HE was bringing a Russian dissident back from the dead. But deadpan Vasyl Hrytsak was giving nothing away.

The career intelligence officer, head of Ukraine’s SBU security service, was briefing journalists on what they thought was yet another murder of yet another critic of strongman Vladimir Putin.

The Kremlin, Hrytsak told reporters, had been behind a plot to kill Arkidiy Babchenko, an independent war correspondent who slated Russia’s proxy war against Ukraine.

Pictures of the 41-year-old journalist’s corpse, face down in a pool of blood, had been circulating for a day. His widow was mourning him. So were his friends. Obituaries were written.

“I would express my condolences to the family of Arkadiy Babchenko,” Mr Hrytsak announced gravely. “But I am not going to do that. Instead I am going to congratulate him on a new birthday.”

And so, reborn, a murdered journalist edged his way past photographers in to a press conference  SBU’s Kiev headquarters. First there were gasps. Then wows. Finally, slowly, applause. Mr Babchenko, in a black hoodie and grey track suit bottoms, clutched his hand to his nose and folded his arms. He was alive.

This was theatre. Mr Babchenko had helped stage his own killing to help expose - said Hrytsak - Russian agencies who wanted the reporter dead.

The Babchenko killing was just another act in an slow-burning half-forgotten war between Russia and Ukraine, a war, as in all others, where the first casualty was truth.

“Sorry for making  you all to go through this,” the journalist told gathered colleagues. “There was no other way.” And then he added: “Separately, I would like to apologise to my wife for the hell she has had to endure these last two days. Olechka, sorry, there were no other options.”

Had Olga Babchenko known her husband was alive? His colleagues certainly did not. Somebody filmed the gathered staff of  his news outlet watching the press conference. Journalists leaped and whooped. One man rushed forward to a wide-screen TV and caressed Mr Babchenko’s image.


Arkadiy Babchenko

And so SBU told its story. Russia, it said, had conspired to kill the journalist and a few dozen more Ukrainians and Russian dissidents. But the man hired by the Kremlin - or at least some shady agency to the east - had told the SBU.

Mr Babchenko was told a month ago, he said, that a contract had been taken out on him. He decided, he said, to play along with a ruse to expose those who wanted him dead, those who had been ready to pay his “killer”, the English word used in Russian for hired assassins.

Mr Hrytsak said a man, a mysterious Citizen G, was in custody. Searches and investigations, he added, were under way.

Russia had already denied killing Mr Babchenko. Now its foreign ministry spokeswoman dismissed the whole affair as “propaganda”.

There was concern too from journalists. Mr Babchenko, some said, had crossed a line from reporter to actor, in more senses than one.  Media rights campaign group Reporters Without Borders condemned the SBU operation as a “pathetic stunt.” Its secretary general Christophe Deloire tweeted: “It is always very dangerous for a government to play with the facts, especially using journalists for their fake stories.”

Will Russia now cite the Babchenko case every time it is accused of killing a Putin critic? And the body count of Kremlin enemies, at home and abroad, is growing quickly.

Others were more forgiving of the SBU’s wiles. Drew Sullivan, of the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project, said: “My take: first, thank God he is alive and, second, you need to go to extreme measures to get journalist killers.”

Mr Babchenko summed up with a sheepish grin: “I am - for now - alive.”