On the trail of Russian spies?

According to Spanish daily El Pais, the killing of Russian pilot and deserter Maxim Kuzminov in Spain may be the work of Russian intelligence services. A look at the incredible story that made this man one of the primary targets of Moscow and perhaps the Russian mafia.

Could the mystery of the murder of a Russian on the Spanish Riviera become somewhat clear? The bullet-riddled body of Maxim Kuzminov, a Russian helicopter pilot who fled to Ukraine in August 2023, was found on February 13 in the seaside town of Villajoyosa near the Spanish city of Alicante.

Since then, Spanish authorities have officially remained very cautious about this potentially highly sensitive matter, refusing to even confirm the identity of the victim. But the Spanish intelligence services are certain: the assassination is the work of Russian agents, they assure the Spanish daily El Pais, in an article published on Thursday, February 22.

A priority target for the Kremlin

For their part, police officials confirmed to the New York Times that the victim was indeed Maxim Kuzminov and that Russia was quick to rejoice over the death of such a “traitor.”

After the announcement of the discovery of the body in Villajoyosa, the head of Russian foreign intelligence, Sergei Naryshkin, asserted, “This criminal became a corpse empty of all moral sense from the moment of his infamous crime.”

It must be said that the desertion of Maxim Kuzminov was presented as the most important war advantage of Ukrainian intelligence. kyiv also produced a nearly two-hour documentary dedicated to the operation that resulted in “the first significant defection of a Russian pilot since the start of the war,” according to Ukraine.

Ukrainian spies also boasted of having obtained vital information about the helicopter from the Russian pilot, in addition to details of Russian war plans and their arsenal. In return, Maxim Kuzminov received $500,000.

Also read“You need”: How Ukraine is trying to encourage Russian abdication

But in the eyes of Vladimir Putin, he is not just a traitor. During the operation, two Russian co-pilots who were accompanying Maxim Kozminov were killed by unsuspecting Ukrainian agents during an exchange of gunfire. For the master of the Kremlin, the desertion is also responsible for the death of two pilots, who, in the food chain of Russian soldiers, are more valuable than simple fighters.

So the government had “more than one reason to want to get rid of Maxim Kuzminov to send a message”, asserts Stephen Hall, a Russia expert at the University of Bath. It’s a way to make all the candidates for abandonment understand that “the price you pay to get $500,000 is to be hunted and killed wherever you are,” adds Jeff Hohn, a Russia expert at the London School of Economics.

Call his ex-girlfriend

Hunting for “peepholes” is a politically promising business in Russia in this pre-presidential election period. “With the death of Yevgeny Prigozhin and the recent death of Alexei Navalny – both considered traitors by Vladimir Putin – the Russian president’s team is able to say that it may be possible to satisfy yourself by bringing in the body of another ‘traitor.’ The person who will probably get re-elected,” speculates Jeff Hohn.

On the other hand, Russia thus states that the war and the avalanche of international sanctions aimed at isolating the country “do not seem to have greatly affected the network of agents that Moscow has for its operations abroad”, underlines Jenny Mathers. , a political scientist and Russian intelligence expert at Aberystwyth University in Wales.

In fact, no one knew where Maxim Kozminov was. The latest news was that Ukraine had advised him not to leave the country to reduce the risk of assassination.

Russia’s ability to track its targets abroad is “essentially less good than it was before the start of the 2022 major offensive, if only because the movements of Russian citizens are more closely monitored”, estimates Jenny Mathers. In addition, the Spanish authorities expelled twenty or so agents of the SVR (Russian foreign intelligence) and GRU (military intelligence) whose existence they knew.

But “we cannot say that Maxim Kuzminov took all conceivable measures to ensure his safety,” regrets Jeff Hon. His change of identity – he had a Ukrainian passport – did not prove enough. The choice of the Alicante region to start a new life, for example, can be surprising: it is in this city that the largest contingent of Russian expatriates in Spain is concentrated, underlines El Pais. Among the 17,500 compatriots there, there was probably one who recognized a “traitor” looking for Moscow. He also called his ex-girlfriend, who lived in Russia, to invite her to join him. “There is no doubt that the communications of everyone he knew in Russia were being monitored,” Jeff Hohn said.


Once found, it was necessary to succeed in eliminating the person who tried to hide. Spanish intelligence services are still vacillating between the responsibility of the SVR, the GRU or the FSB, according to El Pais. The first two are usually the agencies that deal with these types of operations, but “the FSB began to become more and more involved in operations abroad”, Stephen Hall recognizes. The FSB was accused of poisoning ex-Russian spy Alexander Litvinenko in England in 2006.

The GRU track, however, remains the most obvious, notes Jenny Mathers. If only because “Maxim Kuzminov was a military pilot, and therefore his case falls under military intelligence,” summarizes this expert. And then the GRU also has experience in this field. It was his military spies who were suspected of poisoning former double agent Sergei Skripal in England in 2018.

Also readThe GRU is not Putin’s secret weapon

But this time there is no poison. Maxim Kuzminov was shot with twelve bullets, putting Spanish authorities on the trail of settling scores in the world of organized crime, El Pais confirms.

Stephen Hall notes that it is “entirely possible that Russian intelligence services called in local mafiosi to make contracts.” “This is not surprising because the Putin system is based on the relationship between the state and organized crime, which can be responsible for doing the dirty work,” adds Jenny Mathers.

On the trail of the “untouchable” mafioso

A thesis was also carried out by the Russian Telegram account VChK-OGPU, which specializes in exposés on the underworld of Russian oligarchs and organized crime and “which is generally very well-informed”, confirms Stephen Hall. This anonymous Telegram account writes, “One hypothesis is that it is a coup by the Bratsk mafia group (in the Irkutsk region of Siberia) and its boss, Vladimir Turin, which confirms that two members of the gang allegedly left Spain after the murder.”

The Bratsk group and Vladimir Turin were one of the most powerful Russian mafias of the 1990s. Vladimir Turin, who today presents himself as a respected businessman, was placed on the list of persons sanctioned by Washington in 2017. The United States considers him a major “thief in law”, a term used to describe the Russian mafia elite. He will also be “a rare untouchable ‘thief of law’ in Russia”, we can read on the VChK-OGPU account thread.

The man was already suspected of murdering Denis Voronenkov, an exiled Russian politician in Kiev, in 2017 on behalf of the Russian secret services. In the late 1990s, he was also one of the main people responsible for the development of the presence of the Russian mafia in Spain.

For the moment, there is nothing directly linking Vladimir Turing or one of the Russian intelligence agencies to the murder of Maxim Kuzminov. But Spanish authorities have indicated that if they find concrete evidence of Moscow’s involvement in the killing, Madrid will “respond in the strongest possible way”.

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