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The “murder” and subsequent re-appearance of Russian journalist Arkady Babchenko created a shockwave of reactions on various lines. Some were overjoyed and some had praised the SBU for what appeared to be a successful operation. Others highlighted the inappropriate nature of the operation, its damage to journalistic integrity, and questionable success.
Despite this, the “attempted” murder highlighted a particularly tenuous trend of operations taking place in the midst of conflict, dissidence, and political intrigue. As such, the controversy around Babchenko is not the first question of politically-motivated assassinations. Here we explore five major cases of politically motivated assassinations carried out on Ukrainian soil in recent years.
Case #1: Pavel Sheremet
Pavel Sheremet was a Belarusian journalist and ardent critic of president Lukashenko’s government. Having worked for Beloruskaya Delovaya Gazeta and heading the Belarusian Bureau of Russian Public Television, Sheremet spent three months in prison as a result of his criticism. He moved to Russia in 1999 and worked for the ORT state television channel and would continue to work in Russia until 2012 when he moved to Ukraine amidst a tenuous environment for free press in Russia.
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On July 20, 2016, Sheremet’s car exploded during his commute to work. It was later discovered that two individuals had placed a bomb underneath his automobile. The National Police of Ukraine announced that they would set up an operational group with SBU investigators and FBI involvement.
To this day no leads have been pursued on the investigation and the killers have not been identified. It is also assumed that the bomb may have been planted for Sheremet’s co-worker and head to Ukrainska Pravda owner and editor, Olena Prytula.
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While the police have not been able to find even base evidence to pursue the case, independent investigators and colleagues of Sheremet’s took the liberty of pursuing their own leads, investigating surveillance tapes near Sheremet’s house, and analyzing the night before the murder. These leads have found six witnesses and the suspicious presence of the car of a former SBU worker.
Case #2: Amina Okueva
Amina Okueva was a volunteer in Ukraine’s east and a representative of the Free Caucasus movement. Born in Odesa, she has been involved in several initiatives and political movements centered around Ukraine and Chechnya. She was married to Adam Osmaev who had been accused of organization an assassination attempt on Vladimir Putin.
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She lived in Moscow and found herself in Chechnya when the Second Chechen War erupted in 1999. Since then, she’d returned to Odesa, and later participated in the Euromaidan protests. She participated in the Donbas war as part of the Kyiv-2 Battalion, and served as press secretary for the Dzhokar Dudayev International Peacekeeping Battalion.
Okueva and her husband Adam Osmaev were both shot in an assassination attempt on June 1, 2017. Both had been hospitalized but had survived. The second attempt proved fatal for Okueva after her car was fired upon on October 30, 2017. Osmaev was hospitalized but ultimately survived the second attempt.
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Thus far, only one suspect has been found after the first assassination attempt, and he refuses to cooperate with authorities. No leads have been pursued on the fatal assassination of October.
Case #3: Denis Voronenkov
Denis Voronenkov was a former MP in the Russian State Duma, and the only one to have voted against the annexation of Crimea by the Russian Federation. During his time in Russia, he had been involved in several key investigations that uncovered corrupt smuggling operations within the Russian security apparatus. In 2016, he and his wife moved to Ukraine and obtained Ukrainian citizenship. He was considered to be a valuable witness in anti-corruption investigations pertaining to former Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych.
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On March 23, 2017, Voronenkov was shot dead by an assailant. His bodyguard had also been shot, but not before managing to injure the killer, who later succumbed to his wounds in the hospital. Voronenkov had been planning to meet Ilya Ponomarev, another former Russian MP now living in exile in Ukraine.
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The case had been pursued with several clear leads, and two suspects remain in custody. The organizer, Volodymyr Tyurin, was identified alongside two other accomplices, Yuriy Vasilenko, a native of Kharkiv, and Yaroslav Levenets. Each of these is being pursued in separate proceedings and are hiding from the investigation.
Case #4: Timur Makhauri
Timur Makhauri was a Georgian citizen who fought in the Donbas region under the Sheikh Mansur Battalion, largely composed of ethnic Chechens. Makhauri had a particularly complex past with involvement in the Chechen conflict, being an enemy of Ramzan Kadyrov. However, Makhauri is also tied by some to the assassination of Shamil Basayev, an infamous terrorist in the Chechen conflict in Russia.
Makhauri has also been involved in the 2008 war between Georgia and Russia, and trained Islamist groups in the Syrian Civil War against Syrian president Bashar al-Assad. He was also imprisoned in Turkey on suspicion of killing four representatives of the Caucasus Emirate, an Islamist group operating in Chechnya. He was later acquitted in court and freed.
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Makhauri became involved with the Sheikh Mansur Battalion in the war in Donbas, many members of which had combat experience fighting against Bashar al-Assad in Islamist brigades.
Despite this involvement, he had been detained by Ukrainian authorities on January 16, 2017, for illegal firearms possession. Though sentenced, he walked free in February.
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Makhauri was assassinated with an explosive device placed in his car, which detonated while Makhauri was driving. The motive of his killing is uncertain, and his friends believe there is some association with agents within Russia, however, no leads nor suspects have been identified in the case.
Case #5: Oles Buzina
Oles Buzina was a controversial Ukrainian journalist known for his ardently pro-Russian views. A writer and former editor-in-chief for the journal “Segodnya”, Buzina was harshly criticized for several anti-Ukrainian gestures, including a publication seeking to paint Ukrainian poet Taras Shevchenko in a negative light, for which he was accused of inciting and proving inter-ethnic hatred. No charges were pressed and he received amnesty as he had an underage child under his custody.
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Buzina was shot outside of his home on April 2016. Police found two suspects fleeing the seen upon arrival. As a result of investigation, two suspects, Andriy Medvedko and Denis Polischuk, both belonging to a Ukrainian nationalist group, were detained. The murder charge was later passed to a court where the case is still pending.
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His mother stated that she would approach the European Court of Human Rights due to the delays in the investigation.
/By Uliana Boychuk
/Translated by Vladislav Yakovlyev