Two days ago, Kremlin-watchers worldwide were stunned and saddened to hear of the assassination of Arkady Babchenko, a Russian journalist and war correspondent who fled his homeland in early 2017, fearing for his life. As a prominent critic of President Vladimir Putin, Babchenko’s fears were wholly warranted, given how many Russian journalists and activists who got on the wrong side of Putin’s regime have wound up murdered, usually by never-identified hitmen, over the last couple decades.
Babchenko’s sad end, shot in the back outside his apartment in Kyiv, the Ukrainian capital where he had taken refuge with his family, seemed like a death foretold. Volodymyr Groysman, Ukraine’s prime minister, promptly blamed Moscow for the murder, a claim that was widely believed. Aleksandr Bortnikov, the head of Russia’s powerful Federal Security Service (FSB), dismissed Kyiv’s accusation as “bullshit,” but few outside the Kremlin’s walls believed him. After all, the Babchenko hit came less than three months after the near-murder of the former Russian intelligence officer Sergei Skripal and his daughter in England, an outrageously brazen act of state terrorism. After Skripal’s near-death, and the Western pushback it engendered, Western media was finally on the lookout for more assassinations of the sort the Kremlin calls wetwork.
Journalists from all over the world eulogized the martyred Babchenko, hailing his bitter opposition to Putin and his sordid regime, while recalling that Pavel Sheremet, a Belarusian journalist and Kremlin critic, had been blown up by a bomb placed in his car in downtown Kyiv just two years before. Who else but the FSB could be responsible for Babchenko’s murder? Harsh reactions from Western media to the Babchenko assassination felt like an effort to make up for their relative inattention to so many previous Kremlin hits on people whom Moscow disliked. Now, just a few days after Western governments publicly fingered the Kremlin as the culprit behind the murder of 298 innocents in the shoot-down of Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 over Ukraine in July 2014, it was time to call Putin and his murderers out.
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