KIEV – A former Russian member of parliament who defected to Ukraine and began sharply criticizing Russian President Vladimir Putin was gunned down Thursday in downtown Kiev in an apparent contract killing.
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko called the murder of Denis Voronenkov, a former member of Russia’s Communist Party who fled to Kiev in October 2016, an act of state terrorism by Russia.“
A suspected assailant was arrested after Voronenkov was shot twice in the head, dying on the spot. The suspect’s identity or other details were not immediately made public. In Moscow, a Kremlin spokesman denied Russian involvement in the killing.
But Russia’s critics were likely to draw parallels between the slaying and the deaths of other Putin foes. It also raises further alarm in Washington, D.C., where Russia has come under scrutiny for allegedly trying to influence the presidential election to aid Donald Trump.
In an interview with the Washington Post on Tuesday evening – less than 72 hours before his death – Voronenkov complained about anonymous threats against him and his wife, Maria Maksakova, a former member of the United Russia party founded by Putin, with whom he fled to Kiev last year.
After receiving Ukrainian citizenship in December, he testified in the case against Viktor Yanukovych, the former Ukrainian leader who was toppled in 2014 revolution after dozens of protestors were killed in shooting in downtown Kiev.
Before fleeing Russia, Voronenkov was the target of a fraud investigation. He was formally charged in February after a high-profile interview where he compared the patriotic fervor in Russia to Nazi Germany.
Voronenkov said the charges against him over a corporate raiding case had been fabricated by his political enemies.
On Tuesday, he called the Russian state under Putin ”totalitarian,“ said he had always opposed Russia’s annexation of Crimea despite having voted for it in 2014 in parliament. He said he planned to live in Kiev for the foreseeable future, where he had friends in the pro-Western bureaucracy from his time in the Soviet army.
He could likely return to Russia only after Putin’s death, he said.
In the three years since Ukraine’s revolution, Kiev has become something of a meeting point for Russian opponents of the Kremlin. The city has taken on the role of a modern Casablanca just 500 miles southwest of Moscow, where members of Russia’s liberal, leftist and nationalist opposition – as well as those seeking to escape a tightly controlled political landscape in Moscow – have congregated in relative safety.
Voronenkov’s death, if tied to a Kremlin order, indicates that Kiev has become a more dangerous place for them.
Voronenkov and his wife were concerned about their security, specifically citing their conflict with Russia. Speaking over black tea in the dim lobby bar of Kiev’s Premier Palace Hotel, he said Tuesday that fears of harassment forced him to keep secret the location of where they rented a house outside of Kiev with their children.
”For our personal safety, we can’t let them know where we are,“ he said toward the end of the hour-long interview. ”It’s a totally amoral system and in its anger it may go to extreme measures. There’s been a demonization of us. It’s hard to say what will happen.
“The system has lost its mind,” he added. “They say we are traitors in Russia. And I say, ‘Who did we betray?’ I gave testimony against the citizen of another country who was president, who fled his country, created a bloodbath, betrayed his country.”
As he left the interview, he added: “It’s hard to imagine we will be forgiven.”
In the months before his death, there had been attempts to hack his Twitter account and his wife’s email account. He had sought out security contractors to try to safeguard his devices and there were rumors he was under surveillance.
On Thursday, a gunman opened fire at Voronenkov and his bodyguard outside of the hotel, where he was on his way to meet another former Russian member of parliament in exile, Ilya Ponomarev. Voronenkov’s bodyguard, who opened fire at the assailant, was injured.
Voronenkov and Maksakova’s defection had aroused criticism both in Russia and among Ukrainian circles on the right, who questioned whether the former Russian parliament members were seeking to curry favor in their adopted home by suddenly and aggressively criticizing Putin after benefiting under his regime.
Subscribe to the Morning Review newsletter
Get the day’s top headlines delivered to your inbox every morning by subscribing to our newsletter.