A former member of the Russian parliament who had fled the county and become a sharp critic of both Vladimir Putin’s government and Putin’s allies in Ukraine was shot dead in Kiev on Thursday. Denis Voronenkov had been testifying in a treason case against Ukraine’s deposed Russian-backed president, Viktor Yanukovych.* The current Ukrainian president, Petro Poroshenko, responded to Voronenkov’s murder by accusing Russia of “state terrorism.”
Voronenkov, who was elected to Russia’s state Duma as a member of the Communist Party, wasn’t considered much of an opposition figure until recently. His wife, opera singer Maria Maksakova, was an MP for Putin’s United Russia Party.
Voronenkov and Maksakov fled Russia last year and renounced his Russian citizenship amid reports that authorities were preparing corruption charges against him. Voronenkov was getting attacked from all sides: Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny had also accused him of embezzlement. Voronenkov settled in Ukraine, where he was granted citizenship by a government that the Kremlin calls a Western-backed junta. In his new home, he became an outspoken critic of Putin’s government, comparing the Russian political system to the Nazis in an interview last month with Anna Nemtsova of the Daily Beast.
As Nemtsova reported, many Ukrainians were suspicious of Voronenkov’s motives, viewing him as an opportunist or even a potential double agent. He had, for instance, voted in favor of Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 before condemning it as illegal after he fled. But Ukrainian authorities welcomed his help and what they described as his “very important” testimony in an ongoing treason case against Yanukovych, the president who fled to Russia in 2014 following mass protests. Those protests were provoked by his decision to cancel an association agreement with the EU in favor of closer ties with Russia.
There is, of course, heightened interest in Yanukovych in the United States right now, prompted by the ongoing investigation into President Donald Trump’s ties to Russia. The former Ukrainian head of state was a client of Paul Manafort’s, Trump’s former campaign manager. Ukrainian investigators say Manafort received millions of dollars in off-the-books payments from Yanukovych’s pro-Russian political party. Voronenkov had told the Daily Beast that he didn’t know anything about Manafort.
Becoming a whistleblower is never a safe proposition for former Russian officials. Voronenkov’s murder was preceded by the killings of, among others, ex-FSB agent Alexander Litvinenko, poisoned in Britain in 2006, and former Deputy Prime Minister Boris Nemtsov, shot dead in Moscow in in 2015.
This week, a lawyer for the family of Sergei Magnitsky—the attorney who died in prison in 2009 after alleging corruption by Russian officials, prompting U.S. sanctions—was injured after falling from a fourth-floor window near Moscow. Local media said he fell when a rope snapped while he was trying to lift a bathtub into the apartment, but an associate said he was “thrown.”
In interviews during his campaign and since his election, Trump has on several occasions brushed aside allegations that the Russian government kills its critics, saying that Putin is a “strong leader” and asking, “You think our country is so innocent?”
Voronenkov had been well aware of threats to his safety. In an excerpt from an interview with the Washington Post’s Andrew Roth earlier this week, posted by Roth on Twitter on Thursday, he said, “for our personal safety, we can’t let them know where we are. It’s a totally amoral system and in its anger, it may go to extreme measures.”
*Correction, March 23, 2017: This post originally misidentified Viktor Yanukovych as Vladimir Yanukovych.