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On the run from Russia: the defector to Ukraine shot dead on the Costa Blanca

<span>Maksim Kuzminov in Kyiv in September 2023.</span><span>Photograph: Maxym Marusenko/NurPhoto/Shutterstock</span>
Maksim Kuzminov in Kyiv in September 2023.Photograph: Maxym Marusenko/NurPhoto/Shutterstock

In some ways it is easy to see why Maksim Kuzminov chose to start a new life in Villajoyosa on the Costa Blanca. It overlooks the Mediterranean, with spectacular sunrises. Lemons and oranges droop from trees, brightly coloured homes dot the shore and Villajoyosa is famous for its chocolate. The name means Joyful Town.

More importantly, Kuzminov must have calculated he could blend into the Russian and Ukrainian communities that fill this corner of Spain with Slavic languages, food and faces. With a new identity – a passport claimed he was Igor Shevchenko – here was a place to hide in plain sight, safe from the vengeance of Vladimir Putin.

The fugitive Russian pilot was discreet. He lived in an apartment block ringed by other apartment blocks, learned some Spanish, breakfasted on coffee, toast and ham alone at a nearby cafe and mostly steered clear of fellow Russians. He avoided the supermarket with eastern European pastries and 52 brands of vodka. It might have been lonely, but it was, at least, life.

The fantasy of escape ended on 13 February when gunmen shot the 28-year-old six times in his apartment complex’s underground car park. The reported use of Russian bullets and the undisguised glee in Moscow reinforced the point: you cannot defect to Ukraine with an army helicopter, deliver a propaganda coup to the Kremlin’s enemies, pocket a payment equivalent to $500,000, leave the relative sanctuary of Kyiv and expect to survive.

“Chronicle of an execution foretold,” said the Spanish newspaper El Periódico, paraphrasing Gabriel García Márquez’s novella, and it was hard to dispute the sense of inevitability.

“We all know what happens when you anger Mr Putin,” said a neighbour from the Netherlands, who lived in a block adjoining Kuzminov’s.

Sources inside Ukraine’s military intelligence agency said they had warned Kuzminov that they could not protect him if he left the relative safety of Ukraine for western Europe. They told him explicitly that Russian assassins could – sooner or later – come after him.

Kuzminov ignored their advice. He told them Spain was a democratic and law-abiding country where he would surely be protected. “He was naive,” one source in Kyiv said, adding that Ukraine had paid him €500,000. “He wanted a comfortable life and was convinced that with such a sum of money, Europe would be more attractive than Ukraine.”

Such was the shock and anxiety, few residents of the apartment block in Villajoyosa wished to give their names or in some cases even acknowledge the nature of what happened. “I heard about the accident,” said one man, with an east European accent.

Initially the assassination did resemble an accident. No one heard shooting on the evening of 13 February. The elderly Spanish resident who discovered the body on the basement ramp thought Kuzminov had been run over. He fetched the caretaker, Ruben, who assumed the same. “It was when the ambulance crew cut off his clothes we saw the bullet holes,” said Ruben, who declined to give a last name. Video surveillance cameras in the basement were working, he added.

Two suspects are believed to have fled in a white Hyundai SUV that was found burning a short while after the murder about 11 miles south, just outside El Campello.

Thus the former army captain joined Alexei Navalny, Alexander Litvinenko, Boris Nemtsov, Anna Politkovskaya, Boris Berezovsky and others on the growing list of Kremlin foes who have ended up shot, poisoned, hanged or dead from unclear circumstances. The novelty was the brazenness and the location.

For Putin’s regime, it would seem Kuzminov’s offence merited high-profile retribution. Last August he piloted a twin-engine Mi-8 AMTSh helicopter from Russia to Ukrainian territory. Two crew members were killed after landing.

At a press conference in Kyiv, flanked by two uniformed Ukrainian service personnel, the defector said he wanted to strike a blow against the invasion. “I don’t want to be complicit in Russian crimes.”

Moscow responded with cold fury. Russian state TV showed a man described as a Russian intelligence officer saying: “I don’t think he’ll live long enough to face trial.”

Kuzminov could have stayed in Ukraine. Military intelligence officers who coordinated his defection say he initially agreed to join the Freedom of Russia Legion, a group of Russian volunteers fighting with Ukraine. Two months later, however, he changed his mind. “It was his choice,” one officer said. He added that Kuzminov had not read the works of Viktor Suvorov, a Russian defector turned writer, who laid bare the brutal methods of Moscow military intelligence.

Last October, officials in Kyiv gave Kuzminov a Ukrainian passport, GG843153. He moved to Spain in the guise of Igor Shevchenko, aged 33, with Spanish authorities unaware of his real identity, Spanish media reported.

Villajoyosa was a risky choice. A picturesque town between Alicante and Benidorm, it has 36,000 residents, including 800 Russians and 1,200 Ukrainians, any of whom might have recognised him from the press conference.

He lived in a neighbourhood called La Cala in a complex two blocks from the beach and a police station. The only communal amenity there is a pool, which is empty. Neighbours said he lived on the ninth – the top – floor. It has four apartments. A young man in one of them declined to comment, the other doors remained shut.

Perhaps Kuzminov felt anonymous. Many residents are foreigners and there is flux, with people often moving in or out, said Ruben. The caretaker had one interaction with Kuzminov: in December he advised him about where to dispose of kitchen debris. The fugitive, it seems, was refurbishing.

Unconfirmed reports say Russian intelligence located him when he invited a former girlfriend to visit. The killers’ swift getaway and the lack of witnesses suggest professional surveillance and planning for what would be the first Russian state killing in Spain.

The case presents a dilemma for the Spanish authorities. Intelligence services do not doubt Moscow’s culpability but say it will be “very difficult” to obtain incriminating evidence, according to El País. Police have offered few updates on the investigation and Madrid has played for time. “We have to let the Guardia Civil do its job and for the investigation to progress,” said Pilar Alegría, a government spokesperson.

Moscow has not claimed responsibility but exuded satisfaction. “This traitor and criminal became a moral corpse at the very moment when he planned his dirty and terrible crime,” said Sergei Naryshkin, the chief of Russia’s SVR foreign intelligence service.

Villajoyosa, meanwhile, is trying to return to normality and reclaim its mantle of cheer. Soon the sun will warm, tourists will come and labourers will pick the lemons and oranges. For whomever sent the killers, a slab at the Alicante Institute of Legal Medicine holds a very different harvest.