‘State terrorism’: Ex-Russian lawmaker assassinated in Kyiv
The brazen assassination of a former Russian lawmaker in central Kyiv has raised concerns for the safety of other Kremlin critics who have taken refuge in Ukraine.
Denys Voronenkov, accompanied by a state-provided bodyguard, was gunned down in a volley of bullets about 11:30 a.m. on March 23 as he was walking outside Kyiv’s Premier Palace Hotel near the corner of Taras Shevchenko Boulevard and Pushkinska Street. His assassin was fatally shot by Voronenkov’s bodyguard.
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko called the murder “an act of state terrorism,” squarely accusing his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, of carrying out the crime through his Russian Federal Security
Service, or FSB. “Once again we have witnessed a textbook method of the Russian special forces, which we have repeatedly seen in various European capitals,” Poroshenko said in a statement.
The Kremlin dismissed the accusation as absurd.
After fleeing Russia for Ukraine six months ago, Voronenkov became a witness in Ukrainian’s high treason criminal case against ex-President Viktor Yanukovych, who fled to Russia on Feb. 22, 2014, amid the EuroMaidan Revolution to oust him. Voronenkov testified in January and was scheduled to give more testimony.
His state bodyguard exchanged gunfire with the victim’s assassin, identified only as a Ukrainian citizen, mortally wounding him. The assassin died of his injuries hours later in a hospital. The bodyguard, an employee of Ukraine’s Department of State Guards, was wounded in the shootout. Authorities say he is recovering and cooperating with the police investigation.
Who was Voronenkov?
Voronenkov, 45, was a controversial politician who went from supporting Russia’s annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula in 2014 to vocal criticism of the Kremlin. Months before the assassination, he gave up his Russian citizenship for a Ukrainian passport.
The murder comes amid a series of recent assassinations of other Kremlin critics, in Russia and abroad. The most famous of the murders include those of Russian opposition politician Boris Nemtsov in Moscow in 2015 and the poisoning by radioactive polonium-210 of former Russian FSB security service agent Alexander Litvinenko in London in 2006.
Voronenkov, who had a military background, had been in politics since 2000, moving between highand middle-level offices before finally getting elected to Russia’s State Duma in 2011, where he represented the Communist Party until 2016, when he failed to get re-elected.
When Russian unleashed its war against Ukraine in 2014, Voronenkov backed the Kremlin’s annexation of Crimea and voted for it in parliament. He later gave a range of excuses for doing so, saying that he had been forced to do so or that he had never voted for it at all.
Despite his formerly pro-Kremlin stance, Voronenkov’s life in Russia was marred in 2014–2015 by a fraud investigation. He was suspected of a hostile takeover of a building in Moscow. Russian investigators acted to lift Voronenkov’s immunity from prosecution, and succeeded in February – but by that time Voronenkov was no longer in Russia.
He moved to Kyiv in October, explaining that he disagreed with the Russian regime and didn’t want to “live in lies and hypocrisy anymore.”
Voronenkov was granted Ukrainian citizenship just two months after his arrival. The speed of that decision was surprising, fueling suspicions that the Russian lawmaker had made some kind of deal with the Ukrainian authorities. He soon gave testimony against Yanukovych, the former Ukrainian president suspected of numerous crimes including helping to instigate Russia’s war against the nation he led from 2010 to 2014.
Voronenkov moved to Kyiv with his second wife, opera singer and lawmaker Maria Maksakova, and their infant son. He also leaves two children from his first marriage.
Voronenkov was walking near the fivestar Premier Palace Hotel, a popular meeting place, at approximately 11:30 a.m. when he was approached by a man in a grey hoodie and sweatpants.
The man shot Voronenkov in the head and wounded his bodyguard in the stomach before being shot himself by the bodyguard.
Altogether, from six to 10 shots were fired, according to various accounts of witnesses. Voronenkov died on the spot. His attacker died in hospital three hours later. Prosecutor General Yuriy Lutsenko identified him as a Ukrainian citizen, but no other details have been made public.
The murder took place as Voronenkov was heading to a meeting with Ilya Ponomarev, an ex-member of Russian parliament and an opposition politician living in Kyiv, Ponomarev said.
Ukrainian investigators’ main theory is that the assassination was ordered by Russia.
The Premier Palace Hotel, in front of which the shootout took place, belongs to Russian businessman and former pro-Kremlin lawmaker Alexander Babakov, who is Putin’s representative for relations with ethnic Russians abroad.
Voronenkov’s murder coincided with a large-scale and suspicious explosion at a giant ammunition depot in the city of Balakliya in Kharkiv Oblast on March 23, which some Ukrainian officials have blamed on Russian saboteurs.
One theory is that Voronenkov was killed because he had testified about Yanukovych’s alleged crimes and was going to testify again on March 23, Lutsenko said, possibly implicating also allies of Yanukovych. The mysterious deaths of at least three Yanukovych associates in recent years are also suspected to be murders meant to prevent their testimony.
Another theory is that Voronenkov was killed because he investigated alleged smuggling by Russia’s Federal Security Service as a military prosecutor in the early 2000s, Lutsenko said.
Russia’s version of the events is consistent with denials after previous murders of Kremlin critics: The killing was a provocation by Ukrainian authorities.
In the early 2000s, Voronenkov was involved in an investigation into a large smuggling ring known as the “Three Whales” case, after the name of a furniture shop used for smuggling.
The investigation showed the involvement of top FSB officials in smuggling luxury furniture worth of billions of dollars. Voronenkov said that 16 FSB generals lost their jobs as a result of their findings and the search was leading to higher officials.
But Voronenkov claimed that Putin, who initially hired his confidant General Viktor Cherkesov to lead the investigation, later called a halt to the process.
“It turned out that Putin doesn’t like to spill the beans if it is related to his closest friends, who as it turned out are allowed to be corrupt,” Voronenkov said in an interview with Ukrainian investigative news website Censor.net.
Voronenkov said many investigators were subsequently arrested by the FSB on trumped-up charges, and he personally survived an assassination attempt in Moscow in 2007 over this case.
Russian opposition politician Ponomarev claimed at a press conference after Voronenkov’s murder that the “Three Whales” case was one of the biggest investigations in Russia in the 2000s, and its findings were still of relevance.
“He, Voronenkov, indeed knew a lot about the most important vulnerable element of Putin’s authority – I mean their financial flows.”
Lutsenko told the same press conference that “the killing of a witness in a case of FSB smuggling backed by the Russian president” was one of two main theories to explain Voronenkov’s murder.
Trail of murders
Voronenkov’s assassination is not the first murder of a prominent figure in Ukraine that has been linked to Russia.
Belarusian-born journalist Pavel Sheremet, who worked in Russia as an opposition-minded journalist from 1999 to 2014, was killed in Kyiv in July. The investigation is ongoing without success. Russian involvement remains one of the lines of inquiry.
Since 2014, at least a dozen separatist leaders have been also killed or died in Russian-occupied areas in the Donbas in what analysts say may be a Kremlin effort to get rid of its rogue proxies.
Anatoly Matios, the chief military prosecutor, comforts Maria Maksakova, wife of Denys Voronenkov, as she identifies her husband’s body after his assassination in the center of Kyiv on March 23. (Kostyantyn Chernichkin)
An empty bullet casing is seen on the street in central Kyiv where Denys Voronenkov was gunned down on March 23. (Pavlo Podufalov)
Experts work near the covered body of Denys Voronenkov, an exiled Russian lawmaker, on March 23 in Kyiv. (Pavlo Podufalov)
People gather around the covered body of ex-Russian member of parliament Denys Voronenkov at the scene of his assassination on March 23 outside Kyiv’s Premier Palace Hotel. (Pavlo Podufalov)