It first looked like another political murder of somebody with anti-Kremlin views. An exiled Russian journalist in Ukraine, highly critical of the Putin regime in Russia, shot dead near his home in Kyiv. The track record of similar cases made this a believable story for the media in and out of Ukraine. However, this story took an unexpected turn.
One day after the "murder" of Arkady Babchenko – a Russian journalist and political commentator – was reported and confirmed by the Ukrainian authorities, Babchenko showed up, alive and well, at a press conference in Kyiv. The "resurrected" journalist stood alongside Vasyl Hrytsak, head of Ukraine’s Security Service (SBU) and Yuriy Lutsenko, the country’s Prosecutor General. After multiple reports of his death on May 29, 2018, the following day the global media was buzzing about the fact that he was, in fact, alive.
The world was stunned. Not nearly as stunned as when it learned about the “murder” itself. In fact, there were several murders of Putin regime critics in Kyiv before that either directly or indirectly showed signs of Kremlin's involvement. Belarusian journalist Pavel Sheremet, ex-MP from Russia, Denis Voronenkov, Chechen soldier fighting alongside Ukrainian soldiers in the Donbas Amina Okueva were all killed in Kyiv or nearby. There was no reason for the world not to be believe that Babchenko was murdered, too.
Immediately after the murder was confirmed, a number of international and regional organizations and watchdogs urged Ukraine to investigate it. The Secretary General of the Council of Europe Thorbjørn Jagland condemned the killing.
Words of mourning and condemnation were still flowing to Ukraine, when all of a sudden, on May 30, 2018, Babchenko appeared in a press conference by the SBU. As Hrytsak, head of SBU, alongside Babchenko, told journalists, there was indeed a plan to kill Babchenko, but the security services managed to prevent it. Moreover, they played along and staged the murder to get behind its details.
According to Ukrainian law enforcement, beside Babchenko, Russian security services intended to murder a few dozen of other well-known Ukrainian activists and Russians in exile, in order to destabilize the situation in Ukraine. First, the figure of the supposed targets was voiced as 30, but later increased to 47.
Hrytsak told journalists that Russian security services hired a Ukrainian to carry out the murder and paid him $40,000. This man then hired an acquaintance, a former volunteer with the Ukrainian forces in Donbas, to carry out the murders. He received $30,000 and the mediator kept $10,000 for his work as an organizer. However, the supposed “hitman” contacted the SBU.
In the following criminal case, four people were indicted. All of them were citizens of Ukraine. Hromadske finds out what's happened to them since.
Oleksiy Tsymbalyuk - the “Killer”
Tsymbalyuk, the “hitman”, who reported the plans of the supposed murder to the SBU. He participated in the “killing” dramatization and later testified in the case as a witness.
On Facebook, Tsymbalyuk, a former participant in the conflict in Donbas, announced he was the supposed killer. It was later confirmed by SBU.
According to Tsymbalyuk, he received an offer to murder Babchenko. He accepted the offer, but immediately contacted the SBU.
On May 29, 2019, Babchenko expressed his gratitude to Tsymbalyuk on Facebook.
Oleksiy Tsymbalyuk was a monk of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, within the Moscow Patriarchate, living in the Carpathian Mountains at one point. Later, he became a volunteer with Right Sector battalion in Donbas. In Donbas, he collaborated with mobile groups of Ukraine’s Security Service.
Oleksiy Tsymbalyuk on his way to Donbas in 2014. Photo: Bohdan Kutiepov / Hromadske.
Taras Stelmashenko, the “Accomplice”
Stelmashenko was detained as an accomplice. His guilt was not proven in court. Following that, he was released from custody.
Taras Stelmashenko was suspected of involvement in the attempted murder of Babchenko. On July 15, 2018, his alleged part became known, after SBU announced the involvement in the case of the “Citizen T.”.
However, in the end, the SBU suspicion was not confirmed. Kyiv’s Shevchenskiy district court ordered the release of Stelmashenko, because the military prosecutor’s office dropped charges against him. However, Stelmashenko pleaded guilty for illegal possession of weapons and was sentenced to five years imprisonment for that.
Boris Herman, the “Organizer”
Boris Herman, according to the SBU, was the main organizer of the attempted assassination. He was sentenced to 4.5 years imprisonment.
SBU detained Herman on May 30, 2019 - a day after the “murder” of Babchenko was reported and confirmed. The video of his detention by non-uniformed SBU agents in the street of Kyiv, was shown during the infamous press conference.
Herman worked as an executive director of joint Ukrainian-German firm Schmeiser. This non-state enterprise was manufacturing weapons.
According to Ruslan Kravchenko, the prosecutor in the case, Herman handed $14,000 to Tsymbalyuk to bail him out.
In the end, Boris Herman was sentenced to 4 years and 6 months imprisonment as the organizer of the murder. According to the press secretary of the SBU, Herman fully admitted his guilt. The head of SBU, Vasiliy Hrytsak said that the verdict to Herman was announced on August 30, 2018.
Boris Herman (left) and Taras Stelmashenko during the court hearing of the attempted murder of Arkadiy Babchenko. Kyiv, July 18, 2018. Photo: Ihor Burdiga, Hromadske.
Viacheslav Pivovarnik, the “Client”
Viacheslav Pivovarnik is suspected of ordering the murder. He is sought by Ukrainian authorities and is currently in the territory of the Russian Federation.
During the trial in Kyiv, Herman said that the main organizer on the Russian side was Viacheslav Pivovarnik, a citizen of Ukraine. The SBU informed him of the charges he faces in Ukraine. He is suspected of organizing the assassination of Babchenko and other well-known murders of various figures in Kyiv.
Hromadske, via its sources, found out that Pivovarnik likely lives in the Russian city of Saint-Petersburg.
During the trial, Herman said he was himself a member of Ukrainian counterintelligence agencies, with an aim to expose the activities of Pivovarnik.
In September 2018, Pivovarnik released a video in Ukrainian, explaining that he was recruited by Ukrainian security services in 2010. According to him, the attempted assassination was intended to intimidate journalists in the country. In December 2018, he released another video, where he said he would not come to court proceedings and that he has hired a lawyer.