‘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.

Ukrainian cit­i­zen

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.

Mur­der de­tails

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.

Main ver­sions

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.

Murky past

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)

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