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Did Russia order the murder of a Russian defector in Spain?

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Did Russia order the murder of a Russian defector in Spain?

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According to various Spanish and international media, there are good reasons to believe that Maxim Kuzminov, the former helicopter pilot who defected from the Russian army last year and took refuge in Ukraine, was killed by people sent by Russia. Kuzminov was found dead last week in Spain in Villajoyosa, near the Spanish coastal city of Alicante, where he lived under a fictitious identity: it was discovered that he was in Spain only after news of his murder broke. He was killed by several gunshots and his body was then hit by a car found burnt nearby.

Maxim Kuzminov at a press conference in Kiev in September 2023 (Kirill Chubotin/Ukrinform via ZUMA/ansa)

In 2023 Kuzminov had agreed with Ukrainian military intelligence to spontaneously hand himself over to the Ukrainian forces, taking with him the combat helicopter he piloted on behalf of the Russian army: he had received a reward of 465 thousand euros. The rather daring story of his desertion had attracted attention all over the world and had made Kuzminov a symbol of Ukrainian war propaganda. At the same time, for the Russian regime Kuzminov, who was 28 years old at the time of his desertion, had become a traitor.

The investigation into the murder of Kuzminov has just begun, but the Spanish intelligence serviceswho spoke to the local media, are convinced that the responsibility lies with Vladimir Putin’s regime, which over the years has commissioned several murders of deserters and political dissidents both abroad and in Russia: the latest case was that of the death of Alexei Navalny, about whose specific causes there is still no certainty but for which Putin’s regime is held responsible.

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For now, however, the Spanish government has been cautious and has not made direct accusations, but has promised an “energetic response” if the involvement of the Russian authorities is confirmed. According to sources of Countryhowever, the Spanish intelligence services «they have no doubts» on Russian responsibilities, but only on which of the various Russian agencies operating abroad may be responsible for the murder.

The car found burnt not far from the murder site (Alex Dominguez/Informacion.es/Handout via REUTERS)

The way in which Kuzminov was killed is causing much concern at an international level, especially because it seems to show Russia’s ability to conduct operations of this kind outside its borders and especially in Europe: this is the first time that a person disliked by the Russian regime is killed in Spain.

Come has explained on the Washington Post Eugene Rumer, director of the Russia section of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace think tank, many had thought that the consequences of the war in Ukraine had weakened the capabilities of Russian intelligence to operate in Europe: among other things, in the last For two years, European countries have reduced ties with Russia and expelled hundreds of alleged Russian spies, which should have made operations like the one that may have killed Kuzminov more difficult. If Russian involvement is confirmed, his murder would demonstrate that Russia still has room for maneuver in Europe.

Kuzminov’s death also appears to be a warning to other Russian dissidents or defectors living in Europe, or to people considering defecting. As Rumer wrote, “It is a reminder to all those who are in exile and actively oppose the regime: they are all on someone’s list.” Finally, it would be proof of the fact that Russia, now isolated after the invasion of Ukraine, feels overall safe in committing crimes abroad, to the point of being able to act with impunity.

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The Russian state media, controlled by the government, instead of covering up the news of Kuzminov’s death, were the first to report it, when the body had not yet been identified and attributing alcohol and drug problems to the former soldier. The head of Russia’s foreign intelligence agency, Sergei Narishkin, called him “a criminal traitor.”

It is not yet clear what support Russia may have used for such an operation abroad, but according to the Spanish government, Russian organized crime groups have been active in the Alicante area for decades: one hypothesis is that Russia relied on them for the assassination. In general in the area there is a strong presence of expatriate Russian population (around 16 thousand of the 80 thousand Russian people living throughout Spain). It is not clear why Kuzminov was there: according to the New York Timesat the time of his desertion the Ukrainian intelligence he had suggested to remain in Ukraine, because elsewhere she would not have been able to guarantee her safety.

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