Vladimir Putin’s spokesman dismisses claims that Moscow is linked to the killing of Kremlin critic who left Russia last year and renounced citizenship
Denis Voronenkov, who had spoken out against Vladimir Putin and Kremlin policies, was shot three times outside the upmarket Premier Palace hotel.
Ukraine’s president, Petro Poroshenko, quickly pointed the finger at Russian authorities, calling the killing an act of “state terrorism”.
Kiev’s head of police said Voronenkov, who had been granted Ukrainian citizenship after he fled in 2016, was shot three or four times in the head and neck and died at the scene.
A firefight broke out between Voronenkov’s bodyguard, believed to have been provided by the Ukrainian security services, and the assassin. Both were wounded and taken to hospital, where the assassin died a few hours later.
The former MP, 45, had been a member of Russia’s Communist party. His wife, the opera singer Maria Maksakova, was an MP with the pro-Kremlin United Russia party. She reportedly fled to Ukraine with her husband five months ago.
“He told me he was receiving threats from the FSB,” Ilya Ponomarev, another former MP who has also fled Russia, told the Guardian by telephone from Kiev. “To be honest, I had thought he was being a bit paranoid.”
He added that Voronenkov had asked Ukrainian security services for armed protection after receiving the threats. Ponomarev said he had been speaking to Voronenkov every day recently and had been due to meet him on Thursday morning.
After meeting Ponomarev, Voronenkov was apparently planning to give evidence in a case against Ukraine’s former president Viktor Yanukovych, who fled to Russia after the Maidan revolution in 2014.
In the aftermath of the uprising, Russia annexed Crimea and backed separatist forces in east Ukraine in a war that has killed 10,000 people. After fleeing to Kiev, Voronenkov claimed he had supported the annexation of Crimea as an MP because of political pressure.
Senior Ukrainian officials quickly painted the killing as a Kremlin plot, with the prosecutor general, Yuri Lutsenko, writing on Facebook that it was “typical public Kremlin punishment of a witness”.
Lutsenko said Voronenkov had already given testimony that implicated Yanukovych in providing cover for Russian military intervention in Ukraine.
Poroshenko released a statement saying Voronenkov was one of the “main witnesses of the Russian aggression against Ukraine and, in particular, the role of Yanukovych regarding the deployment of Russian troops to Ukraine”.
Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov said it was absurd to look for a link to Moscow in the killing. The foreign ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said the “killer regime” in Kiev “will do its best to make sure that no one will ever know the truth about what happened”.
Voronenkov had spoken about the possibility of retribution from Russia after he fled , but said he refused to go into hiding. He gave a number of interviews after his defection that were sharply critical of the Russian president and Kremlin policy in Ukraine. He compared modern Russia to Nazi Germany and called the annexation of Crimea illegal.
“I believe that whatever will happen will happen. I don’t intend to hide,” he said in a recent television interview. He said he believed the Ukrainian security services were able to keep him safe.
In an interview with the Washington Post this week, he said he and his wife were considered traitors in Russia. “It’s hard to imagine we will be forgiven,” he said.
Voronenkov had been put on a Russian wanted list in connection with an alleged $5m (£4m) property fraud. Earlier this month, a Moscow court sanctioned his arrest in absentia.
The anti-corruption campaigner Alexei Navalny released a video after Voronenkov’s flight to Kiev last October calling the former MP a hypocrite who had engaged in corrupt dealings and enthusiastically backed Putin before fleeing. Tweets Voronenkov posted in 2014 gloated over the annexation of Crimea and the Kremlin-backed uprising in east Ukraine.
Many Ukrainians were sharply critical of the decision to award citizenship to an MP from Russia who had voted to annex Crimea and suggested he may have changed his views to win citizenship and flee his troubles with the law in Russia.
Ponomarev, who was the only member of Russia’s Duma to vote against the annexation of Crimea, said this was unfair: “To be honest, I think he was never that interested in high politics and decisions like Crimea. Nobody is perfect, but I don’t think he was engaged in serious corruption. He was doing some investigations and was very dangerous for the FSB.”
Ukrainian security services said they would be offering protection to Ponomarev and Voronenkov’s wife Maksakova in the aftermath of the killing. Maksakova arrived on the scene shortly after the shooting and was escorted away. The couple were raising an infant son.
Separately, in the early hours of Thursday, an explosion at an ammunitions depot in east Ukraine caused a huge fire and prompted the evacuation of more than 20,000 people.
Ukrainian authorities said the explosion was sabotage and Poroshenko said “it is no coincidence” that the explosion and Voronenkov’s killing came on the same day, although he offered no evidence linking the events.