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Sep 14, 2017 | 11:13 GMT

6 mins read

The Dirty Work of Russian Assassins

VP of Tactical Analysis, Stratfor
Scott Stewart
VP of Tactical Analysis, Stratfor
Police in Kiev investigate a car blast that killed Timur Mahauri, a Chechen with Georgian citizenship.
At 6:08 p.m. on Sept. 8, the cacophony of Kiev's Friday evening rush hour was pierced by an explosion under a black Toyota Camry in the middle of heavy traffic near Bessarabska Square in the heart of the capital. The car's driver, Timur Mahauri, a Chechen with Georgian citizenship, was killed instantly. His wife and their 10-year-old child who were riding with him were hurt, but they survived.
Mahauri was reportedly a member of a Chechen militant group fighting with Ukrainian troops against separatist and Russian forces in eastern Ukraine. Media reports suggested that Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov considered him an enemy. In addition to these two possible motives for his assassination, Kiev has recently become a hot spot for the assassination of Moscow's enemies, and opponents of the Chechen government are being killed in a worldwide campaign. Indeed, given Mahauri's enemies and location, it is surprising that he didn't check his car for bombs before he got into it. This case provides important lessons for others.

Moscow's Wetwork

As I've discussed elsewhere, Russia's intelligence agencies have a long history of involvement in assassinations, refered to by its intelligence officers as "wetwork" or "wet affairs." Indeed, they have pursued the enemies of the Russian government around the globe: Alexander Litvinenko was murdered in London in November 2006; and Mikhail Lesin died under mysterious circumstances in Washington, D.C., in November 2015. They are not the only examples. It should come as no surprise then that people considered to be enemies of the Kremlin — including opposition politician Boris Nemtsov — are being murdered in Russia itself as well as in adjacent countries.
However, there does seem to be a discernible difference in the tactics used in different geographies. For example, in Russia itself, targeted individuals tend to simply get shot. Although Russian agents will publicly deny any involvement in such activities, in domestic operations, they don't really take too much effort to cloak their hand. Indeed, they seem to relish flexing their muscle to intimidate opponents. But outside Russia, they attempt to be more discreet. Even though the Litvinenko case ended up becoming highly publicized because of sloppiness in the operation, the use of the rare and radioactive isotope polonium 210 to poison him was intended to create a slow and subtle decline so as to create an air of mystery around his death, like the shadowy fates met by Moscow opponents Badri Patarkatsishvili in 2008, and Boris Berezovsky in 2013, both also in the United Kingdom. 

Danger Lurks in Kiev

But in Ukraine, the Russians and their Chechen surrogates have operated with a mostly unveiled hand. In July 2016, Belorussian journalist and Russia critic Pavel Sheremet was killed when a sticky bomb planted under his car exploded shortly after he left his home for his office. As we noted at the time, the Sheremet assassination was a precise and professional operation.

In August 2016, Alexander Shchetinin, a Russian-born journalist and prominent critic of President Vladimir Putin, was found dead on the balcony of his Kiev home with a gunshot wound to the head. On March 23, Denis Voronenkov, a former Russian Communist Party lawmaker and another a well-known Putin critic, was shot dead as he walked down a Kiev street on the way to a meeting in a hotel. The brazen assassination occurred at 11:30 a.m. in central Kiev, despite the fact that Voronenkov had been accompanied by an armed bodyguard who shot the assassin dead.

On June 1, Adam Osmayev, a critic of the pro-Kremlin Chechen government, narrowly escaped death when his wife, a Chechen militant, shot and wounded a would-be assassin, who had shot him twice in the chest. The assailant, Artur Denisultanov-Kurmakayev, a Russian national born in Chechnya, had posed as a French journalist and had arranged an interview.
On June 27, Col. Maxim Shapoval, a Ukrainian military intelligence officer, was killed in an assassination similar to the Sheremet hit. A small sticky bomb had been planted under Shapoval's car; it probably used a plastic explosive and was command-detonated as he was on his way to work. Kiev has clearly become a dangerous place for those perceived to be enemies of Putin and his Chechen vassal, Kadyrov.

Not Amateur Bombmakers

And this brings us back to the Mahauri assassination. The device used to kill him spared his passengers, indicating that it employed a small shaped charge, also likely a plastic explosive, judging from video of the explosion. It also looks as if it had been command-detonated. The assassination carried all the hallmarks of a professional, state-sponsored operation. The device that killed him almost certainly had been built by an experienced bombmaker who calibrated its explosive potential to kill without causing too much collateral damage. Although this attack happened in the evening rather than during the morning drive to work, it carried many similarities to the assassinations of Shapoval and Sheremet. Ukrainian investigators will certainly be looking for forensic evidence to conclusively link the three bombings.
In addition to his activities in Ukraine, Mahauri had fought with the Georgian military when the Russians invaded that country in 2008, Ukrainian press reports say. That would have put him in the crosshairs of Russian intelligence, which reportedly had attempted to kill him on three past occasions, including placing a bomb in the stairwell of his apartment building in Tbilisi in March 2009. Given that history and the recent spate of assassinations in Kiev, Mahauri would have been wise to have taken more precautions.
The best defense against a sticky bomb attack is to keep a vehicle locked in a secure area to prevent easy access. After the Sheremet killing, video emerged showing the assassins putting the bomb under his car as it sat by the curb outside his apartment. If a vehicle must be parked in an unsecured area, a small mirror with a light on a telescopic pole can be used to check the underside for sticky bombs. Given the tempo of Russian and Chechen activity in Kiev, it is hard to believe that Mahauri had grown complacent. Investigators will be attempting to reconstruct his schedule before the detonation to clarify where and when the bomb had been stuck under his vehicle.
A number of Russia's enemies remain in Kiev. Given the recent deadly events, it would not be surprising if more murders followed there. To escape Mahauri's fate, those who find themselves at odds with the Kremlin will need to be more careful.
Scott Stewart supervises Stratfor's analysis of terrorism and security issues. Before joining Stratfor, he was a special agent with the U.S. State Department for 10 years and was involved in hundreds of terrorism investigations.

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