There have been a number of attacks on politicians, officials and journalists since the outbreak of hostilities between Russia and Ukraine. Investigators are often quick to assume Moscow is behind them, but is that true?
Politically motivated attacks have become a common occurrence in Ukraine, a fact underscored by an explosion late Wednesday in front of the Kyiv offices of private TV station Espresso. Parliamentarian Igor Mosiychuk was injured in the blast; his bodyguard and one other person were killed.
Such attacks have increased in recent years in Ukraine. Journalist Pavel Sheremet, who was killed by a bomb planted in his car in the summer of 2016, was another high-profile victim. Maksim Shapoval, the head of a special unit of Ukraine's SBU intelligence agency, was killed the same way in Kyiv one year later. Similar car bombs were also used in the killings of other SBU employees as well as "criminal bosses" like Timur Mahauri, who the Ukrainian Interior Ministry said was "well known in crime circles" and was considered a "personal enemy" of Ramzan Kadyrov, the president of Chechnya in Russia.
Attacks have also been carried out with hand grenades – for instance, when then-Deputy Parliamentary Chairman Andriy Parubiy was targeted in December 2014. Parubiy was uninjured in the attack. Denis Voronenkov, a former Russian parliamentarian who fled to Ukraine and was seen as a key witness in Kyiv's attempt to prove the presence of Russian troops in its territory, was gunned down on March 23 of this year.
No convincing evidence
The Voronenkov case was one of the few in which Ukrainian investigators provided detailed information about the attack to the public. Prosecutor General Yuriy Lutsenko is certain that the killing was planned by Russian intelligence agents. Nevertheless, until now, officials in Ukraine have been unable to definitively point to a perpetrator.
According to Ukrainian authorities, most investigations into the political attacks carried out over the last few years have primarily focused on finding evidence of Russian involvement. "This all became an everyday occurrence with the beginning of the hybrid war between Russia and Ukraine," said Anton Geraschchenko, advisor to Ukraine's interior minister. Immediately following Wednesday's attack, Igor Mosiychuk took to his Facebook page to write that those behind the attempt to kill him were sitting in Moscow.
Nonetheless, statements about Russian involvement made by Ukrainian investigators and politicians who lack facts to back their claims have been met with criticism. In July of this year, the director of the Committee to Protect Journalists, Joel Simon, said that Ukraine's investigative authorities still had not provided evidence to support their theory in the Sheremet case one year after the murder.
Experts warn against generalizations
Some Ukrainian experts also have doubts about Russia being behind all of the attacks. Criminologist Anna Malyar, for instance, said that it was far too soon to call the attack on Mosiychuk politically motivated, as it is not even clear that the politician was the intended target. The explosion may well have been aimed at Mosiychuk, she explained, though it may also have been targeting journalists or the station director.
Oleksandr Skipalsky, the former deputy director of the SBU, said that Mosiychuk would "not have been of interest" to Russian intelligence agencies. Skipalsky believes the way in which the attack was carried out would suggest that it was not a Russian operation: "If the Russians wanted to kill Mosiychuk, they would have – without harming others," he said.
Experts also say that in some cases it is impossible to trace crimes back to Russian intelligence agencies. Therefore, statements to the contrary are nothing more than speculation. "There have yet to be any legal decisions handed down in any of these spectacular crime cases and one cannot definitively say who was behind the attacks," said criminologist Malyar. "Still, at the same time, some circumstances do justify suspicion." However, it is not the conflict between Russia and Ukraine that makes such suspicions plausible, she added, but rather the major network of Russian agents operating in Ukraine. Indeed, Russian intelligence agents feel quite at home in the country. Malyar noted that those Russian networks extend into the SBU, which never fundamentally overhauled its personnel after the fall of the Soviet Union.