April 17, 2024

The boys who killed Maksim Kuzminov needed to ship a message. This was apparent to investigators in Spain even earlier than they found who he was. Not solely did the killers shoot him six occasions in a parking storage in southern Spain, they ran over his physique with their automotive.

Additionally they left an essential clue to their id, based on investigators: shell casings from 9-millimeter Makarov rounds, a typical ammunition of the previous Communist bloc.

“It was a transparent message,” stated a senior official from Guardia Civil, the Spanish police pressure overseeing the investigation into the killing. “I’ll discover you, I’ll kill you, I’ll run you over and humiliate you.”

Mr. Kuzminov defected from Russia to Ukraine final summer time, flying his Mi-8 navy helicopter into Ukrainian territory and handing the plane together with a cache of secret paperwork to Ukrainian intelligence operatives. In doing so, he dedicated the one offense President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia has stated time and again he won’t ever forgive: treachery.

His killing within the seaside resort city of Villajoyosa final month has raised fears that Russia’s European spy networks proceed to function and are focusing on enemies of the Kremlin, regardless of concerted efforts to dismantle them after Mr. Putin invaded Ukraine in 2022.

Russia’s intelligence providers have been placed on a conflict footing and begun working at a degree of aggressiveness at dwelling and overseas harking back to the Stalin period, stated Andrei Soldatov, an creator and knowledgeable on Russia’s navy and safety providers.

“It’s not about typical espionage anymore,” he stated. “It’s about operations — and these operations would possibly embrace assassinations.”

In Spain, Mr. Kuzminov lived “an indiscreet life,” the senior Guardia Civil official stated. He went to bars in style with Russian and Ukrainian clientele, burning by means of the cash he had acquired from the Ukrainian state. He drove round Villajoyosa in a black Mercedes S-Class.

Precisely how the killers discovered him has not been established, although two senior Ukrainian officers stated he had reached out to a former girlfriend, nonetheless in Russia, and invited her to come back see him in Spain.

“This was a grave mistake,” one of many officers stated.

Senior police officers talking on the situation of anonymity stated the killing bore hallmarks of comparable assaults linked to the Kremlin, together with the assassination of a former Chechen insurgent commander in Berlin in 2019 and the poisoning of the previous Russian navy intelligence operative Sergei V. Skripal in Salisbury, England, in 2018. Mr. Skripal survived.

The 2 hooded killers who appeared on surveillance digicam footage from the parking storage of Mr. Kuzminov’s condominium advanced have been clearly professionals who carried out their mission and shortly disappeared, police officers stated.

“It isn’t frequent right here in Spain for somebody to be shot with numerous ammunition,” stated Chief Pepe Álvarez of the Villajoyosa Police Division. “These are indications that time to organized crime, to a prison group, to professionals.”

Whereas no proof of direct Kremlin involvement has emerged, Russia had made no secret of its want to see Mr. Kuzminov lifeless. Weeks after his defection, the Kremlin’s signature Sunday night information program ran a phase quoting fellow pilots and commandos from Russia’s navy intelligence service vowing revenge.

“We’ll discover this particular person and punish him, with all of the severity of our nation’s legal guidelines, for treason and for betraying his brothers,” stated one of many commandos, who was not recognized. “We discover everybody ultimately. Our arms are lengthy.”

The defection of Mr. Kuzminov was a coup for Ukraine, orchestrated by a covert unit within the HUR, Ukraine’s navy’s intelligence arm. The unit focuses on recruiting Russian fighters and operating brokers on Russian territory to hold out sabotage missions. Some troopers from the unit have acquired specialised coaching from the C.I.A. on working in hostile environments.

Whereas the unit had been in a position to persuade particular person Russians and typically small teams of troopers to defect, Mr. Kuzminov’s daring flight — and the excessive worth of what he delivered — was unprecedented, stated a senior Ukrainian official with data of the operation.

The success of Ukraine’s efforts to recruit defectors is tough to quantify. 1000’s of Russian residents have joined volunteer items combating with the Ukrainian navy and at occasions crossed into Russian territory for lightning raids on border outposts. It doesn’t seem, nonetheless, that they’ve shifted the stability of energy in any vital method.

Mr. Kuzminov stated in interviews that he turned disillusioned after studying postings by Ukrainians on the web.

“I understood who was on the aspect of fine and who was on the aspect of reality,” he stated in an interview with a Ukrainian blogger.

Within the early night of Aug. 9, 2023, Mr. Kuzminov took off in a navy helicopter from an airfield within the Kursk area in western Russia for what was purported to be a easy cargo supply to a different base within the nation. With him within the cockpit have been a technician named Nikita Kiryanov and a navigator, Khushbakht Tursunov. Neither soldier appeared to concentrate on Mr. Kuzminov’s plans.

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

In interviews with Ukrainian information media, Mr. Kuzminov was coy about what occurred subsequent. He stated solely that he had landed the helicopter at a prearranged rendezvous level within the Kharkiv area, simply over 10 miles from the border, the place he was met by HUR commandos.

“Every thing went properly,” he stated in a single interview.

The truth is extra sophisticated. When he crossed into the nation, Mr. Kuzminov stunned a bunch of Ukrainian fighters, who opened hearth, based on one other senior Ukrainian official. Within the confusion, Mr. Kuzminov was shot within the leg.

What occurred to his crewmates is much less clear. A Russian tv report about them, citing a health worker, claimed that the 2 had been shot and killed at shut vary and prompt that Mr. Kuzminov had killed them earlier than touchdown. The senior Ukrainian official concerned within the operation stated this was not true.

“Our troopers shot them,” the official stated. “In any other case they’d have killed Kuzminov and will have escaped in that helicopter.”

In interviews, Mr. Kuzminov stated his crewmates have been unarmed however by no means defined how they died.

The HUR clearly thought of the mission a significant success. Shortly afterward, Gen. Kyrylo Budanov, Ukraine’s navy intelligence chief, introduced that the operation would give confidence to different Russian troopers who have been contemplating defection. The intelligence company even produced a documentary movie in regards to the operation to showcase its triumph.

Mr. Kuzminov went on a media tour, holding a information convention, giving interviews denouncing Russia’s conflict and calling on others to comply with his instance.

“You received’t remorse it,” he stated within the documentary. “You’ll be taken care of for the remainder of your life.”

The Ukrainian authorities paid Mr. Kuzminov $500,000 and offered him a Ukrainian passport and a faux title: Ihor Shevchenko. Additionally they provided him an opportunity to affix them in combating Russia.

As an alternative, Mr. Kuzminov left Ukraine in October and drove to Villajoyosa, a small city on the Mediterranean coast in style with British and Jap European vacationers. There, he settled on the ninth flooring of a modest condominium constructing a couple of 10-minute stroll from the seashore.

It was a curious selection for somebody so explicitly focused by the Russian authorities for liquidation. The area is a well known base of operation for Russian organized crime figures, a few of whom keep ties to the nation’s intelligence providers, the Spanish authorities say.

In 2020, the Spanish police arrested greater than 20 individuals related to Russian prison teams, a few of whom have been working out of Alicante, in the identical province as Villajoyosa. The individuals have been charged with laundering hundreds of thousands of {dollars} acquired by means of drug and human trafficking, extortion and contract killings, the Spanish authorities stated.

One other Russian navy defector who has settled in Spain and spoke on the situation of anonymity for security causes known as the area the place Mr. Kuzminov settled “a crimson zone” stuffed with Russian brokers. “I’ll by no means go there,” he stated.

On the morning of Feb. 13, a white Hyundai Tucson entered the storage underneath Mr. Kuzminov’s condominium constructing and parked in an empty spot between the elevators utilized by residents and the ramp resulting in the road. Two males waited there for a number of hours, based on the senior Guardia Civil official.

Round 4:20 p.m., Mr. Kuzminov drove into the storage, parked and commenced strolling towards the elevators. As he handed in entrance of the white Hyundai, the 2 assailants emerged, known as out to him and opened hearth. Although he was struck by six bullets, most of them within the torso, Mr. Kuzminov managed to dash a brief distance earlier than collapsing on the ramp.

The 2 killers obtained again into the automotive and ran over Mr. Kuzminov’s physique on their method out. The automobile was discovered a couple of miles away, burned with the assistance of what investigators imagine was a particular accelerant. It took specialists per week to establish the make and mannequin of the automotive and set up that it had been stolen — two days earlier than the killing — in Murcia, a city about an hour away.

A particular unit within the Guardia Civil is finishing up the investigation underneath strict secrecy guidelines. The authorities haven’t publicly confirmed that Mr. Kuzminov was the particular person killed. They’ve struggled to achieve officers in Ukraine who would possibly assist them.

However among the many neighborhood of Russian and Ukrainian expatriates dwelling in Villajoyosa, there was no query of who was behind the dying.

“Everybody thinks the providers took him out,” stated Ivan, 31, who fled his dwelling metropolis, Kherson, Ukraine, firstly of the conflict. “They’re in all places.”

Spain’s annual report on nationwide safety threats, revealed this month, stated Russia had revamped its intelligence operations within the nation after the expulsion of 27 Russian diplomats over the conflict in Ukraine. Although fewer in quantity, the report stated, Russian spies continued to hunt out methods to “destabilize Spain’s help for NATO.”

Up to now, Russian officers have twisted themselves into knots attempting to obfuscate the Kremlin’s connection to numerous assassinations round Europe, usually within the face of clear proof of state involvement. Mr. Kuzminov’s case is totally different. Senior Russian officers spoke of his dying with barely disguised glee.

“This traitor and prison turned an ethical corpse the second he deliberate his soiled and horrible crime,” stated Sergei Naryshkin, the director of Russia’s international intelligence service.

Dmitri A. Medvedev, the previous Russian president who’s now the deputy chairman of the nation’s safety council, stated, “A canine will get a canine’s dying.”

In distinction with the good fanfare that accompanied Mr. Kuzminov’s defection, the Ukrainian authorities have been principally quiet in regards to the killing. Senior officers fear that it might dissuade others from following his instance.

“Who will cooperate with us after this?” stated one of many senior officers.

“Russia will intensively unfold propaganda — they’re already doing it — that they may discover all traitors,” he stated. “It is a hidden message to different residents of Russia, particularly navy personnel, that we’ll discover you for those who betray us.”