Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00
0:00
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations
Have a safe Memorial Day Weekend!

A man shot dead in Spain may be a Russian army defector

In this photo taken Sept. 5, 2023 Russian defector Maksim Kuzminov attends a press conference in Kyiv, Ukraine.
Vladyslav Musiienko
/
AP
In this photo taken Sept. 5, 2023 Russian defector Maksim Kuzminov attends a press conference in Kyiv, Ukraine.

SEVILLE, Spain — A man who was shot dead in the region of Alicante last week, in Spain, is believed to be a Russian helicopter pilot who defected to Ukraine last year.

On the afternoon of Tuesday, Feb. 13, a neighbor in the seaside resort town of Villajoyosa called emergency services. A man had been run over by a white car on the ramp of the community garage of the apartment complex.

When the Spanish Civil Guard arrived on the scene they confirmed the man had died, but not from a car hit, but from several gunshots.

José Bautista, an investigative journalist based in Madrid, said that law enforcement first thought this was a case of gang-related violence.

"They thought the man was 33 years old, from Ukraine, this is what his ID documents showed."

But the police suspected from the beginning that the documents did not reveal the man's true identity, Bautista said, adding that the Spanish Civil Guard would not confirm officially the identity of the dead man.

"But, we had access to different police sources who confirmed that the murdered man was Maksim Kuzminov," Bautista said.

Kuzminov was a young Russian former military captain. In August of last year, Kuzminov flew a Russian helicopter into Ukrainian territory and handed himself in. But this was no act of improvisation. Ukrainian intelligence said the defection was the result of a six-month operation.

Kuzminov's defection wasn't completely smooth. Two members of the Russian army, who were also on his helicopter, were killed by Ukrainian forces. The two soldiers were recognized in Russia as war heroes, while Kuzminov was declared a traitor.

Kuzminov said he defected because he opposed Russia's war in Ukraine. The deal between him and Ukrainian intelligence involved a reward of half a million dollars, protection for his family, and new documents. He could have stayed in Ukraine, authorities said. But it appeared that Kuzminov moved to Spain, to try to blend in among the many Russian and Ukrainian citizens who live in the province of Alicante.

Then, last Tuesday the body of a man who had been shot multiple times to death, then run over by a car, was found. The car was located later, burned down, near the area. Ukrainian intelligence have since confirmed the individual was Maksim Kuzminov.

There has been no official comment from Moscow, but Sergei Naryshkin, the head of Russia's intelligence agency, in comments to the press called Kuzminov a traitor.

"This traitor and criminal became a moral corpse at the very moment when he planned his dirty and terrible crime," Naryshkin said.

The Spanish government has not confirmed the identity of the man shot dead in Alicante, and points at the ongoing investigation by the Spanish Civil Guard. But reports said the government considers this a very serious matter, and is weighing options if the man shot to death is confirmed to be Maksim Kuzminov.

Ukrainian military MI-8 helicopters fly at a low altitude in the Kharkiv region on April 2, 2023, amid the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Maksim Kuzminov, a Russian army defector who is suspected of being the person found dead in Spain, flew such military helicopters.
GENYA SAVILOV / AFP via Getty Images
/
AFP via Getty Images
Ukrainian military MI-8 helicopters fly at a low altitude in the Kharkiv region on April 2, 2023, amid the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Maksim Kuzminov, a Russian army defector who is suspected of being the person found dead in Spain, flew such military helicopters.

José Bautista said all the signs point to the Russian intelligence services, but proving who did this may be difficult. Still, he thinks the Spanish Civil Guard will be able to reach a conclusion.

"I do trust the work of Guardia Civil, the work of investigators, will somehow clarify what exactly happened and who killed this man."

Information is still trickling in. A local newspaper reported on Wednesday that the ammunition used to kill the man was from Russian origins.

The area where Kuzminov lived before he was found dead sits along the Spanish eastern Mediterranean coast and is popular among Ukrainian and Russian immigrants, many of them refugees from the war. Spain has welcomed more than 180,000 Ukrainian refugees since Russia launched their war against Ukraine.

Kuzminov may have tried to blend in, but some think that choosing a location where so many of his countrymen are residents may have actually made him easier to identify. Reports said that it was a call to a former girlfriend in Russia inviting her to visit that may have given Kuzminov up.

The news of Kuzminov's death has shocked the Ukrainian community in Alicante. Many of them are now in fear that what seemed like a safe haven in Spain, no longer feels that way.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Miguel Macias is a Senior Producer at All Things Considered, where he is proud to work with a top-notch team to shape the content of the daily show.