Assassination of Russian defector raises suspicions of covert hit operations: Report

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The individuals responsible for the death of Maksim Kuzminov aimed to convey a strong message, a fact apparent to investigators in Spain even before they identified the victim. In a parking garage in southern Spain, they shot Kuzminov six times and callously ran over his body with their vehicle, The New York Times reported. The presence of shell casings from 9-millimetre Makarov rounds, standard ammunition in the former Communist bloc, provided a vital clue to the killer’s identity, according to investigators.

“It was a clear message,” remarked a senior official from the Guardia Civil, the Spanish police force leading the investigation. “I will find you, I will kill you, I will run you over and humiliate you.” Kuzminov, who defected from Russia to Ukraine, committed an act deemed unforgivable by Russian President Vladimir Putin: treachery. Last summer, he flew his Mi-8 military helicopter into Ukrainian territory, delivering the aircraft and a cache of secret documents to Ukrainian intelligence operatives, according to NYT.

His brutal killing in the seaside town of Villajoyosa last month raises concerns about the continued operation of Russia’s European spy networks, despite efforts to dismantle them following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2022. Russian intelligence services have reportedly escalated their activities both domestically and internationally, displaying a level of aggression reminiscent of the Stalin era, according to Andrei Soldatov, an expert on Russia’s military and security services.

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“This goes beyond traditional espionage,” Soldatov stated. “It involves operations, which may include assassinations.” In Spain, Kuzminov lived conspicuously, frequenting bars popular among Russian and Ukrainian clientele and spending lavishly. He drove a black Mercedes S-Class around Villajoyosa. The method by which the assailants located him remains uncertain, though two Ukrainian officials claimed he had contacted a former girlfriend in Russia, inadvertently revealing his location. “This was a grave mistake,” one official remarked, as reported by NYT.

Senior police officials, speaking anonymously, noted similarities between Kuzminov’s killing and other attacks associated with the Kremlin, such as the assassination of a former Chechen rebel commander in Berlin in 2019 and the poisoning of former Russian military intelligence operative Sergei V Skripal in Salisbury, England, in 2018. The two hooded killers captured on surveillance footage from the parking garage were evidently skilled professionals who executed their mission swiftly before vanishing without a trace.

“This level of violence is uncommon in Spain,” remarked Chief Pepe Alvarez of the Villajoyosa Police Department. “It suggests involvement of organised crime or a criminal organisation.” While direct Kremlin involvement has not been substantiated, Russia has openly expressed its desire for Kuzminov’s demise. Shortly after his defection, a Kremlin news program featured pilots and commandos from Russia’s military intelligence service vowing retribution. “We’ll find this person and punish him, with all the severity of our country’s laws, for treason and for betraying his brothers,” declared one commando.

Kuzminov’s defection to Ukraine, orchestrated by a covert unit within HUR, Ukraine’s military intelligence arm, marked a significant victory for Ukraine. The unit specialises in recruiting Russian fighters and conducting sabotage missions on Russian soil. The success of Ukraine’s recruitment efforts remains difficult to gauge. While thousands of Russian citizens have joined volunteer units fighting alongside the Ukrainian military, their impact on the balance of power remains minimal, as reported by CNN.

Kuzminov, disillusioned by Russian actions, embarked on his daring flight from western Russia to Ukraine in August 2023. Despite encountering Ukrainian fighters who shot him during the escape, he successfully delivered the helicopter and its cargo to Ukrainian forces. Following the defection, Kuzminov became a vocal critic of Russia’s war policies, touring media outlets and urging others to follow his lead. Despite Ukraine’s attempts to protect him, Kuzminov ultimately relocated to Villajoyosa, a town with a notable presence of Russian organised crime figures.

On February 13, Kuzminov met his demise in the parking garage of his apartment building. As he approached his vehicle, two assailants emerged from a white Hyundai Tucson, opening fire and fatally injuring him before fleeing the scene. The murder weapon, a white Hyundai Tucson stolen two days prior, was discovered burned several miles away. Despite the evidence, Spanish authorities have not publicly confirmed Kuzminov’s identity, facing challenges in contacting Ukrainian officials for assistance. However, within the Russian and Ukrainian expatriate communities in Villajoyosa, there’s little doubt regarding the culprits behind Kuzminov’s death.

“Everyone believes the services were involved,” remarked Ivan, a Ukrainian expatriate. Amidst suspicions of heightened Russian intelligence activities in Spain, concerns persist regarding the safety of defectors and critics of the Kremlin. The murder of Kuzminov serves as a stark reminder of the risks associated with opposing the Russian regime, leaving Ukrainian officials wary of the potential consequences for future defectors. “Russia will spread propaganda, threatening to find all traitors,” noted a senior Ukrainian official. “This sends a message to Russian citizens, especially military personnel, that betrayal will not go unpunished,” The New York Times reported.