Killing of Kremlin whistle-blower Voronenkov removes vital witness for Ukraine
While it remains unproven who carried out the killing of ex-Russian MP Denis Voronenkov in Kyiv on March 23 or why, it is certainly true that Ukraine has lost a valuable witness willing to give damaging testimony about ex-President Viktor Yanukovych and Russia’s aggression against Ukraine. Other Kremlin critics must also be feeling very vulnerable.
Ukraine’s leaders immediately called the gunning down of Denis Voronenkov, ex-Russian MP turned Kremlin critic, in the centre of Kyv an act by Russia of state terrorism. Any Russian link was dismissed as “absurd” by Russian President Vladimir Putin’s press secretary, yet has been treated as obvious by most commentators, including Ilya Ponomarev, whom Voronenkov was on his way to visit and other Russians critical of the Putin regime. Most commentators differ only in whether they assess the incriminating information Voronenkov could have provided as the main reason or revenge of a person who was viewed in Russia as having turned ‘traitor’.
Unless you go for the version presented by some pro-Kremlin media, namely that the killing had been organized by the Ukrainian authorities “to set up Russia”, then it is certainly easier to see what Russia’s leaders had to gain from Voronenkov’s death. This, however, is for the investigators to establish. As of Thursday evening, it has been reported that the man who carried out the killing was carrying documents identifying him as a Ukrainian citizen and as a former participant in Ukraine’s ‘anti-terrorist operation’ against Kremlin-backed militants in Eastern Ukraine. It is, undoubtedly, possible – as Prosecutor General Yury Lutsenko suggested before any details were revealed – that the documents are forged, though that should be easy to establish. It will be much harder to determine whether or not he was acting as a paid killer.
The attack took place in broad daylight, with Voronenkov killed outright and his guard, apparently provided by Ukraine’s Security Service [SBU] injured, but able to shoot back. The politician’s killer died in the operating theatre, seemingly never having regained consciousness. Lutsenko reported early on that the model of car which brought him to near the scene of the crime was known, so in theory more details should shortly be forthcoming.
Voronenkov, who was a communist party MP from 2011 until the last elections, and his wife Maria Maksakova, also a former MP and opera singer, came to Kyiv in October 2016. Although officially denied, the speed with which Voronenkov and his wife had received Ukrainian citizenship was widely assumed to be in exchange for testimony against former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, and about Russia’s invasion of Crimea and military aggression against Ukraine. In an interview to Censor.net in February 2017, Voronenkov denied that he had been present during the session in the State Duma in which one MP alone, Ilya Ponomarev, voted against Russia’s annexation of Crimea. He made very critical remarks about the current regime in Russia, even comparing it to Nazi Germany.
Both he and his wife were immediately expelled from their respective political parties, and the Russian authorities claimed that Voronenkov was facing criminal charges for suspected economic crimes.
There were negative comments in Ukrainian social networks and the media about the speed with which Voronenkov had received citizenship and his perceived hypocrisy. It was reported, for example, that he had been a co-author of a dangerous bill adding Article 280.1 to Russia’s criminal code. This imposed a sentence of up to 5 years imprisonment for something termed “public calls to action aimed at violating Russia’s territorial integrity” and has, as feared, been used against critics of Russia’s annexation of Crimea. There were certainly people who felt angry that a person they deemed implicated in Russia’s aggression against Ukraine had received citizenship. Would this serve as a good enough motive for radically-minded Ukrainian nationalists? Ukrainian analyst Volodymyr Fesenko doubts that such anger had the emotional force to drive a person to such a crime. he believes it much more probable that it was the work of either the Russian security service or Russian radical elements.
Vitaly Portnikov, a Ukrainian journalist who writes for both Ukrainian and Russian (independent) media, said during a Radio Svoboda interview that you don’t need to be a political analyst to understand that Voronenkov’s death “immediately fulfils several tasks for the Russian leadership.”
It is a signal to all potential defectors that they should not go to Ukraine. Portnikov rather optimistically assumes that western countries will ask inconvenient questions about former Russian officials’ corrupt dealings, etc., while Ukraine is less concerned about what they got up to at home than what information they can provide.
Voronenkov’s death has removed a valuable witness in Ukraine’s planned trial (in absentia) of Viktor Yanukovych for state treason. Portnikov also notes that the Voronenkov family was extremely close to Putin’s advisor Vladislav Surkov, who is widely believed to be in charge of the Russian-backed, funded and manned conflict in Donbas. His testimony could, Portnikov says, have pointed to a direct link between Putin and Yanukovych in coordinating the aggression against Ukraine.
Voronenkov had spoken well of Surkov and had asserted that Surkov had been against Russia’s annexation of Crimea, with the decision having been taken by Putin alone. Portnikov believes that that testimony alone would be a blow to the Kremlin which has tried to create the impression that such decisions were taken by the entire Russian leadership.
Portnikov suggests that there is sufficient evidence already of Yanukovych’s treason, however he immediately cites the letter which Yanukovych apparently sent to Putin asking for Russia to send in troops to Ukraine.
What may seem sufficient to the layperson, however, would not necessarily be enough for a court of law.
Yanukovych is in hiding in Russia and any trial will be in absentia which has already created significant problems and risks that a conviction would not be deemed by the European Court of Human Rights to have fulfilled all requirements for a fair trial. Two of the main witnesses who could testify to Yanukovych’s arrangements with the Kremlin are now dead.
On Feb 20, 2017, Vitaly Churkin, Russia’s ambassador to the UN, died suddenly. He was not a young man, but the cause of death remains unclear. It was after his death that first Russia’s Prosecutor General and then Putin’s press secretary Dmitry Peskov emphatically denied that the letter from Yanukovych to Putin which Churkin had read out at the UN had ever been received by the Kremlin. There was an enforced partial backdown from that position the day after Peskov’s statement, following Lutsenko’s reminder that Putin himself had mentioned the letter. Instead word games were played over whether this was a ‘statement’ or a ‘letter’, although here too Putin and Churkin had quite unambiguously referred to an ‘appeal’ with this presented as justifying Russian troops being deployed in Ukraine.
An answer can no longer be demanded from Churkin, nor can Voronenkov now be questioned in a court of law about his vital testimony.