Ponomarev says Kremlin policy is clear: Kill traitors
Exiled ex-Russian member of parliament Ilya Ponomarev called Denys Voronenkov a “pilot case” into whether former Kremlin supporters with insider knowledge of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s corrupt ways and his war on Ukraine could help Kyiv authorities.
If so, the “pilot case” ended catastrophically when an assassin fired several gunshots into Voronenkov, who like Ponomarev is also an exiled ex-member of the Russian parliament.
Voronenkov, who became a naturalized Ukrainian citizen and a vocal Kremlin critic after relocating to Kyiv in October, was killed instantly about 11:30 a.m. on March 23 outside the Premier Palace Hotel in Kyiv.
“Ukrainian authorities missed the importance of him as a witness, of protecting him and as a symbol,” Ponomarev said in interview with the Kyiv Post on March 26, the day after Voronenkov’s funeral in Kyiv.
Ukraine’s authorities “never understood who was Denys Voronenkov, why he was here and what was his main value. Voronenkov had a huge understanding of Putin’s regime – how the corruption and money laundering worked, the financial links of top officials,” Ponomarev said. “That was his greatest value.”
Ponomarev said that he also knows other Russians who want to give information against the Kremlin’s crimes. He doubts that many will be willing to take Voronenkov’s risks now.
‘No. 1 enemy’
If Ponomarev is right, a longtime enemy of Voronenkov is to blame for his assassination.
Ukrainian authorities identified the gunman as a Russian agent — 28-year-old Pavel Parshov — who died after being fatally shot by Voronenkov’s bodyguard, who is recovering from gunshot wounds he also suffered in the shootout.
Voronenkov followed a path with similarities to Ponomarev, who splits his time between Washington, D.C., and Kyiv, and advises American investors interested in Ukraine. Both Voronenkov and Ponomarev switched from being part of Russian dictator Vladimir Putin’s system to Kremlin critics.
Voronenkov was a lawmaker from the pro-Kremlin Communist Party from 2011 to 2016. He supported prohibitions on foreign ownership of Russian media. In 2013-2014, he criticized Ukraine’s Euro-Maidan Revolution and voted for Russia’s annexation of Crimea.
Voronenkov became a Putin critic and fled to Ukraine only after becoming a suspect in a fraud case, which he believed to be political, and losing re-election to parliament in September — and hence, losing his legal immunity from criminal prosecution.
Meanwhile, Ponomarev was the only Russian lawmaker who voted against Russia’s annexation of Crimea in March 2014. He was banned from Russia that year by court order after becoming a suspect in an embezzlement case. Ponomarev says the case is politically motivated.
Ponomarev said he was not a close friend of Voronenkov, but shared circumstances as exiled Kremlin critics and former Russian lawmakers brought them together in Ukraine.
Voronenkov and Ponomarev were supposed to meet in Premier Palace the same day that Voronenkov was assassinated. Ponomarev said that Voronenkov was seeking advice on how to sell his properties in Russia, including three apartments and luxury automobiles, and what to do if he got placed on Interpol’s “red notice” of internationally wanted suspects.
Voronenkov was under criminal investigation for fraud in Russia. Ponomarev called the accusations against Voronenkov “artificial, based on one guy in prison” and part of a vendetta against him by ex-Russian FSB security services general Oleg Feoktistov. It is Feoktistov who Ponomarev blames for ordering the assassination, calling him Voronenkov’s “No. 1 enemy.”
Feoktistov could not be reached for comment.
Feoktistov was, however, no ordinary FSB general. He served as deputy head of the internal security department, which gave him the power to investigate anybody in the former KGB agency — the most powerful institution in Russia — and to report directly to Putin, Ponomarev said.
Ponomarev traces the enmity between Feoktistov and Voronenkov to the early 2000s fallout over the “Three Whales” corruption investigation by the Federal Drug Control Service – a giant smuggling scandal that led to the firing of 29 FSB generals. Among them, Ponomarev said, was Feoktistov’s mentor. Voronenkov played a role in the case as an investigator of the Federal Drug Control Service in 2004 to 2007.
Feoktistov was also thought to be responsible for an assassination attempt on Voronenkov in 2007, according to Ponomarev.
Voronenkov told the Gordon.ua site in March that Feoktistov “had ordered” a criminal case against him, and their feud goes back to 2007. This Federal Drug Control Service, where Voronenkov worked, was later disbanded and its head Aleksandr Bulbov was arrested for illegal wiretapping in 2007. Bulbov blamed Feoktistov for fabricating the case against him.
Feoktistov is reportedly close to Igor Sechin, CEO of Rosneft and Putin’s closest ally.
In early March, Feoktistov lost his job as head of security at Rosneft and returned to the “military service,” although it is not clear if it means the military or the FSB, Russia’s Vedomosti newspaper reported.
After leaving Rosneft, Feoktistov “needed some action to prove his usefulness” to the Kremlin, Ponomarev surmises.
Eliminating the talkative traitor Voronenkov, a new enemy of the state and an old enemy of Feoktistov, would be one way to do it.
Ponomarev has little doubt Feoktistov organized the assassination with help from the Russian FSB security services — and that means, he said, Putin knew and approved.
“For me, there is only one question: Did he call Vladimir Putin before the trigger was pulled or after?”
Repeated attempts to locate Feoktistov for comment were unsuccessful.
‘Face of a flea’
In January, Russian Kommersant published news that Voronenkov had started giving testimony in Ukraine’s investigation of deposed President Viktor Yanukovych, who is accused of many crimes, including asking Russia to send troops to invade Ukraine.
In response to that article, Ponomarev said Voronenkov became the target of a Kremlin smear campaign. The breaking point came when Russian President Vladimir Putin’s confidant Vladyslav Surkov dismissed Voronenkov as “some guy with the face of a flea.” The wives of Surkov and Voronenkov were close friends, Ponomarev said.
Voronenkov “was so pissed off. ‘I have the face of a flea? OK, I will show them,’” Ponomarev recalls Ponomarev telling him.
So, from his exile in Ukraine, Voronenkov started stepping up his public criticism of the Kremlin regime, giving interviews with journalists right up to his death.
Ponomorev said that Voronenkov had an “important meeting” that morning, before the one scheduled with him, but he wouldn’t even tell his wife, Maria Maksakova Jr. Ponomorev said he doesn’t know who Voronenkov was supposed to meet with either. But the meeting never happened. It turned out to be a ruse to ensure that Voronenkov was at the corner of Pushinska Street and Shevchenko Boulevard, outside the Premier Palace Hotel, at the appointed time.
‘Almost perfect’ hit
Security camera footage from the Premier Palace Hotel shows the assassin Parshov rushing up on foot from behind on Shevchenko Boulevard to catch up with Voronenkov, who turned around to see the man who was confronting.
The gunman shot him and the bodyguard and then calmly shot Voronenkov two more times before walking away on Pushkinskaya Street.
The killer’s only miscalcuation in an otherwise “almost perfect” hit was thinking that he had killed Voronenkov’s bodyguard also. Instead, the bodyguard killed Parshov.
Ponomarev said Putin’s logic is simple: Kremlin traitors must be killed.
Alexander Litvinenko, a former Russian FSB security service agent who exposed the crimes of Putin’s Russia, was killed in a polonium poisoning case in London, where he was living in exile, in 2006. Many other Kremlin insiders-turned-critics have been killed or died suspiciously. In that sense, he said, Voronenkov is just “another Litvinenko.”
For Russians to “switch sides and be successful… that was totally unacceptable for Putin’s system,” Ponomarev said. “In the Litvinenko case, his presumed murderers are members of parliament, decorated with awards, highly reputable and wealthy.”
Despite Voronenkov’s pro-Kremlin past, Ponomarev says Ukrainians should respect what he tried to do in his last six months of life.
“He has done, with his death, so good for Ukraine,” Ponomarev said. “He died in this war. He paid with his blood for his new country and also for Russia by trying to remove the regime which is dangerous, traitorous and totally corrupt.”
Kyiv Post staff writers Oleg Sukhov and Oksana Grytsenko contributed to this story.
Ukrainian police investigators work next to the body of former Russian member of parliament Denys Voronenkov at the scene of his assassination in Kyiv on March 23. Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko called the murder “an act of state terrorism” by Russian President Vladimir Putin’s regime. (Pavlo Podufalov)