Russian Emigres in Spain Call for Protection after Pilot Defector Shot Dead

Rafa Arjones/ via REUTERS
Spanish Civil Guard officers investigate the garage where the body of Russian pilot Maxim Kuzminov was found after he was shot dead, in Villajoyosa, Spain, February 13, 2024.

VILLAJOYOSA, Spain (Reuters) – Russian emigres in Spain critical of the Kremlin called on the Spanish authorities on Tuesday to better protect them, after a Russian pilot who had defected to Ukraine was found shot dead in a garage in a town on Spain’s Mediterranean coast.

Ukraine’s GUR military spy service has confirmed that pilot Maxim Kuzminov, who flew to Ukraine with his Mi-8 helicopter last August, has died in Spain.

A Spanish judicial source told Reuters police were convinced Kuzminov was the true identity of a man found a week ago riddled with bullets in an underground garage in the town of Villajoyosa in southeastern Spain, bearing a Ukrainian passport in a suspected fake name.

In Moscow’s first comments on the case since news emerged of the killing, the head of Russia’s Foreign Intelligence Service said the dead pilot had betrayed his country.

“This traitor and criminal became a moral corpse at the very moment when he planned his dirty and terrible crime,” Sergei Naryshkin was quoted as saying by TASS news agency.

Western leaders say Russia frequently assassinates those it deems traitors abroad. Moscow says the West has not provided evidence to support such assertions.

Yulia Taran, deputy head of a group called Free Russians in Spain, said the group had assisted other Russian defectors over the past two years, and it was common practice for them to assume false identities “in order to not be found by (President Vladimir) Putin’s agents.”

“I think they are very worried now and let’s hope that Spanish police and secret services do well their job to prevent” any further persecution, she said.

Ukrainian flags can be seen on many balconies in Villajoyosa, a quiet residential town near the ebullient tourist resort Benidorm. Ukrainian refugees make up a significant part of the town’s population along with Russian and Bulgarian emigres. Local police said there hadn’t been a murder for years.

The upper floors of the residential building where Kuzminov was killed offer a clear view of the town’s popular beach. Up to 70% of the building’s residents are of Eastern European origin, the property’s manager told Reuters. Several residents said it was a very quiet area and they never expected something like this to happen there.

Ukrainska Pravda newspaper quoted the head of Ukraine’s National Security and Defence Council, Oleksiy Danilov, as saying Kyiv had advised Kuzminov to stay in Ukraine where he “would have been protected.”

Spanish government spokesperson Pilar Alegria told a weekly briefing the Guardia Civil police was conducting a murder investigation in Villajoyosa, but would not elaborate.

The judicial source said police had deemed the victim’s passport, identifying him as a 33-year-old Ukrainian national, to be fake. An official identification could take time, relying on fingerprints and other information from abroad.

Kuzminov’s defection to Ukraine was presented last year as a major coup for Kyiv. Appearing at a news conference in Kyiv, he said he could not understand why his “beloved motherland” would enter into a war with Ukraine.

Other members of the air crew died during his defection. Moscow said Kuzminov killed them; he said they panicked and fled, and may have been killed subsequently.