Top aide to Ukrainian president survives assassination attempt seen as a warning to Zelensky

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Zelensky aide targeted in apparent assassination attempt (Getty)
Zelensky aide targeted in apparent assassination attempt (Getty)

A key aide to Ukraine’s president escaped an assassination attempt near Kiev on Wednesday – an attack that is already being interpreted as a warning to Volodymyr Zelensky from internal or external foes.

An estimated 18 bullets were fired in the direction of Serhiy Shefir’s Audi as it travelled along a secluded strech of highway at 10am, 12 miles south of Kiev. The 57-year-old escaped unhurt, but his driver was hospitalised with three bullet wounds. The gunman remains at large.

At a briefing following the attack, Mr Shefir said his driver acted “heroically” by accelerating away from the gunman. That likely saved both their lives. “It was horrible,” the aide recalled. He speculated the attack was an attempt to “scare” the presidential team.

In a video recorded from New York, President Zelensky described Mr Shefir as “a close friend and comrade”. He said he did not know who stood behind the attack, but was determined to find out.

“Sending greetings to me in the form of bullets into the car of my friend is an act of weakness, but the response will be strong,” Mr Zelensky said.

The two men go back a long way. They are both from Kryvyi Rih, a gritty industrial town in the east of the country, and Mr Shefir helped set up the television production company from which the Ukrainian president would later launch his political career. They wrote comedy together, sharing a flat in Moscow as they tried to make it on Russian television in the early 2000s. They remain neighbours.

Serhiy Shefir (left) with Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky during his inauguration (EPA)
Serhiy Shefir (left) with Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky during his inauguration (EPA)

Mr Zelensky has previously said Mr Shefir is one of the few people in life, besides his wife, that he “trusted completely”.

In a 2019 interview with the Ukrainian journalist Dmitry Gordon, Mr Shefir said he had been drafted into government to “stay close [to Zelensky] and make sure he stays human”. In practice, that has meant him taking a central role in all the president’s business — from liaising with oligarchs and state industry to other financial dealings.

But Mr Shefir was never on the civil service payroll, and remained a business player in his own right, with control of Mr Zelensky’s television production company. That exposed him to large transactions, several sources told The Independent.

Sources described Mr Sherif as a “fixer” within the government who made himself useful by resolving conflicts. But other reports suggested growing tensions in Ukraine’s “top triangle” – the president, his chief of staff Andriy Yermak and Mr Shefir. In August, the independent Ukrainian newspaper Ukrayinska Pravda said that Mr Shefir even walked out in anger, only to return.

The aide, on his part, has rejected reports of serious internal conflicts as “idiotic.”

Vladimir Fesenko, a political expert based in Kiev, said he understood there had been “a cooling of relationships” at the top table – but that this was clearly not to the extent someone in Mr Zelensky’s team would have taken such a radical step.

“There are other far less risky ways of achieving promotions and demotions,” he said.

Instead, the political expert points to the probable destabilising effect an assassination would have on Zelensky’s presidency. “The motive to try to kill Shefir himself is far from clear,” he said. “But he is Zelensky’s friend, and what better way to attack the president emotionally?”

That line of thinking meant that authorities would be looking into the possibility of a “Russian-led operation”, he said – alongside domestic enemies of the Zelensky administration.

David Arakhamia, the head of Mr Zelesnky’s parliamentary party, also said Moscow could be behind the attack. But he added the two other lines of inquiry would be focussed on criminal authorities and oligarchs, both threatened by reform efforts.

The Kremlin derided claims of its involvement. “This has nothing to do with the real state of affairs,” spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said, “but is rather a sign of an overly exalted emotional state.”

Ukraine has witnessed an uptick in violence since the start of its seven-year, undeclared war with Russia. Assassination attempts have targeted scores of military and political officers, often far away from the conflict zone. Over one year alone between 2016 and 2017, there were seven deaths.

Ukrainian law enforcement has generally been quick to attribute the deaths to Russian agents – sometimes at the expense of a more thorough investigation.

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