National Post (Latest Edition)
Ukraine’s growing hit list
Assassination plots plague country
There was a shock reveal at a police press conference in Kyiv this week — the victim of a high-profile assassination in the Ukrainian capital walked in, alive and uninjured, to announce the purported hit was a ruse to flush out conspirators plotting to kill him. The twist in the case of crusading journalist Arkady Babchenko adds to Ukraine’s growing reputation for colourful, tragic and bizarre assassination plots. In Ukraine, divisive politics and being an enemy of the Russian state seem prime drivers of the Wild West vibe captured in shocking headlines.
Ukraine’s no-holds-barred politics was starkly illustrated in 2004 when Viktor Yushchenko, a leading pro-Western candidate in that year’s presidential election, fell mysteriously ill during the raucous campaign. After his sudden disappearance from election events, he reemerged almost unrecognizable: His face was hideously bloated in disfiguring, bluegrey blotches that made his skin look as if it was made of rock. His diagnosis was nearfatal dioxin poisoning, with fingers pointing to Russian security forces and Ukraine’s pro-Russian security service. His opponents suggested it was bad sushi. Yushchenko went on to win the election.
Not all plots are so exotic. Adam Osmayev, a Chechen man who led a battalion of fighters against pro-Russian forces in the Donbas region — and accused of plotting to blow up Russian President Vladimir Putin’s motorcade — was ambushed as he and his wife drove near Kyiv. The car was shot up in October from bushes beside the road. He was shot but survived. His wife, Amina Okuyeva, who fought in the battalion and was famous as a sniper, was killed. Months before, the couple survived an attack when lured to a meeting by someone posing as a journalist. When the man pulled a gun and shot and wounded Osmayev, Okuyeva returned fire, shooting the gunman. Ukrainian officials blamed Russian secret services or pro-Kremlin Chechens for the attack.
As the head of Ukraine’s special forces and a veteran of the front lines, Col. Maksym Shapoval likely didn’t expect to die stuck in rushhour traffic on a commercial stretch of his country’s capital, but that’s where his car was destroyed by a bomb in June. The bomber left little to chance — the explosion was so powerful Shapoval’s body parts were found more than 50 metres away. Shapoval was a leading military intelligence officer in the war with pro-Russian forces in Ukraine’s east. Ukrainian officials say it was one of several plots supported by Russian agents to undermine Ukraine’s military and security apparatus, and Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko called it a “terror attack.”
Pavel Sheremet was a pioneering journalist against corruption whose work was often critical of political leaders in both Russia and Ukraine. In July 2016, he got behind the wheel of his wife’s Subaru near their home in downtown Kyiv and started driving to a radio station to host a morning talk show. After a few hundred feet his car exploded from a remotely detonated bomb hidden under the driver’s seat. A review of surveillance video caught a man and woman passing the car the night before, with the woman stopping and kneeling by the car. Colleagues say it was harsh retribution for his exposés. Despite pleas at the highest level for a thorough and prompt investigation, the killing remains unsolved.
Sheremet is not the only journalist to have been silenced by violence in Ukraine. In 2000, Georgy Gongadze, an investigative reporter, was beheaded and his body later found in the woods. Recordings emerged of politicians complaining about his revelations and suggesting ways to have him killed. Five years later, Yuriy Kravchenko, Ukraine’s former interior minister, was scheduled to be questioned about Gongadze’s death when his body was found. Investigators said he had a bullet in his head and a pistol in his hand and declared the death a suicide, although suspicion remains it was staged to keep him quiet.
Denis Voronenkov was a former member of the Russian parliament who became a strong critic of Putin. Fearing for his safety in Moscow, he unwisely fled to Kyiv. Seeking asylum, he was embraced as a witness to Putin’s aggression against Ukraine’s sovereignty and for accusations against Ukraine’s former pro-Russian president, Viktor Yanukovych. In March 2017, as Voronenkov walked past a luxury hotel on a crowded street in the centre of Kyiv, he was shot dead from behind. The gunman, in turn, was killed by Voronenkov’s bodyguard, who was wounded in the shootout. His body lay on the sidewalk while passersby gawked, journalists filmed and investigators retrieved guns, bullets and other evidence, making his death scene an emblematic image of the country’s public safety frailty.