 targets. Prosecutor General Yuriy Lutsenko says his agency was able to get this list, after faking Babchenko’s death.

A Ukrainian veteran says he was the man hired to kill Babchenko

This information seems to contradict some of Hrytsak’s other statements, however. For example, after officials revealed that Babchenko wasn’t killed, Hrytsak said Ukrainian law enforcement agencies knew only “a few of the names” of the potential victims. It’s also unclear why the National Security Agency and the General Prosecutor's Office expected the suspect to produce his “list of 30” immediately after Babchenko’s death was reported. It’s possible, of course, that the government planned to keep up the ruse for some time, but that seems highly unlikely.

Why did the dossier given to the hitman contain such an old photo of Babchenko? Couldn’t they have gotten a more recent picture off the Internet?

At the press conference, Babchenko said his hitman was given a dossier containing his old passport photo. The journalist offered this as evidence for the Russian government’s supposed involvement in the murder plot, arguing that only Russian officials would have access to his old passport photos.

Ukraine’s National Security Agency later released the dossier itself, which contains a black-and-white photograph of Babchenko (similar to a passport photo) and three color pictures of him. According to the document, Babchenko got his passport in 1999. But why would the killer need an old photo of his target? How would this help him carry out the murder? And if a Russian intelligence agency were behind this murder plot, why would it have supplied the hitman with evidence inevitably linking Russia to the crime?

Actually, what’s up with the whole dossier?

Almost everything written in the dossier is available from open sources. Babchenko’s biography, which takes up a third of the document, is almost a completely recycled copy of Babchenko’s Wikipedia page, with just a few sentences slightly rewritten. His Russian mobile phone and bank account numbers are copied exactly from his posts on social media (where he asks readers for donations to support his journalism and punditry), and the information about his military service appears to have been taken from his Odnoklasniki profile.

The only private information in the dossier is Babchenko’s registered Moscow address and his Russian identification and passport numbers. The document says nothing about his address or his phone number in Kiev.

Why would the suspect have hired the same hitman all at once to carry out multiple crimes that were so different?

Ukraine’s National Security Agency says Boris German (who was named the suspect in Babchenko’s case on May 31) was instructed to do even more than have 30 people killed: he was also supposed to stockpile secret weapons caches throughout Ukraine. German’s lawyer says his client is the executive director of the Ukrainian-German company “Schmeisser” — the only private arms manufacturer in Ukraine.

This might explain why Boris German would have been selected to arrange the secret weapons caches, but it remains unclear why he would have been the man to entrust with the organization of 30 murders. These two crimes — the murders and the secret weapons caches — appear to be two separate projects.

Why have Ukrainian officials decided that a Russian intelligence agency is behind the plot against Babchenko?

We’re still waiting for an answer to this question. On May 30, Vasyl Hrytsak didn’t offer any facts to substantiate his agency’s allegations against Moscow, and Boris German’s lawyer hasn’t said publicly that his client had anything to do with Russian intelligence agents.

It’s possible, of course, that Ukraine’s National Security Agency does have evidence to support its claims, but it isn’t releasing it yet, because its investigation is ongoing. Yuriy Lutsenko insists that the authorities have indeed collected proof that Russia organized the murder attempt.

Text by Georgy Levchenko, translation by Kevin Rothrock