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A killing in Spain points to Russia and Putin’s sense of impunity

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The pastel-hued village where Russian pilot Maksim Kuzminov settled on the coast of Spain must have seemed a world away from the war he thought he had escaped last year when he defected to Ukraine. But the discovery of his bullet-riddled body last week appeared to deliver a menacing new signal from Moscow that those who cross the Kremlin — no matter how far they flee from the war’s front lines — should never consider themselves safe.

Kuzminov, 23, was killed in a barrage of gunfire and then run over with his own vehicle by assailants who then used the car to escape, according to Spanish authorities, Ukraine security officials and Spanish media reports.

The attack lacked the baroque touches often associated with Russian assassination plots. He was not poisoned with a weapons-grade toxin or found in the wreckage of an aircraft that plunged from the sky. Yet the message behind Kuzminov’s death is the same as it has been through much of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s two-decade tenure, according to Western security officials and experts.

“It is a reminder for everyone who is in exile and actively in opposition to the regime — they are all on somebody’s list,” said Eugene Rumer, a former senior U.S. intelligence official who directs the Russia program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Versions of that message have been relayed repeatedly in recent months. The death of former Wagner mercenary leader Yevgeniy Prigozhin — whose plane exploded on its way to St. Petersburg weeks after he led an aborted military insurrection — showed that old, close ties with Putin were no protection.

The death of opposition leader Alexei Navalny in a remote Arctic penal colony last week signaled that even those serving multiyear sentences — often in solitary confinement and stripped of all meaningful ability to threaten the state — may not survive.

Kuzminov fell into a category that Putin, a former KGB officer, regards with particular scorn: traitors from within the military and security services. His presidency has been marked by a series of elaborate operations that seemed aimed at inflicting the most painful possible punishment on those accused of turning against Russia for the West.

Those targeted include Alexander Litvinenko, a former Russian Federal Security Service, or FSB, officer who died after being poisoned with polonium in London in 2006, according to British investigators; and Sergei Skripal, a former Russian military officer who survived an attack that left him and his daughter gravely ill from exposure to a nerve agent, Novichok, that is only known to be produced by a Russian lab.

Navalny narrowly survived an attempt on his own life by Russian security officials using the same substance in 2020. After recuperating in Germany, he returned to Russia in 2021 and was arrested upon his arrival.

Russia’s ability to carry out lethal operations beyond its borders was believed to have been substantially eroded by waves of expulsions of Russian spies from the country’s embassies. Europe alone has expelled more than 400 suspected Russian intelligence officers since the full-scale invasion of Ukraine two years ago.

Kuzminov’s killing showed that Russia retains some capabilities in Europe despite the decimation of its spy networks, and has found ways to adapt, officials said. “They have made mistakes but learned lessons,” said a senior Ukrainian intelligence official who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive matters.

In contrast to the intricate plots against Skripal and Navalny carried out by officers working directly for Russia’s intelligence services, the attack on Kuzminov in Spain more closely resembled a mob hit. The nature of the killing has prompted speculation that Russia has turned to criminal networks to compensate for its curtailed operational presence across Europe.

If so, Kuzminov’s decision to leave Ukraine for Spain’s Mediterranean coastline may have been a particularly risky, if not reckless, move.

The Alicante region has for decades been associated with Russian organized crime syndicates, according to officials and government reports. It also has a prominent Russian expatriate population — home to as many as 16,000 of the roughly 80,000 Russians who resided in Spain as of 2022, according to government figures.

Spanish authorities have mounted intermittent operations to root out the Russian syndicates, including one that occupied investigators for seven years before culminating in sweeping arrests and property seizures three years ago.

The case, dubbed “Operation Testudo,” exposed a “large-scale criminal network” linked to Russia that involved “murder, drug trafficking, arms trafficking, trafficking of human beings and extortion,” according to a news statement issued by Europol. Given the presence of such criminal networks, “Russia could recruit criminals and not [rely on] professional intelligence agents” to carry out the killing of Kuzminov, the Ukrainian official said.

It is not clear when Kuzminov arrived in Villajoyosa, a village along a section of Mediterranean shoreline dubbed by some in Spain as the “Russian Eden” for its concentration of transplants from that country. He appears to have been living in Spain under a false identity and Ukrainian passport, presumably provided by Ukraine’s military intelligence service, GUR, which touted his defection last year aboard an Mi-8 transport helicopter packed with valuable Russian jet components as a propaganda coup.

Kuzminov appeared in a Kyiv-sponsored documentary describing his decision to defect after negotiating a deal in which Ukraine helped secure the relocation of members of his family from Russia and agreed to pay him $500,000.

It is not clear whether Kuzminov’s family members moved with him to Spain. Ukraine security officials said there were indications that Kuzminov may have compromised his own security by making contact with a former girlfriend in Russia, an assertion that could not be confirmed.

A former U.S. intelligence official said the killing of Kuzminov raises questions of “whether Western intel services have done enough to encourage Russian defections and provide for the security of defectors,” something that “should be a top priority for a variety of obvious reasons.”

The Western response so far to the death of Navalny seemed to underscore a lack of retaliatory options against Russia, which has defied expectations in its ability to withstand Western weapons shipments to Ukraine, economic sanctions and diplomatic expulsions over the past two years.

The United Kingdom announced Wednesday that it would punish Russia for Navalny’s death by imposing economic sanctions on the “heads of the Arctic penal colony where Alexei Navalny was killed.” President Biden has said a package of U.S. sanctions is imminent.

Serhiy Morgunov in Kyiv, Souad Mekhennet and Shane Harris in Washington, and Isabella Carril in Madrid contributed to this report.

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