‘I will find you, I will kill you, I will run over you’: Spain rocked by brutal murder of Russian defector

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The men who killed Maksim Kuzminov wanted to send a message. That was clear to investigators in Spain even before they discovered who he was. The killers not only shot him six times in a parking garage in southern Spain, they also drove over his body with their car.

Moreover, according to the police, they left behind an important clue about their identity: casings of 9mm Makarov bullets, the standard ammunition of the former Red Army.

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

Kuzminov defected from Russia to Ukraine last summer. He flew his Mi-8 army helicopter to Ukrainian territory and handed the aircraft along with a mountain of secret documents to the Ukrainian intelligence service. In doing so, he committed the crime that President Vladimir Putin has said time and again he will never forgive: treason.

‘Serious mistake’

His murder in the seaside resort of Villajoyosa is raising fears that Russia’s European spy networks are still active and targeting enemies of the Kremlin. This is despite efforts to dismantle the networks after Putin invaded Ukraine in 2022.

Russia’s intelligence services operate aggressively at home and abroad in a manner reminiscent of the Stalin era, says Andrei Soldatov, author and expert on Russia’s military and security services.

“It’s not about conventional espionage anymore,” he says. “It’s about ‘operations’ – and these ‘operations’ can include assassinations.”

In Spain, Kuzminov “did not lead a discreet life,” says the senior Guardia Civil official. He went to bars popular with Russian and Ukrainian customers and used the money he received from the Ukrainian state. He drove around Villajoyosa in a black Mercedes S-Class.

It is not yet known exactly how the killers found him, but two senior Ukrainian officials report that he had approached an ex-girlfriend, who still lives in Russia, and invited her to Spain. “That was a serious mistake,” said one of the officials.

Senior police sources, speaking on condition of anonymity, say the killing bears similarities to other attacks linked to the Kremlin. Such as the murder of a former Chechen rebel commander in Berlin in 2019 and the poisoning of former Russian military intelligence officer Sergei Skripal in Salisbury, England, in 2018. Skripal survived the attack.

The two masked killers seen on surveillance cameras from the parking garage of Kuzminov’s apartment complex were clearly professionals who carried out their mission and quickly disappeared, police sources said.

“It is not common here in Spain for someone to be shot with so many bullets,” said Chief Pepe Álvarez of the Villajoyosa police. “These are things that point to organized crime, to a criminal organization, to professionals.”

Revenge

Although there is no evidence of direct Kremlin involvement, Russia never made a secret of its desire to kill Kuzminov. Weeks after his evasion, the Kremlin’s Sunday evening news broadcast a segment in which fellow pilots and Russian military intelligence commanders vowed revenge.

Spanish investigators investigate the parking garage where Kuzminov’s body was found.Image Reuters

“We will find this person and punish him, with all the severity of the laws of our country, for treason and for betraying his brothers,” said one of the commanders, who was not identified. “We will eventually find everyone. Our weapons reach far.”

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

Although the unit had previously been able to persuade Russians and sometimes even small groups of soldiers to defect, Kuzminov’s daring flight – and the high value of what he delivered – was unprecedented, a senior Ukrainian source said.

It is difficult to quantify how much gain Ukraine has made by recruiting defectors. Thousands of Russian citizens have joined volunteer units fighting with the Ukrainian army and have sometimes crossed into Russian territory to attack border posts. However, it does not appear that they have significantly changed the balance of power.

Kuzminov said in interviews that he became disillusioned after reading messages from 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 August 9, 2023, Kuzminov took off in a military helicopter from an airfield in the Kursk region of western Russia. With him in the cockpit were a technician named Nikita Kiryanov and a navigator, Khushbacht Tursunov. Neither soldier seemed to be aware of Kuzminov’s plans.

Shortly after takeoff, Kuzminov disabled the helicopter’s radio communications equipment and dived to an altitude of just under 20 feet to avoid radar. Then he flew into Ukraine.

General Kyrylo Budanov, the head of Ukraine’s military intelligence. He indicated that Kuzminov’s operation would convince other Russian soldiers who were considering defecting.Image NYT

In interviews with Ukrainian news media, Kuzminov was coy about what happened next. He said only that he landed by helicopter at a pre-arranged meeting point in the Kharkiv region, where he was met by HUR commandos. “Everything went well,” he said in an interview.

The reality is more complicated. As he entered 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 crew members is less clear. A Russian television report on them, quoting a medical examiner, claimed the two had been shot at close range and suggested Kuzminov had killed them before landing. The Ukrainian official involved in the operation denied that: “Our soldiers shot at them. Otherwise they would have killed Kuzminov and escaped in that helicopter.”

In interviews, Kuzminov himself said that his crew members were unarmed, but he never explained how they died.

Strange choice

HUR clearly considered the mission a great success. Shortly afterwards, General Kyrylo Budanov, the head of Ukrainian military intelligence, announced that the operation would convince other Russian soldiers who were considering defecting. The intelligence service even made a documentary about the operation to highlight the victory.

The military Mi-8 helicopter with which Maksim Kuzminov flew from Russia to Ukraine.Image Reuters

Kuzminov went on a media tour, held a news conference, gave interviews in which he denounced Russia’s war and called on others to follow his example. “You won’t regret it,” he said in the documentary. “You will be taken care of for the rest of your life.”

The Ukrainian government paid Kuzminov $500,000 and provided him with a Ukrainian passport and a false name: Igor Shevchenko. They also offered him a chance to fight against Russia with them.

Instead, Kuzminov left Ukraine in October and drove to Villajoyosa, a small town on the Mediterranean 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 strange choice for someone who was so explicitly targeted by the Russian authorities and risked being liquidated. The region is a known base for Russian organized crime figures, some of whom have ties to the country’s intelligence services. In 2020, Spanish police arrested more than twenty people linked to Russian criminal groups.

Another Russian military defector who has settled in Spain and wishes to remain anonymous for security reasons calls the region where Kuzminov stayed “a red zone” full of Russian agents. “I will never go there,” he says.

On the morning of February 13, a white Hyundai Tucson drove into the garage beneath Kuzminov’s apartment building and parked in an empty spot between the elevators used by residents and the driveway leading to the street. Two men waited there for several hours, according to the Guardia Civil.

Around 4:20 p.m., Kuzminov drove into the garage, parked and walked toward the elevators. As he walked past the white Hyundai, the two attackers emerged, shouted at him and immediately opened fire. Although he was hit by six bullets – most of them hitting his upper body – Kuzminov was able to walk a distance before collapsing.

The two killers got back into the car and drove over Kuzminov’s body on the way out. The vehicle was found a few miles away, burned out. It took specialists a week to identify the make and model of the car. The car turned out to be stolen two days before the murder in Murcia, a city about an hour’s drive away.

A special unit of the Guardia Civil carries out the investigation, shielded from the outside world. But among Russian and Ukrainian expats living in Villajoyosa, there is no doubt who is behind the murder. “Everyone thinks the services took him out,” said Ivan, 31, who fled his hometown of Kherson, Ukraine, when the war broke out. “They are everywhere.”

‘Dog death’

Spain just published its annual report on national security threats this month. It shows that Russia has revived its intelligence operations in the country after the expulsion of 27 Russian diplomats following the war in Ukraine. There may be fewer Russian spies, but they continue to look for ways to “destabilize Spain’s support for NATO,” the report said.

Captain Maksim Kuzminov.Image NurPhoto via Getty Images

In the past, Russian officials have gone to great lengths to cover up any link between the Kremlin and several murders in Europe. In Kuzminov’s case it is different. Senior Russian officials almost openly rejoice over his death. “This traitor and criminal became a 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 deputy chairman of the country’s security council, said: “A dog gets a dog’s death.”

While Kuzminov’s defection was still accompanied by loud drums, the Ukrainian authorities are now silent in all languages ​​about the murder. They worry it could deter other potential defectors. “Who will work with us after this?” a senior official wonders out loud. “Russia propagates that it will find all traitors. This is a hidden message to other citizens of Russia, especially military personnel: if you betray us, we will get you.”

© The New York Times

The article is in Dutch

Tags: find kill run Spain rocked brutal murder Russian defector

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