Two suspects in the murder of Russian military pilot Maxim Kuzminov – shot dead in Spain on Feb. 13 – left 9mm Makarov pistol casings at the crime scene, The New York Times (NYT) reported. Spanish investigators leading the case provided the information on condition of anonymity.

The deceased, 28-year-old Maxim Kuzminov, was the commander of a Russian Mi-8 helicopter. He flew into Ukraine last August, claiming opposition to Russian aggression, in a successful operation led by Ukraine’s military intelligence service (HUR).

The NYT emphasized the significance of the shell casings as crucial evidence, noting their association with “standard ammunition of the former Communist bloc.”

Having been paid $500,000 by the Ukrainian government, Kuzminov was provided with a Ukrainian passport and a new identity – Ihor Shevchenko. He was also offered a role in the Ukrainian defense forces against Russia.

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However, Kuzminov left Ukraine in October 2023, settling in the Spanish city of Villajoyosa on the Mediterranean coast, a popular spot among tourists from the UK and Eastern Europe. He lived in an apartment building ten minutes’ walk from the beach.

Spanish authorities indicated the presence of active Russian organized crime groups in the region, some with ties to Russian intelligence services.

Another Russian military defector, also in Spain and speaking anonymously for safety reasons, described the area as a “red zone” filled with Russian agents. “I'll never go there,” he said.

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In Spain, Kuzminov lived “an indiscreet life,” according to the senior Guardia Civil official overseeing the investigation.

Spending money he received from Ukrainian authorities, he frequented bars popular among Russians and Ukrainians, and was often seen driving around Villajoyosa in a black Mercedes S-Class.

The exact approach of the assailants to Kuzminov remains unclear. However, two Ukrainian officials informed the NYT that the pilot had been in contact with an ex-girlfriend in Russia, inviting her to join him in Spain.

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“This was a grave mistake,” one official said.

Senior police officers highlighted the similarities between Kuzminov's murder and the 2019 killing of former Chechen warlord Zelimkhan Khangoshvili in Berlin, along with the 2018 assassination attempt on Sergei Skripal in Salisbury. Both attacks have been attributed to Russian intelligence services.

Day of the murder

According to details reported by the NYT, on the morning of Feb. 13, a white Hyundai Tucson entered the garage under Kuzminov’s apartment building and parked in an empty spot between the elevators used by residents and the ramp leading to the street. Two men waited there for several hours, as described by the senior Guardia Civil official.

Around 4:20 p.m., Kuzminov drove into the garage, parked, and began walking toward the elevators. Passing in front of the white Hyundai, the two assailants emerged, called out to him, and opened fire. Despite being struck by six bullets, most of them in the torso, Kuzminov managed to sprint a short distance before collapsing on the ramp.

The two killers then reportedly got back into the car and ran over Kuzminov’s body as they made their escape. The vehicle was later found a few miles away, burned out with the help of what investigators believe was a special accelerant. It took specialists a week to identify the make and model of the car. They established that it had been stolen two days before the killing in Murcia, a town about an hour away.

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The NYT reported that a special unit in the Guardia Civil is investigating strict secrecy rules. The authorities have not publicly confirmed Kuzminov as the deceased and have struggled to reach officials in Ukraine who might help them.

“A dog gets a dog’s death”

As stressed by the NYT, Russian officials have previously contorted their statements when faced with clear evidence of state involvement in various assassinations across Europe. However, Kuzminov's case presents a starkly different scenario. Senior Russian officials openly expressed a sense of satisfaction regarding his death.

Sergei Naryshkin, the director of Russia's foreign intelligence service, said: “This traitor and criminal became a moral corpse the moment he planned his dirty and terrible crime.”

Dmitry Medvedev, the former Russian president and current deputy chairman of Russia’s security council, said: “A dog gets a dog's death.”

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In contrast to the high-profile nature of Kuzminov's defection, the Ukrainian authorities have maintained relative silence about the killing. Senior officials are concerned that it could deter others from following his lead, the NYT disclosed.

One senior official expressed worry: “Who will cooperate with us after this?”

He added: “Russia will intensively spread propaganda – they're already doing it – that they will find all traitors. This is a hidden message to other citizens of Russia, especially military personnel, that ‘we will find you if you betray us’.”

As highlighted by the NYT, the individuals responsible for Kuzminov's murder sought to convey a message, and this intention was evident to investigators in Spain even before they identified him.

“It was a clear message,” a senior official from the Guardia Civil said. “I will find you, I will kill you, I will run you over, and I will humiliate you.”

Kuzminov's murder has sparked concerns that Russia's spy networks in Europe remain active and are targeting Kremlin adversaries, despite efforts to dismantle them following Russian President Vladimir Putin's invasion of Ukraine in 2022.

On the evening of Feb 19, Ukraine’s military intelligence service representative Andriy Yusov confirmed to Kyiv Post that Kuzminov had died, but was unable to provide further details.

Russia had previously made threats against the defector. In October 2023, the Rossiya 1 TV channel aired a story where self-identified special forces soldiers from the Main Directorate of the General Staff of the Russian Armed Forces said that Kuzminov “would not live to see trial.”

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A separate television report said that Russian GRU intelligence “had been ordered" to eliminate Kuzminov. “Of course, we will find him, we will reach everyone, our arms are long,” an operator from the GRU said.

Oleksiy Danilov who held the position of the National Security and Defense Council Secretary told Ukrainska Pravda in an interview that Kyiv had suggested that Kuzminov should stay in Ukraine for his safety.

“Our country's proposal was for him to stay in Ukraine. He would definitely [have been] protected here. And I don't think they would have been able to run amok here like they did in Spain,” Danilov said.

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