There is a word, beloved by the Kremlin and all its representatives, that has yet to cross into an American lexicon that longs for such Russian transplants: provokatsiya. Literally: a provocation. Figuratively: a false-flag operation.
The poisoning of the former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter, Yulia, in Britain? Provokatsiya!
The shooting down of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 over eastern Ukraine? Provokatsiya!
The Kremlin’s interference in the 2016 presidential race? Provokatsiya, obviously.
Before Wednesday, it was easy to deride Kremlin cries of provokatsiya as a cynical way of directing our gaze away from the facts and past them — onto the highly improbable and the flat-out conspiratorial. But after Wednesday, thanks to the machinations of the Russian journalist Arkady Babchenko, dismissing such claims became far more difficult. This time, the Russians turned out to be right.
The story is straight out of a Bond film: On Tuesday, Mr. Babchenko, who had long irked the Kremlin with his critical coverage of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, was shot in the back three times in his apartment while his wife was in the shower. He was living in Kiev, the Ukrainian capital, where he had fled because he feared for his safety in Moscow. But Russian agents found him even there, and he died in the ambulance on the way to the hospital. His wife, the police said, was in a state of shock.
Mr. Babchenko’s colleagues in Moscow were rocked by the news. Many of them didn’t like him personally or agree with his politics — he hated the regime so much that, for instance, he wrote that the dozens of children who burned to death in a fire in a mall in the city of Kemerovo were atonement for Vladimir Putin’s crimes.
But on Tuesday, they set their differences aside. They wrote obituaries and took to social media with the speed born of grim familiarity: another Russian journalist gunned down by the Kremlin for having the gall to think independently.
And there was little doubt that it was the Kremlin. Russian-ordered hit men were suspected of having killed two journalists and a former Russian legislator in Kiev in the past two years alone. Who else kills Russian journalists for their work? Who else hunts down its enemies far beyond Russia’s borders?
Immediately, Kremlin-proximate sources teed up explanations that this was all a provokatsiya: Why would President Putin kill an anti-Putin journalist when he would be the first person everyone would accuse? Aleksei Pushkov, a hawkish member of Parliament, was sure it was a trick meant to smear Moscow. “Why did the police go to Babchenko’s house a few hours before he was killed?” he tweeted. “Why did they look for recordings from the cameras or turn off the cameras? As a rule, there are no coincidences in such cases.”
Independent journalists sneered at these obvious attempts to redirect blame. That is, until about 6 p.m. on Wednesday, when Mr. Babchenko was resurrected.
He appeared suddenly — alive, breathing, joking, apologizing to his wife — at a news conference in Kiev with the Ukrainian Security Service, the country’s successor to the K.G.B. It turned out that when he died on the way to the hospital, he hadn’t died even a little. It had all been a monthlong sting operation by the security service to entrap the contract killer and the Russian who had allegedly put a hit out on Mr. Babchenko.
Apparently, the stunt worked and the killer — who the Ukrainians claimed was set to carry out 30 contract hits — was apprehended. (Mr. Babchenko’s apology to his wife was also apparently a hoax: She was in on it.) The least likely scenario, that Kiev staged this to make Moscow look bad, turned out to be true.
Independent Russian journalists were furious. All the ethics and ideals for which they had been marginalized, persecuted and killed by the state — Mr. Babchenko had incinerated them with one cinematic act of collusion with a state security agency. Who would trust them now?
“This is an embarrassing story; it’s disgusting,” wrote Ilya Krasilshchik, co-founder of the independent Russian news site Meduza, while Andrei Soldatov, who writes about the Russian secret services, said, “I’m glad he is alive, but he undermined even further the credibility of journalists and the media.”
Yevgenia Albats, the grande dame of Moscow opposition journalism, fumed that “the theory of fake news was confirmed and the Kremlin is celebrating.”
Others rightly pointed out that Mr. Babchenko’s stunt would have repercussions far beyond journalism. “The whole point of the word ‘provokatsiya’ is to convince people that everything happens for a reason, and that everything that’s happening is part of a plot against Russia,” said another Russian journalist, Tikhon Dzyadko, who on Tuesday had slammed Russian officials for calling Mr. Babchenko’s death a provokatsiya. “After Babchenko’s stunt yesterday, it will be much harder to accuse Russian officials of anything. They will flaunt Babchenko as an example.”
For years, Russia officialdom has claimed provokatsiya at the highest levels. When Mr. Skripal was poisoned in England, Vasily Nebenzya, the Russian ambassador to the United Nations, railed at the Security Council that it was all provokatsiya. Mr. Skripal had been poisoned near a British test site for chemical weapons! The poison wasn’t Russian, it was British! And had anyone checked on Mr. Skripal’s cats and guinea pigs? Had they been poisoned too? Sitting in that staid room at the United Nations, Mr. Nebenzya repeated “provokatsiya” so many times it could have been a dubstep remix.
Until Mr. Babchenko’s stunt, it had been easy to dismiss this as self-serving smoke and mirrors. But the Kremlin-hating journalist has turned it into a real weapon. Top Ukrainian officials who hadn’t been in on the stunt had already raised Mr. Babchenko’s murder at the United Nations, laying the blame at Russia’s feet. What of their claim now? What of all their future legitimate claims?
After Mr. Babchenko’s resurrection, you never know.
Julia Ioffe, a contributing writer at The Atlantic, is at work on a book about Russia.