The murder that didn’t happen
It felt like daytime under the lights outside Arkady Babchenko’s apartment block. It was a late May evening in 2018, and television crews were trying to force their way into the apartment block on Kyiv’s left bank, but the police had closed off the entrance. Medics carried out the body of the famous Russian journalist on a stretcher.
An unknown man had shot Babchenko, a war correspondent, as he entered his own apartment. Shortly after, the Ukrainian police reported that Babchenko had died en route to the hospital.
“They took me to the morgue, where they brought me into an orderly’s room,” Babchenko told the BBC a few days later. “There I came back to life, I took off my t-shirt and cleaned myself up. I turned on the TV and started watching the news about my ‘murder’.”
Indeed, there was a lot of news about the killing. Politicians close to Ukrainian law enforcement immediately accused the Russian authorities of the murder. Babchenko, known for his criticism of the Kremlin, had left Russia in 2017 after receiving threats against his life. At a UN Security Council meeting the following day, 30 May, Ukraine’s Foreign Minister Pavlo Klimkin also spoke about the murder’s possible “Russian clients”.
“Today, the Security Service of Ukraine [SBU] has information that it was the Russian security services who ordered the murder of Arkady Babchenko,” Vasyl Hrytsak, chief of the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU), said a few hours later at a press briefing.
Hrytsak ended the briefing with the words “Arkady, you’re on”, and, with a gesture of the hand, presented the “resurrected” journalist to his shocked colleagues.
Arkady Babchenko's "resurrection". Source: 112.
The SBU claimed at the time that even though Babchenko’s murder was staged, there had been a real plan to kill him. The man who was supposed to carry out the hit, a former monk called Oleksiy Tsymbalyuk, had risen to some prominence in military circles as a volunteer fighter in the war in eastern Ukraine. Tsymbalyuk had contacted the Ukrainian security services of his own accord three months earlier, and handed over the man who apparently ordered the killing. The latter, who had promised to pay Tsymbalyuk $40,000 for the hit (if successful), was arrested the day after the “murder”.
The actions of the security services outraged both Ukrainian and Russian journalists, as well as world leaders who had believed in the “murder” and the “Russian connection”. But the SBU and General Prosecutor’s Office had a justification: this staged special operation was necessary in order to catch not only the man who ordered the hit, but also a list of the Kremlin’s other potential victims.
This list quickly became one of the first mystifications in the investigation: different sources gave different numbers of names on it (sometimes 30, sometimes 47). These people were journalists, politicians, left-wing and right-wing activists. In short, the selection was a chaotic one. Some were called in for questioning by the SBU as witnesses. They were asked to sign what were, in effect, non-disclosure agreements, and the security services offered them bodyguards for protection. Others weren’t even contacted.
The ensuing investigation was supposed to prove the role of the Russian security services in the attempt on Babchenko’s life, as well as other subversive activity in Ukraine. But a year on after the “Babchenko case” began, there’s neither transparency, nor serious evidence.
The first person to be arrested in the investigation was Borys Herman, a 50-year-old businessman based in Kyiv, the capital. In Herman’s messages to Oleksiy Tsymbalyuk, which are part of the investigation materials, he discusses on several occasions surveillance on Babchenko, the timeline for the “order” and the necessary weapons.
Herman was the co-owner of a range of logistic and trade firms, as well as a Ukrainian-German firearm company, Schmeisser. Indeed, it was in connection to the latter that Herman already had a criminal background when he was arrested: the Ukrainian police suspected that Schmeisser company registration documents had been tampered with, and one of the shareholders had lost their shares as a result.
Borys Herman's arrest.
Herman had also been previously suspected of illegal firearms possession. Schmeisser allegedly repaired weapons for volunteer battalions fighting on the Ukrainian side in the Donbas. Oleksiy Tsymbalyuk, the prospective “killer”, transported spare weapons parts and ammunition to Schmeisser from the front.
At the first court hearing, Herman called himself a patriot and a Ukrainian counterintelligence agent, who had also been involved in the “Babchenko operation”. According to Herman, he received the order to kill Babchenko from Vyacheslav Pivovarnik, an old comrade and business partner who worked for a so-called “Putin Foundation”, which had been set up to destabilise Ukraine, finance opposition political parties and street protests.
Herman claimed that he had contacted Tsymbalyuk because he knew that the former monk also collaborated with the security services – and would not go through with the murder. “But we didn’t reveal our hand,” Herman said in court. “We understood that there’s a lot of moles from the Russian security services in the SBU.”
The SBU denied the claim that they had a relationship with Herman. But still, Herman quickly struck a deal with the investigation. The court sessions were closed to the public on the pretext that the investigation should remain secret, as well as possible security risks for suspects.
At the end of the summer 2018, Herman admitted that he had prepared a terrorist act against Babchenko, as well as the illegal sale of weapons. The sentence was announced in a closed court hearing, and is still yet to be made public. Instead, it’s only known that Herman received four and a half years in prison – less than the minimum term set out by Ukrainian law for these kind of serious offences.
Since the end of 2018, Herman has been serving his sentence in a prison colony near Kyiv. Almost immediately he appealed for early release on the basis of his health, and a local court has been examining this appeal for several months. These hearings are also being held in camera on the insistence of Herman’s lawyer Yevhen Solodko, one of the most highly paid criminal lawyers in Kyiv.
Was Borys Herman really a Ukrainian counterintelligence agent? Did he order the hit on Arkady Babchenko with the security services’ knowledge? Solodko, Herman’s lawyer, says yes.
In correspondence with openDemocracy, Solodko even revealed the name of Herman’s supposed “curator” from the Ukrainian security services – the man who potentially possesses Herman’s agent file. This man, Dmytro Ponomarenko, is apparently a former director of yet another Ukrainian firearms producer. openDemocracy unsuccessfully tried to contact Ponomarenko via telephone to confirm this information.
A trip to Rostov
Messages between Borys Herman and his business partner Vyacheslav Pivovarnik, who spent more than a year living in Russia, became the investigation’s main evidence of the “Russian connection” in the Babchenko case. Indeed, it was this correspondence that led the investigation to identify another suspect.
Taras Stelmanshenko, 40, was arrested in mid-June 2018. According to the investigation, Pivovarnik sent the passport details of Stelmashenko and two residents of Cherkasy, in central Ukraine, on to Herman in order to arrange their transport from the southern Russian city of Rostov-on-Don to Kyiv. The Ukrainian security services quickly announced that the group had been in Rostov for training on carrying out terrorist attacks in Ukraine. During the search of Stelmashenko’s apartment, law enforcement found a pistol.
Speaking to openDemocracy, Stelmashenko called himself an “independent artist”. In court, prosecutors talked about his possible connections with a local criminal group in Cherkasy (“Torpedo”) – Kostyantyn Krivich, a member of this gang, was detained for an arson attack on a Hungarian cultural centre in the west Ukrainian town of Uzhhorod.
Stelmashenko spent more than six months in jail before unexpectedly being released, having admitting his guilt and receiving a suspended sentence for illegal firearm possession. In a comment to openDemocracy, the General Prosecutor’s Office stated that they did not find evidence of Stelmashenko’s involvement in the attempted murder of Babchenko.
In an interview with openDemocracy after release, Stelmashenko claimed that he only found out that Babchenko even existed after his arrest, and that he did undergo training in Rostov, but for work in a private security firm.
Vyacheslav Pivovarnik presents a similar version of events. He arranged Stelmashenko’s trip to Rostov, apparently on the request of an acquaintance who was, according to Pivovarnik, looking to organise a personal security detail.
The Ukrainian security services have been searching for Pivovarnik for a year now. They believe he is the principal client of the attempted murder, and that he acted under the auspices of the Russian security services. For a long time his identity remained a mystery, but in autumn 2018 – after Borys Herman struck a deal with the investigation – Pivovarnik posted a video on YouTube where he claimed that he was, in fact, a Ukrainian intelligence agent, and had been since 2010.
Back then, according to Pivovarnik, he was working at an institute in Kyiv – the Institute of Geopolitical and Economic Research, an “expert centre” run by ex-intelligence chief Oleksandr Skipalskyi. The latter is a former deputy director of the SBU and runs an organisation for security service veterans. Indeed, according to Pivovarnik, it was Skipalskyi who recruited him, proposing that he “expose enemies of Ukrainian statehood”.
In a comment to openDemocracy, Skipalsky said that he does not remember Pivovarnik. During the interview, he also recalled that a man named Sergey Deyev had also worked at the institute. The latter, who died five years ago, was a business partner of Pivovarnik’s.
According to Pivovarnik, it was cooperation with the Ukrainian security services that led to success in his main area of business – contraband goods. Pivovarnik is registered as the co-founder and director of several logistics companies, but he calls this cover for illegal imports and exports. “We transported everything apart from weapons, alcohol and cigarettes. It’s people who are higher up that are involved in that,” he says to openDemocracy during a Skype interview.
Pivovarnik claims that he traveled to Russia to collect information on Russia’s weapons industry – a task set by his curator at the Ukrainian Ministry of Defence’s Main Intelligence Directorate, known by its acronym GUR.
“Russia and Ukraine have been competing in the military business for many years,” he says, “and information on export contracts or companies that provide spare parts is always very valuable.”
But Pivovarnik claims that his alleged curators from the Ministry of Defence quickly changed their plans, and suggested that he attempt to provoke the team of Vladislav Surkov, an aid to Vladimir Putin, into ordering a series of terrorist acts in Ukraine. A prominent “political technologist”, Surkov is known for “curating” Russian activities in Donbas, Abkhazia and South Ossetia. According to Pivovarnik, he made contact with a deputy of Surkov’s, Inal Ardzinba, and offered him the contract on Babchenko.
“We had to demonstrate to the Russians that there was an underground organisation in Ukraine which was capable of carrying this out,” Pivovarnik claims, “then get evidence of the deal and expose the fact that Russia was sponsoring terrorism to the whole world.” He adds that this alleged mission was unsuccessful. After several meetings, Ardzinba apparently declined the proposal.
“When I reported this back to Kyiv, I was told that it was too late to back out. The process had already begun,” Pivovarnik alleges. “But I didn’t expect that they would make me into the principal client.”
It’s difficult to verify Pivovarnik’s claims: the SBU calls them a lie, and Dmitry Poida, the man who allegedly organised the introduction between Ardzinba and Pivovarnik, denied knowing either of them in correspondence with openDemocracy.
Pivovarnik shared screenshots of chats with Andriy Kapustin, his alleged curator from the GUR. The messages, which openDemocracy has copies of, discuss details of contraband deals, and at the beginning of June 2018 – Borys Herman’s testimony in court.
Pivovarnik’s interlocutor suggests that the former return to Ukraine and take responsibility for the operation. In exchange, the interlocutor promises a “bonus and a good life”. OpenDemocracy could not confirm the veracity of these messages: a man by the name of Andriy Kapustin did serve in the SBU until 2016, and then in the GUR until 2017. At a minimum, one of the telephone numbers used in the chats does belong to Andriy Kapustin, but he did not respond to the author’s calls or messages.
Pivovarnik himself claims that he left Russia in summer 2018: first he crossed the border into Ukraine illegally, and then travelled to Hungary. He refuses to return to Ukraine and appear before investigators: he is afraid for his life.
In December 2018, the SBU finished its investigation into Pivovarnik and transferred the case to court – he will be tried for committing a terrorist act in absentia. But after five months, the trial is yet to begin – the initial hearing has been postponed several times, and at the last hearing, on 20 May, one of the three presiding judges recused herself.
“No one wants to hear this case because it’s a stitch-up,” Valentyn Rybin, Pivovarnik’s lawyer, claims. Rybin is known for defending Russian soldiers captured by Ukraine, as well as a series of suspects accused of state treason and spying for Russia.
Rybin claims that the charges against Pivovarnik are based solely on Borys Herman’s testimony, which was given as part of a deal with the investigation. The Ukrainian security services, whose leadership was recently changed by Ukraine’s new president Volodymyr Zelensky, still refuses to comment on the Babchenko case until verdicts are handed down to all suspects.
Arkady Babchenko himself does not know details of the case. The investigation does not officially consider him a victim – a status that would permit him access to investigation materials. But that does not prevent Babchenko from naming the man he believes is the principal client of the attempted hit on him – Evgeny Prigozhin, a Russian businessman close to Vladimir Putin, and who founded the now infamous Russian private security firm Wagner.
In Babchenko’s opinion, the plan to kill him was Prigozhin’s personal revenge for the journalist’s investigation into Wagner’s activities, as well as an attempt to destabilise the situation in Ukraine. Speaking to openDemocracy, Babchenko admits that he came to this conclusion on the basis of “logical conclusions from well-known facts”.
In December 2018, Babchenko applied to the European Court of Human Rights, accusing the Russian authorities of harassment and attempting to kill him. That same month, Time magazine gave their annual nomination for “Person of the Year” to a group of journalists from across the world – journalists who were killed, imprisoned or attacked for their professional work. The US magazine also named Arkady Babchenko in the nomination, noting that he had become a “pariah for certain colleagues” as a result of the staged murder.i