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'Hello. I'm Your Killer': Behind Ukraine's Faked Assassination

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Mr. Babchenko at a news conference in Kiev on May 30. Photo: Sergei Supinsky/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images

By James Marson, The Wall Street Journal.
KIEV, Ukraine

“Hello. I’m your killer,” Oleksiy Tsymbalyuk said when he met Arkady Babchenko, a Russian dissident journalist, for the first time this spring.

The next time the two men saw each other, in late May, Mr. Babchenko was lying in a pool of pig’s blood inside his Kiev apartment, which had been meticulously prepared to look like the setting for an assassin’s hit.

“Good health!” Mr. Tsymbalyuk said, a typical Ukrainian greeting.

“Don’t make me laugh,” said Mr. Babchenko.

[post_ads]The next day, after photos of the scene were leaked online and news of his murder generated international condemnation, Mr. Babchenko appeared at a news conference to reveal the elaborate hoax. Ukraine’s security service said the ruse had allowed the agency to foil a Russian plot, a rare victory after the killing of several Kremlin critics on the streets of the country’s capital. This time was different—because the hired gun didn’t shoot.

Ukrainian authorities also arrested Borys Herman, a businessman who they say has channeled money from Russia to activities aimed at undermining Ukraine’s government. The security service said Mr. Herman paid Mr. Tsymbalyuk to conduct the hit; Mr. Herman later confirmed in a pretrial court hearing that he ordered the hit, but declared his innocence by saying he had been working for Ukrainian counterintelligence to uncover Russian plots. He is under arrest ahead of a trial later this year.

Russian officials denied involvement in any plot to kill Mr. Babchenko and said the hoax proved how unreliable any information from Ukraine’s government is. Russia has been covertly supporting separatists fighting in eastern Ukraine since 2014.

In interviews, Messrs. Babchenko and Tsymbalyuk described how they worked with Ukraine’s security service, the SBU, to stage the fake assassination. Ukraine’s government declined to comment beyond public statements, citing the impending trial.

Mr. Tsymbalyuk, who is now 43 years old, was one of the thousands of ordinary Ukrainians who joined the fight against the separatists in 2014. He said he joined a nationalist militia after a friend was killed, serving in several hot spots on the front lines.

His nom de guerre was Aristarkh, the name he had taken when serving as an Orthodox monk for a time.

In winter 2015, Mr. Tsymbalyuk said he met Mr. Herman, now 51, who ran a small business that modified and upgraded weapons. Mr. Tsymbalyuk said they met several times on business and would exchange small talk critical of the Ukrainian government.

At one meeting at the beginning of April, Mr. Tsymbalyuk said that Mr. Herman described a hit list with dozens of names and asked whether he would be interested in working as a contract killer.

“Of course I would,” Mr. Tsymbalyuk said he replied.

A week later, he said Mr. Herman sent him a dossier on Mr. Babchenko with the words: “This person should be sent to meet his maker.”

Mr. Tsymbalyuk said he made a recording of their next meeting, where he said Mr. Herman asked him to name his price, and took it straight to an SBU agent he knew.

“God gave me the chance to land a blow against Russia’s security services,” he said.
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Security officials said they hatched a plot to snare Mr. Herman, get hold of the list and reveal his network. Only a handful of people knew to avoid leaks, so the hoax had to be as realistic as possible.

The SBU later showed reporters what it said was a hidden-camera video of the late April meeting in which Mr. Herman gave Mr. Tsymbalyuk the first installment of his $30,000 fee.

The next day, Mr. Babchenko found two SBU agents waiting for him at the television channel where he worked. The 41-year-old had fled Russia—where he had fought in the Russian army in Chechnya before becoming a war correspondent and Kremlin critic—after receiving threats.

Mr. Babchenko said that he was immediately convinced by the evidence they presented. Burying colleagues in Russia had taught him that, for the Kremlin, killing a journalist is as easy as “spitting once,” he said.

At first, he wanted to grab his wife and daughter and disappear, but he soon agreed to take part in the ruse. “When you have the chance to grab the b------s by the a-s, you have to take it,” he said.

SBU agents visited several times to talk through the operation, including once with Mr. Tsymbalyuk.

Then, on May 29, Mr. Babchenko said an SBU agent and a makeup artist began preparing him and his wife, Olga, for the story they had settled on: that the journalist was shot in the back as he entered his apartment.

Preparations were meticulous. Mr. Babchenko said he put on a T-shirt that already had bullet holes in it. The makeup artist poured pig’s blood into his mouth, and he fell to his knees coughing. The agent snapped a few gruesome photos that would later be leaked online. The agent and the makeup artist left around 8 p.m.

Soon, Mr. Tsymbalyuk entered and greeted Mr. Babchenko, who was lying on the floor, both men said. Then Mr. Tsymbalyuk left, and Ms. Babchenko called the emergency services, some of whom were in on the ruse.

Police special forces—who hadn’t been briefed—burst in, Mr. Babchenko said.

“Who is he?” one asked.

“A Russian journalist,” Ms. Babchenko replied.

“Again?” the cop said, adding an expletive.

Mr. Babchenko said medics rushed him into an ambulance and drove him a couple of miles before pulling over, pretending to try to resuscitate him. Twenty minutes later, they declared Mr. Babchenko dead.

But after arriving at the morgue around 10 p.m., he came back to life. Having taken off his clothes and washed away the blood, he said he sat wrapped in a sheet smoking cigarettes, drinking tea and watching reports of his death on TV.

News of his apparent murder spread fast. His wife played the distraught widow to journalist friends. Police reported a murder on social media and even produced a sketch of the suspect.

Mr. Tsymbalyuk, meanwhile, was racked with concern. He said he had messaged Mr. Herman using their code name for Mr. Babchenko: “I exterminated Tapeworm.”

But he said Mr. Herman didn’t reply for a while. Then, after midnight, he said Mr. Herman wrote back, saying he was sick from excessive drinking but satisfied with the apparent success.
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The next day—as Western governments sent their condolences, and some Ukrainian officials pointed the finger at Russia—the operation moved faster than planned, according to Messrs. Babchenko and Tsymbalyuk. They said security services got word that Mr. Herman had tickets to fly to Italy, so they swooped and detained him.

Then, as the SBU’s chief briefed reporters on the case, Mr. Babchenko stepped forward to gasps and then cheers. Ukrainian officials took Mr. Babchenko to see President Petro Poroshenko.

In court, where Mr. Herman said he had been working for Ukrainian counterintelligence, he confirmed the SBU’s allegation that the contract on Mr. Babchenko had been put out by an old Ukrainian acquaintance living in Russia who was acting for the Kremlin. Mr. Herman said Mr. Tsymbalyuk had been chosen because he was a priest and wouldn’t carry out a murder but inform the authorities. Mr. Herman blamed his detention on strife between the SBU and Ukrainian counterintelligence. The SBU, which is in charge of counterintelligence, said it has no record of Mr. Herman working with them.

Mr. Herman criticized Ukraine’s government during his court appearance for not taking sufficient measures against Russia’s covert operations.

“The Russians are spending a lot of money and effort in order to take Ukraine,” he said.

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