A Russian Defector’s Killing Raises Spectre of Hit Squads

Fighting in Serebrianka Forest in Ukraine in Feb. 6, 2024. (Tyler Hicks/The New York Times)
Fighting in Serebrianka Forest in Ukraine in Feb. 6, 2024. (Tyler Hicks/The New York Times)

VILLAJOYOSA, Spain — The men who killed Maksim Kuzminov wanted to send a message. This was obvious to investigators in Spain even before they discovered who he was. Not only did the killers shoot him six times in a parking garage in southern Spain; they ran over his body with their car.

They also left an important clue to their identity, according to investigators: shell casings from 9 mm Makarov rounds, a standard ammunition of the former Communist bloc.

“It was a clear message,” said a senior official from Guardia Civil, the Spanish police force overseeing the investigation into the killing. “I will find you. I will kill you. I will run you over and humiliate you.”

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Kuzminov defected from Russia to Ukraine last summer, flying his Mi-8 military helicopter into Ukrainian territory and handing the aircraft along with a cache of secret documents to Ukrainian intelligence operatives. In doing so, he committed the one offense President Vladimir Putin of Russia has said again and again he will never forgive: treachery.

His killing in the seaside resort town of Villajoyosa in February has raised fears that Russia’s European spy networks continue to operate and are targeting enemies of the Kremlin, despite concerted efforts to dismantle them after Putin invaded Ukraine in 2022.

Russia’s intelligence services have been put on a war footing and begun operating at a level of aggressiveness at home and abroad reminiscent of the Stalin era, said Andrei Soldatov, an author and expert on Russia’s military and security services.

“It’s not about conventional espionage anymore,” he said. “It’s about operations — and these operations might include assassinations.”

In Spain, Kuzminov lived “an indiscreet life,” the senior Guardia Civil official said. He went to bars popular with Russian and Ukrainian clientele, burning through the money he had received from the Ukrainian state. He drove around Villajoyosa in a black Mercedes S-Class.

Exactly how the killers found him has not been established, though two senior Ukrainian officials said he had reached out to a former girlfriend, still in Russia, and invited her to come see him in Spain.

“This was a grave mistake,” one of the officials said.

Senior police officials speaking on the condition of anonymity said the killing bore hallmarks of similar attacks linked to the Kremlin, including the assassination of a former Chechen rebel commander in Berlin in 2019 and the poisoning of former Russian military intelligence operative Sergei Skripal in Salisbury, England, in 2018. Skripal survived.

The two hooded killers who appeared on surveillance camera footage from the parking garage of Kuzminov’s apartment complex were clearly professionals who carried out their mission and quickly disappeared, police officials said.

“It is not common here in Spain for someone to be shot with a lot of ammunition,” said Chief Pepe Álvarez of the Villajoyosa Police Department. “These are indications that point to organized crime, to a criminal organization, to professionals.”

While no evidence of direct Kremlin involvement has emerged, Russia had made no secret of its desire to see Kuzminov dead. Weeks after his defection, the Kremlin’s signature Sunday evening news program ran a segment quoting fellow pilots and commandos from Russia’s military intelligence service vowing revenge.

“We’ll find this person and punish him, with all the severity of our country’s laws, for treason and for betraying his brothers,” said one of the commandos, who was not identified. “We find everyone eventually. Our arms are long.”

The defection of Kuzminov was a coup for Ukraine, orchestrated by a covert unit in the HUR, Ukraine’s military’s intelligence arm. The unit specializes in recruiting Russian fighters and running agents on Russian territory to carry out sabotage missions. Some soldiers from the unit have received specialized training from the CIA on operating in hostile environments.

While the unit had been able to persuade individual Russians and sometimes small groups of soldiers to defect, Kuzminov’s daring flight — and the high value of what he delivered — was unprecedented, said a senior Ukrainian official with knowledge of the operation.

The success of Ukraine’s efforts to recruit defectors is difficult to quantify. Thousands of Russian citizens have joined volunteer units fighting with the Ukrainian military and at times crossed into Russian territory for lightning raids on border outposts. It does not appear, however, that they have shifted the balance of power in any significant way.

Kuzminov said in interviews that he became disillusioned after reading postings by Ukrainians on the internet.

“I understood who was on the side of good and who was on the side of truth,” he said in an interview with a Ukrainian blogger.

In the early evening of Aug. 9, 2023, Kuzminov took off in a military helicopter from an airfield in the Kursk region in western Russia for what was supposed to be a simple cargo delivery to another base in the country. With him in the cockpit were a technician named Nikita Kiryanov and a navigator, Khushbakht Tursunov. Neither soldier appeared to be aware of Kuzminov’s plans.

Shortly after takeoff, Kuzminov turned off the helicopter’s radio communications equipment and dove to an altitude of just under 20 feet to evade radar. Then he crossed into Ukraine.

In interviews with Ukrainian news media, Kuzminov was coy about what happened next. He said only that he had landed the helicopter at a prearranged rendezvous point in the Kharkiv region, just over 10 miles from the border, where he was met by HUR commandos.

“Everything went well,” he said in one interview.

The reality is more complicated. When he crossed into the country, Kuzminov surprised a group of Ukrainian fighters, who opened fire, according to another senior Ukrainian official. In the confusion, Kuzminov was shot in the leg.

What happened to his crewmates is less clear. A Russian television report about them, citing a medical examiner, claimed that the two had been shot and killed at close range and suggested that Kuzminov had killed them before landing. The senior Ukrainian official involved in the operation said this was not true.

“Our soldiers shot them,” the official said. “Otherwise, they would have killed Kuzminov and could have escaped in that helicopter.”

In interviews, Kuzminov said his crewmates were unarmed but never explained how they died.

The HUR clearly considered the mission a major success. Shortly afterward, Gen. Kyrylo Budanov, Ukraine’s military intelligence chief, announced that the operation would give confidence to other Russian soldiers who were considering defection. The intelligence agency even produced a documentary film about the operation to showcase its triumph.

Kuzminov went on a media tour, holding a news conference, giving interviews denouncing Russia’s war and calling on others to follow his example.

“You won’t regret it,” he said in the documentary. “You’ll be taken care of for the rest of your life.”

The Ukrainian government paid Kuzminov $500,000 and provided him a Ukrainian passport and a fake name: Ihor Shevchenko. They also offered him a chance to join them in fighting Russia.

Instead, Kuzminov left Ukraine in October and drove to Villajoyosa, a small town on the Mediterranean coast popular with British and Eastern European tourists. There, he settled on the ninth floor of a modest apartment building about a 10-minute walk from the beach.

It was a curious choice for someone so explicitly targeted by Russian authorities for liquidation. The region is a well-known base of operation for Russian organized crime figures, some of whom maintain ties to the country’s intelligence services, Spanish authorities say.

In 2020, the Spanish police arrested more than 20 people connected to Russian criminal groups, some of whom were operating out of Alicante, in the same province as Villajoyosa. The people were charged with laundering millions of dollars acquired through drug and human trafficking, extortion and contract killings, Spanish authorities said.

Another Russian military defector who has settled in Spain and spoke on the condition of anonymity for safety reasons called the region where Kuzminov settled “a red zone” filled with Russian agents. “I’ll never go there,” he said.

On the morning of Feb. 13, a white Hyundai Tucson entered the garage under Kuzminov’s apartment building and parked in an empty spot between the elevators used by residents and the ramp leading to the street. Two men waited there for several hours, according to the senior Guardia Civil official.

Around 4:20 p.m., Kuzminov drove into the garage, parked and began walking toward the elevators. As he passed in front of the white Hyundai, the two assailants emerged, called out to him and opened fire. Although he was struck by six bullets, most of them in the torso, Kuzminov managed to sprint a short distance before collapsing on the ramp.

The two killers got back into the car and ran over Kuzminov’s body on their way out. The vehicle was found a few miles away, burned with the help of what investigators believe was a special accelerant. It took specialists a week to identify the make and model of the car and establish that it had been stolen — two days before the killing — in Murcia, a town about an hour away.

A special unit in the Guardia Civil is carrying out the investigation under strict secrecy rules. Authorities have not publicly confirmed that Kuzminov was the person killed. They have struggled to reach officials in Ukraine who might help them.

But among the community of Russian and Ukrainian expatriates living in Villajoyosa, there was no question of who was behind the death.

“Everyone thinks the services took him out,” said Ivan, 31, who fled his home city, Kherson, Ukraine, at the start of the war. “They’re everywhere.”

Spain’s annual report on national security threats, published this month, said Russia had revamped its intelligence operations in the country after the expulsion of 27 Russian diplomats over the war in Ukraine. Although fewer in number, the report said, Russian spies continued to seek out ways to “destabilize Spain’s support for NATO.”

In the past, Russian officials have twisted themselves into knots trying to obfuscate the Kremlin’s connection to various assassinations around Europe, often in the face of clear evidence of state involvement. Kuzminov’s case is different. Senior Russian officials spoke of his death with barely disguised glee.

“This traitor and criminal became a moral corpse the moment he planned his dirty and terrible crime,” said Sergei Naryshkin, the director of Russia’s foreign intelligence service.

Dmitry Medvedev, the former Russian president who is now the deputy chair of the country’s security council, said, “A dog gets a dog’s death.”

In contrast with the great fanfare that accompanied Kuzminov’s defection, Ukrainian authorities have been mostly quiet about the killing. Senior officials worry that it could dissuade others from following his example.

“Who will cooperate with us after this?” said one of the senior officials.

“Russia will intensively spread propaganda — they’re already doing it — that they will find all traitors,” he said. “This is a hidden message to other citizens of Russia, especially military personnel, that we will find you if you betray us.”

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