MS Risk Blog

Russian Defector Targeted in Spain

Posted on in Uncategorized title_rule

Topic: An analysis of the targeted killing of Russian defector Maxim Kuzminov in Spain and online Russian disinformation campaigns in Western and Southern Europe: What effects do these events have on the security of Western and Southern Europe?

Key Judgements:

On August 9, 2023, Maxim Kuzminov, a captain of Russia’s 319th separate helicopter regiment officially became a Russian defector after he flew a Mil MI8 helicopter into Ukrainian territory and handed himself in as part of a special operation in coordination with Ukrainian Intelligence (GUR). The GUR operation, codenamed “Synitsa” had been in the works for six months. Kuzminov had originally contacted Ukrainian GUR agents in December 2022, expressing that he wanted to surrender to Ukraine in exchange for a large sum of money (€500,000) and to have a new life with his family in Ukraine. After defecting to Ukraine, Kuzminov was awarded the equivalent of €500,000 and spoke critically about Russia’s war in Ukraine at a high level press conference in Kyiv, encouraging other Russian’s fighting in Ukraine to do the same, by stating that “You won’t regret it.” Six months later, on February 13, 2024, Kuzminov was killed in Villajoyosa, a coastal town on the Costa Blanca in Spain. Kuzminov moved to Spain from Ukraine in December 2023. Prior to moving to Spain, he was issued fake documents by Ukrainian officials which stated that the 28 year-old Russian citizen was a “33-year-old citizen of Ukraine”. These documents were found at the scene of the targeted killing and his identity has been officially confirmed by police and Ukrainian Military Intelligence. Kuzminov’s body was “riddled with bullets”. He was shot “at least six times” and had been hit by a car (white SUV, Hyundai) in the targeted killing which occurred outside of a community garage in an apartment complex. The perpetrators fled the scene in a white Hyundai SUV used in the targeted killing. The vehicle was found to have been set on fire, 18km away in the nearby town of El Campello, which is a 20 minute drive away from Villajoyosa.

Whilst some contemporary news reports in the media claim that they are uncertain about who killed him, there is already strong evidence to suggest that Kuzminov was targeted by the General Staff of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation, known as the GRU or by the wider Russian Intelligence Services. In October 2023, Russian State TV  Channel, Rossiya 1 broadcasted a very brief interview with several Russian Spetsnaz operators from the GRU. In the very brief interview, a Spetsnaz operator states that “the order to (assassinate Kuzminov) has already been received and its execution is only a question of time”. Other operators additionally pitch in commenting that “We will find him and punish him to the fullest extent of the law of or government”. Towards the end of the interview one operator comments “Of course we will find him, we can reach anyone, our arms are long.”

This clearly shows that the GRU  had an active interest in targeting Kuzminov after he had defected from fighting for Russia in August 2023. In light of Kuzminov’s death in Spain, the interview certainly does add weight to the argument that the GRU and Russian Intelligence more broadly  were involved in the targeted killing of Kuzminov. When news of Kuzminov’s death broke out, Sergei Naryshkin, the head of Russia’s Foreign Intelligence Service (the SVR) commented saying that Maxim Kuzminov was a “traitor and a criminal” who “became a moral corpse at the very moment when he planned his dirty and terrible crime”. This supports the fact that the wider Russian Intelligence community had an active interest in conducting a targeted killing on Kuzminov. Before Kuzminov’s identity was confirmed, Russian media were also the first to report on his death in Spain. Multiple news outlets have also reported that Russian ammunition has been discovered at the scene of the incident. One local news source stated that “Sources close to the investigation consider the assassins used Russian ammunition so there would be no doubt the execution, with its exemplary overtones, came from Russia and was the direct and announced consequence of the high-profile desertion.” Again this ties the Russian state and their intelligence services to Kuzminov’s death in Spain.  Recent evidence by Ukrainian sources has shown that prior to his death, Kuzminov had called his ex-girlfriend and “had invited her to Spain… afterwards he was found dead.” It is a realistic possibility that “that call could have been intercepted by Russian secret services”, allowing them to pinpoint his location and carryout a successful targeted killing. The following evidence presented above adds undeniable and transparent evidence that the murder of Maxim Kuzminov is highly likely to have been carried out by GRU,  the wider Russian Intelligence Services or the Russian State. 

As tragic as Kuzminov’s death at the hands of the Russian Intelligence Services and the wider Russian state is, it additionally creates security issues and challenges for countries in Western and Southern Europe. Kuzminov’s death is a “theatrical act of violence”, with the intention of demonstrating that Russia is willing and able to “kill with impunity all over the world”, including in the far corners of Southern Europe. Russia definitely does have long arms, as pointed out by the Spetsnaz operator in October 2023, and indeed ones which are able to pry their way into Europe bringing  mayhem and chaos to the forefront of European security. 

Alongside targeted killings, Russia has also been stepping up  recent disinformation campaigns in various regions in Southern and Western Europe. Viginum, a French foreign-disinformation watchdog revealed in mid February 2024, that it had uncovered “a Russian network of 193 websites” which it concluded Russia had created to use “for a large disinformation campaign in France, Germany, Poland and other European countries, tied in part to the second anniversary of Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine and the elections to the European Parliament in June.” Current traffic on these sites are low, however, “French authorities think they are ready to be activated aggressively as part of what one official calls a “massive” wave of Russian disinformation”.  Over 50 of these websites have been created since 2022. The aim of these websites is “to spread ‘deceptive and false’ content about the war in Ukraine, both on websites and via social media” and by proxy, attempt destabilise various regions in Western and Southern Europe. Russia’s online disinformation campaigns and its targeted killing of Maxim Kuzminov’s highlights that “as the war in Ukraine protracts, Russia has an interest in creating crises further afield.” The targeted killing of Kuzminov in Spain also shows that despite the GRU’s reach into Europe having originally “suffered real setbacks from the widespread expulsion of Russian intelligence officers and the exposure of its personnel in the lead-up to the invasion of Ukraine… Russia is now actively trying to rebuild the capacity to embark on such operations”, and they are not afraid to do so.

Russia’s targeted killing of Kuzminov and its online disinformation campaigns in Western and Southern Europe ultimately makes clear that “Russia… has an active interest in destabilising Ukraine’s partners” and is able to do so through a “wide range of opportunities”. Ultimately, the targeted killing of Kuzminov is evidently an attempt to destabilise security in Southern Europe and put various countries in Western and Southern Europe on edge, whilst simultaneously sending a message to other Russian defectors who reside in Western and Southern Europe: they are not untouchable or safe despite however far away from Russia they may be.