Six months after former lawmaker of the Russian State Duma Denis Voronenkov was shot to death outside the Premier Palace Hotel in central Kyiv, investigators have said he was killed for giving testimony against former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych and about Russia’s war against Ukraine.
But Ilya Ponomarev, another former lawmaker of the Russian State Duma, who like Voronenkov sought sanctuary in Ukraine after running afoul of the Kremlin, says Voronenkov’s testimony in Ukrainian courts wasn’t the main reason he was killed.
Rather, Voronenkov’s long-running feud with a former officer in Russia’s Federal Security Service, or FSB, General Oleg Feoktistov, was the prime motive behind the crime, according to Ponomarev. The feud concerned Voronenkov’s investigation into a smuggling racket that involved the FSB, which resulted in the firing of 29 FSB officers.
Once a Kremlin supporter, Voronenkov moved to Ukraine in the fall of 2016 with his wife Mariya Maksakova and became a vocal critic of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s regime. According to Ukraine’s prosecutor general, Yuriy Lutsenko, Voronenkov had fled from political persecution in Russia.
In January, Voronenkov provided testimony against Yanukovych and about the activities of the Russian army in Russia’s war against Ukraine. Lutsenko said investigators believe Voronenkov’s testimony triggered the plot to kill him, as the FSB feared he would reveal further damaging evidence in Ukrainian and international courts of Russian wrongdoing.
Ponomarev also testified in the case against Yanukovych. But he said Voronenkov’s testimony only concerned the letter Yanukovych sent to Russia asking that the Kremlin “intervene and use military force on the territory of Ukraine.”
“That couldn’t be the reason for the assassination at all,” Ponomarev told the Kyiv Post, adding that the case is “very simple.”
As for Voronenkov’s testimony about the Russian army’s actions in the war, Ponomarev said he couldn’t be so categorical, as he is not aware of what Voronenkov knew, or what he told investigators.
The most valuable information Voronenkov could share was that on smuggling in Russia, learned when he was an investigator, Ponomarev said.
“Voronenkov was afraid of only one guy – Feoktistov,” Ponomarev told the Kyiv Post in a phone interview. “The information (about smuggling) was more dangerous than that other testimony.”
Ponomarev also said the assassination was a message from Russian officials that no one should “switch sides and help Ukraine.”
The Kyiv Post was unable to reach Feoktistov for comments for this article.
Who is Feoktistov?
Ponomarev said the conflict between Voronenkov and Feoktistov dated back to the mid-2000s.
Feoktistov had been serving as the deputy head of the FSB’s internal security department, while Voronenkov worked as an investigator of the Federal Drug Control Service in 2004 to 2007. During that time, Voronenkov ran a corruption investigation on furniture smuggling, known as the “Three Whales” case. The case led to the firing of 29 FSB generals, including Feoktistov’s mentor, Ponomarev told the Kyiv Post in April.
Feoktistov tried but failed to assassinate Voronenkov in 2007, Ponomarev also claimed.
He said Feoktistov could have ordered the assassination because he needed to restore his reputation in the eyes of the Kremlin, and prove his usefulness. He said there were two incidents that could have tarnished Feoktistov’s reputation.
The one was the trial of Alexey Ulyukaev, the former minister of economic development of Russia, who was arrested after Feoktistov alleged the minister had taken a $2 million bribe to allow the Kremlin-controlled oil company Rosneft to acquire a 50 percent stake in private Russian oil company Bashneft. The BBC has reported that Feoktistov, who made the allegations while he was head of security at Rosneft, now is one of the key prosecution witnesses in the case.
The other incident was a PR attack against Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, organized by Russian opposition politician Alexei Navalny. Ponomarev said Feoktistov was the one who leaked information about Medvedev’s assets to Navalny. Because of that, Putin asked Igor Sechin, a close ally and the head of Rosneft, to fire Feoktistov.
In early March, Feoktistov lost his job as head of security at the state oil company Rosneft and returned to “military service,” the BBC reported.
“Feoktistov needed to do something bold to prove his usefulness to the state, and to the president in particular,” Ponomarev said.
After Voronenkov’s assassination, Feoktistov on April 1 returned to the FSB as a deputy chief of its economic investigation unit, Ponomarev said. But after Feoktistov’s name became known to the public due to his being a key witness at the Ulyukaev trial, Putin held back on signing the order for his appointment, and eventually, at the end of August, decided to send him into retirement.
Voronenkov’s wife Maksakova said she was also sure that Feoktistov was involved in her husband’s murder. According to her, Feoktistov and his associates killed Voronenkov because he had broken up their smuggling racket.
“They do not forgive people of such a high rank, and so well-informed, like Denis,” Maksakova said.
She said Putin had disapproved of the killing.
“Putin gave his assessment of what happened on the streets of Kyiv, because he didn’t need it,” she said of Feoktistov’s being sent into retirement from the FSB.
While witnesses and prosecutors have different views about the main motive for Voronenkov’s killing, they agree on who ordered it: Russian citizen Vladimir Tyurin.
According to Lutsenko, Tyurin ordered the assassination on behalf of the FSB.
The prosecutor general said Tyurin commissioned five Ukrainians to organize and commit the crime. Two of them are on the wanted list, two have been arrested, and another one, the killer, died in an exchange of fire with Voronenkov’s bodyguard.
Meanwhile, Sergei Belyak, Tyurin’s former lawyer, has denied all of the investigators’ accusations, according to the Russian news agency Interfax. Belyak said Tyurin had no personal or other conflicts with Voronenkov, or connections to the FSB. The lawyer instead accused “Ukrainian nationalists” of carrying out the killing.
Investigators are also considering another motive for the killing – that Tyurin held a personal grudge against Maksakova. Until eight years ago, Tyurin had been in a common-law marriage with Maksakova. They have two children together.
However, investigators, Lutsenko, Ponomarev and Maksakova all agree that this was not Tyurin’s primary motive for ordering the hit.
Ponomarev said he had discussed with Maksakova speculation in the Russian media that Tyurin had had Voronenkov killed because he had fled with her to Kyiv, but that she had dismissed this as being a motive.
Maksakova herself told the Kyiv Post that she had broken off all communication with Tyurin soon after she found out about his involvement in Voronenkov’s killing. She told Ukraine’s 112 TV Channel that she “has been living with this hellish information for the last four months.”
“He had (a motive), but it wasn’t enough to commit such brazen action on the territory of another state,” she said. “Yes, he hated my personal life… (Denis) pissed him off no end, but this wasn’t a motive enough to kill.”
She said Tyurin was envious, but not jealous.
Ponomarev agreed that Tyurin’s personal dislike of Voronenkov was not a sufficient motive to have him killed.
“During the two years of marriage between Mariya and Denis, Tyurin had plenty of the opportunities to do this in Russia, but he never even hinted that he was dissatisfied,” Ponomarev said, calling Tyurin “a crime lord.”
“He needed to have been persuaded somehow,” to have ordered the killing, Ponomarev added.