Russian pilot who defected found dead in Spain, says Ukraine security agency

Author: Editors Desk, Luke Harding in Kyiv and Stephen Burgen in Barcelona Source: News Corp Australia Network:
February 19, 2024 at 17:09
Maksim Kuzminov crossed the frontline last August while on a flight between two Russian airbases. Photograph: Maxym Marusenko/NurPhoto/Shutterstock
Maksim Kuzminov crossed the frontline last August while on a flight between two Russian airbases. Photograph: Maxym Marusenko/NurPhoto/Shutterstock
Maksim Kuzminov, who changed sides in secret operation, killed after allegedly moving to Alicante, reports suggest

A Russian helicopter pilot who defected to Ukraine last year in a secret operation has been found dead in Spain, according to the main military intelligence agency in Kyiv.

Reports in Russian and Spanish media on Monday said Maksim Kuzminov was found dead after allegedly moving to the town of Villajoyosa in Alicante on the Mediterranean coast, in an area popular with holidaymakers. His body was discovered last Tuesday, it was said, on the car park ramp underneath an apartment block.

The reports claimed he had been murdered by unknown gunmen who fired 12 shots. A burnt-out car was discovered nearby in the Costa Blanca town of El Campello. Spanish police had initially thought the shooting was gang-related before reportedly learning of the victim’s extraordinary backstory and his former role in Russia’s war and invasion.

Kuzminov crossed the frontline last August while on a flight between two Russian airbases. He was supposed to transport parts for SU-27 and Su-30 fighter jets. Instead, he landed his twin-engine Mi-8 AMTSh helicopter on Ukrainian territory.

His two fellow pilots were killed. Kyrylo Budanov, the head of Ukraine’s GUR intelligence agency, said his officers had persuaded Kuzminov to defect during an elaborate six-month operation. Before that, the pilot’s family were extracted from Russia, Budanov said.

The newspaper Ukrainskaya Pravda, citing a GUR source, said the pilot’s former girlfriend had found Kuzminov’s body. “He decided to move to Spain instead of being here [in Ukraine]. From what we know: he invited his ex to his place and was found shot dead,” the source reportedly said.

Andrii Yusov, the intelligence agency’s press spokesperson, said merely: “We confirm the fact of death.”

Yusov declined to say whether the pilot had been murdered, or – if so – who might have been responsible. Spain’s national police had no immediate comment.

Some Russian commentators close to the Russia’s defence ministry claimed reports about Kuzminov’s killing were planted by Ukraine’s intelligence services to fake the pilot’s death.

“Don’t get too excited,” Vladimir Rogov, a Russian-appointed official in southern Ukraine, wrote on Telegram. “They want to create a new biography with a clean slate and a new name for the traitor.”

If Kuzminov’s death is confirmed, the finger of blame is likely to point to the Kremlin. In the past, its assassins have carried out a series of killings across Europe. On Monday, Yulia Navalnaya, accused Vladimir Putin of murdering her husband, Alexei Navalny. The Russian opposition leader died on Friday in a remote Arctic prison camp.

In 2006, two killers working for Moscow’s federal security service, the FSB, poisoned the Russian dissident Alexander Litvinenko with a radioactive cup of tea. A public inquiry subsequently concluded that the Putin had “probably” personally instructed the FSB to arrange the murder.

In 2018, two officers from Russia’s GUR military intelligence outfit allegedly tried to kill the Russian double-agent Sergei Skripal.

Kuzminov appeared last September at a high-profile press conference in Kyiv flanked by two uniformed Ukrainian service personnel. He said he had tried to reassure his two fellow pilots they would be well treated in Ukraine. “But they got afraid, began behaving aggressively and eventually rushed out of the helicopter,” he said.

He said he took off at 4.30pm local time on 23 August 2023 from Kursk airfield in Russia. Close to Ukraine he flew at an extremely low altitude and in radio silence. Russian soldiers opened fire as he crossed the border.

“I can’t say for sure who started it, but I assume it was the Russian side. I was shot in the leg with small arms. I then flew about 20km away and landed at the designated location,” Kuzminov said. He claimed he only performed transport operations to move military personnel or cargo, and did not bomb Ukraine.

Reports last September suggested he was considering joining Ukraine’s small airforce. It is unclear whether he changed his mind and why he decided to leave the relative safety of Ukraine for Spain.

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