World Europe First Look

Former Russian lawmaker and Moscow critic gunned down in Ukraine

Denis Voronenkov, a key witness in a Ukrainian treason case against pro-Russia former president Viktor Yanukovich, was shot by an unidentified assailant in central Kiev on Thursday. His death fueled tensions between the two countries.

Denis Voronenkov, a former member of the communist faction in the lower house of Russian parliament and a critic of Moscow, speaks in Nizhny Novgorod, Russia.
Roman Yarovitcyn/Kommersant/AP/File
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A former member of the Russian Duma who had moved to Ukraine was shot and killed in Kiev on Thursday, sparking allegations that the murder was politically motivated.

Denis Voronenkov was shot dead outside the upscale Premier Palace hotel in the Ukrainian capital. His bodyguard, reportedly a member of Ukrainian security services, shot the assailant. The gunman, who died in the hospital and has not been publicly identified, was a Ukrainian citizen, officials said. Ukraine is currently investigating the incident.

Russia and Ukraine traded verbal barbs over Mr. Voronenkov’s death. Ukraine President Petro Poroshenko accused Russia of “state terrorism,” an allegation Kremlin spokesman Dimitri Peskov described as “absurd.”

The death is the latest event to test frosty Russian-Ukrainian relations. Tensions have been running high since Russia invaded Crimea in February 2014. Since then, separatism in the Donbass region of eastern Ukraine has led to more than 10,000 deaths.

According to Mr. Poroshenko, Voronenkov’s knowledge of these incidents likely motivated someone to seek his death.

"Voronenkov was one of the main witnesses of Russian aggression against Ukraine and, in particular, the role of Yanukovich regarding the deployment of Russian troops to Ukraine,” he said on Thursday.

The former Russian Duma member was a key witness in a treason case against Viktor Yanukovich, the pro-Russia former Ukrainian president, who fled during the Maidan protests of 2013-2014. He had been on his way to meet with Ilya Ponomarev, also a former Duma member, who was the only person to vote against the annexation of Crimea.

Voronenkov’s role in exposing a contraband ring is also part of Ukraine’s investigation, according to general prosecutor Yuriy Lutsenko.

The slain Voronenkov “was a member of the parliamentary committee on national security," explained political analyst Volodymyr Fesenko, adding that Voronenkov had access to “state secrets.”

When he moved to Ukraine last year, Voronenkov claimed that persecution by Russian security services was the driving force behind his decision. He had been placed on a federal wanted list over allegations that he committed $5 million in property fraud.

For some, the death echoes the politically motivated murder of Russian opposition leader Boris Nemtsov in February 2015, as well as hundreds of journalists. President Poroshenko said Voronenkov’s murder "clearly shows the handwriting of Russian special services, shown repeatedly in various European capitals in the past."

Russia, however, rejects this assessment, and has expressed concern that Ukraine will not go far enough in its investigation.

Kiev "will do its best to make sure that no one will ever know the truth about what happened," Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said.

Mr. Peskov, the Kremlin spokesman, said he hoped Ukrainian authorities would solve the crime, and added that Voronenkov’s widow was welcome to return to Russia. Maria Maksakova, an opera singer who also served in the Duma, moved to Ukraine with her husband last year.

This report includes material from Reuters and the Associated Press.