Obituaries had been written, travel arrangements were in train for the funeral, and Western politicians including Boris Johnson had announced they were “appalled”
Meanwhile, Ukraine had blamed Russia, Russia had blamed Ukraine, and both launched rival investigations to prove their stories.
And journalists in both countries, taught by bitter experience not to trust official probes into the deaths of their colleagues, pledged to run their own investigations.
But then came a twist that no one could predict: Vasily Gritsak, the head of Ukraine’s Security Service (SBU), called a press conference and announced the whole thing had been a hoax.
For a moment, there was an uncomprehending silence. Then a door opened, and in shuffled a familiar shaven headed man.
Arkady Babchenko was wearing light trousers and a black hoodie. And he was looking somewhat sheepish.
“I have buried many friends and colleagues many times and I know the sickening feeling,” he said, by way of explanation. “I am sorry you had to experience it. But there was no other way.”
“Special apologies to my wife. Olechka, I am sorry, but there were no options here,” he said. “The operation took two months to prepare. I was told a month ago. As a result of the operation, one person has been captured, he is being held,” he added.
Mr Gritsak said Mr Babchenko’s fake death, which fooled his closest friends and family, as well we international media and world leaders, had allowed Ukrainian agents to thwart a genuine plot to take the journalist’s life.
Staging the murder, he implied, was necessary to gain evidence of communication between the hit man and his handlers, who he said worked for the Russian security services.
Yury Lutsenko, Ukraine’s prosecutor general, said the alleged plot had involved a Ukrainian citizen recruited by Russian handlers to carry out the murder.
The SBU later released video of what they said was money being handed to the hired killer.
The death and resurrection of Russia’s most famous war correspondent is one of the strangest episodes in the bitter confrontation between Russia and Ukraine.
Kiev hailed a victory and Moscow condemned a stunt. But the move drew criticism from journalists and media freedom groups who said it undermined faith in reporting and played into the hands of governments who dismiss unwelcome coverage as fake news.
News of Mr Babchenko’s “death” sent shock waves through the Russian journalistic community and opposition circles when it was announced on Tuesday evening.
Ukrainian police said the veteran war correspondent had been killed by a gunman lurking in the stairwell outside his Kiev flat late on Tuesday evening.
Police said his wife, Olga, found his body on the threshold of the flat with several gunshot wounds in his back and that he died in an ambulance on the way to hospital.
All of this seemed entirely plausible to those who knew him.
Mr Babchenko was an implacable public critic of the Kremlin whose public statements had become increasingly abrasive, and the death appeared to fit with a pattern of murders in Kiev.
The unsolved deaths include that of Pavel Sheremet, a prominent Belarusian born liberal journalist who was blown up in his car in 2016.
The gunman in the stairwell and the shots in the back also recalled the deaths of two other prominent Kremlin critics – Anna Politkovskaya and Boris Nemtsov, who were murdered in Moscow in 2006 and 2015.
One Russian war photographer and friend of Mr Babchenko told the Telegraph he was “not surprised,” on reflection, that his friend had been killed.
Several acquaintances of Mr Babchenko, many of whom had posted tributes online or even written obituaries for the Russian and foreign media, expressed relief mixed with deep unease over the deception.
And media freedom groups condemned the hoax, saying it could put other journalists in danger and play into the hands of those behind real murders.
“It is pathetic and regrettable that the Ukrainian police have played with the truth, whatever their motive,” said Christophe Deloire, the head of Reporter Without Borders. “All it takes is one case like this to cast doubt on all the other political assassinations.”
Nor did it shine a light on the other unsolved murders – which some Ukrainian activists say the authorities have been distinctly reluctant to investigate with anything like the same level of commitment.
When a Ukrainian journalist asked about the investigation into “a real murder – that of Pavel Sheremet,” Mr Gritsak replied: “we have a different topic today.”
The Russian government, which in the morning had condemned Mr Babchenko’s murder and denied accusations of involvement, in the evening welcomed his recovery and swiftly condemned the hoax as “propaganda.”
“The fact that Babchenko is alive is the best news” said Maria Zakharova, spokeswoman for the foreign ministry. “The fact that the whole story was created for propaganda effect is obvious.”
The Ukrainian government was defiant over the operation last night.
Petro Poroshenko, the Ukrainian president, wrote on Facebook on Wednesday evening.
“I congratulate the SBU. You have conducted a brilliant operation to protect the life of Russian journalist Arkady Babchenko,” Petro Poroshenko, the Ukrainian president, wrote on Facebook on Wednesday evening.
Anton Geraschenko, an aide to the Ukrainian interior ministry, justified the pain caused to Mr Babchenko’s family and friends by the hoax saying Sherlock Holmes had used the same tactic.
“Wasn’t that also painful for his relatives a Dr Watson,” he wrote on Facebook.