President Zelenskyy has survived at least three assassination attempts in the past week.
Two different outfits have been sent to kill the Ukrainian president — mercenaries of the Kremlin-backed Wagner group and Chechen special forces. Both have been thwarted by anti-war elements within Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB).
Wagner mercenaries in Kyiv have sustained losses during their attempts and are said to have been alarmed by how accurately the Ukrainians had anticipated their moves. A source close to the group said it was “eerie” how well-briefed Zelenskyy’s security team appeared to be.
On Saturday an attempt on Zelenskyy’s life was foiled on the outskirts of Kyiv. Ukrainian security officials said a cadre of Chechen assassins had been “eliminated” before they could reach the president.
Oleksiy Danilov, the secretary of Ukraine’s National Security and Defence Council, told Ukrainian TV channels that Russian spies had tipped them off about the planned assassination.
Ukrainian officials claim the information that led to the deaths of the Chechens came from disgruntled agents in the FSB who oppose the invasion.
“I can say that we have received information from the FSB, who do not want to take part in this bloody war,” Danilov said. “And thanks to this, the Kadyrov elite group was destroyed, which came here to eliminate our president.”
The unit serves under Ramzan Kadyrov, the Chechen president.
The Wagner mercenaries were unaware of the Chechen assassins but have carried out their own attempts to decapitate the government, after being embedded in Kyiv for more than six weeks, tracking the activities of 24 high-profile Ukrainian targets.
The group had been told to await the arrival of the Spetsnaz — Russian special forces — to provide them with a secure corridor out of Kyiv once the assassinations had been completed. They believed the storming of Kyiv would provide a distraction and an opportunity to complete their mission.
However, with a convoy of tanks stuck outside the city, the pace of the attack has been slower than expected.
The mercenaries have come under fierce pressure from Moscow to bring forward their operations to secure a visible victory and they are said to intend to carry out the 24 assassinations on their “kill list” in a matter of days.
A source close to the mercenaries in Kyiv insists that despite the loss of some of the group in botched operations this week, the numbers are still on their side, with almost 400 in the capital alone.
“It only takes one of them to get lucky and everyone goes home with a bonus,” The Times was told. The mercenaries are believed to have drawn up plans for another attempt before the weekend.
The Wagner Group first tested its mettle in Ukraine in 2014, when plain-clothes Russian fighters were sent into the Donbas to foment conflict. Unlike regular Russian soldiers, the actions of the mercenaries could be plausibly denied by the Kremlin. Since then, the group has been deployed across Africa, in line with President Putin’s objectives. The Wagner Group is run by Yevgeny Prigozhin, who also runs bot factories and an online army, and is known as “Putin’s chef”.
The Wagner contingent in Kyiv left operations in a number of African countries at the end of December. They regrouped at a base about 60 miles from Moscow, before being dispatched in tranches to the Donbas region and southern Ukraine.
A final group of 400 mercenaries crossed the border from Belarus and stole into the capital, Kyiv before the end of January.
A diplomatic source and Wagner specialist said the Spetsnaz was better equipped than Wagner group but an assassination carried out by mercenaries would be more difficult to trace back to the Kremlin.
“They would be going in there with a very high-profile mission, something that the Russians would want to be deniable — a decapitation of a head of state is a huge mission. In terms of the impact on Russian sovereign policy, this would be perhaps their biggest mission so far. It would have a major impact on the war,” the source said.
“It would not be unreasonable that Wagner were used on some form of operation to try and take out the president and do a decapitation job on the Ukrainian government as they are deniable. They have a lot more combat experience than the regular Russian Spetsnaz and they are lunatic enough to do it.”
“The risks of trying to get close to the president would be very high so that they would take significant casualties even if they could pin him down.
“One mission they could do, is if they could infiltrate and take in a laser guidance system and they could locate the president and put laser target marker on him then Russian air force could bomb very quickly.”
A European intelligence official told Bloomberg that prominent Ukrainian rebels faced public executions. The insider, who claims to have seen documents from the FSB, said that the Kremlin planned to control captured cities with draconian restrictions on civil liberties, “violent crowd control and repressive detention of protest organizers to break morale”.
Since the start of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, President Zelenskyy has stated that he is “target number one” for enemy forces (Larisa Brown writes).
The Ukrainian leader has warned of Russian “sabotage groups” entering the capital, Kyiv, hunting him and his family. Having been asked if he wanted help to leave the city at the behest of the US government, Zelenskyy turned down the offer, telling the world: “I need ammunition, not a ride.”
As the threat has risen over the past week with Russian forces edging closer to the capital, he has shifted from filming himself walking in the street or next to prominent landmarks. Instead he has used nondescript backdrops where the location cannot be identified. The Americans reportedly sent him a secure satellite phone before the invasion so he can communicate with US officials without being overheard while he is on the move.
A diplomatic source and specialist on Wagner, the shadowy Russian mercenary group, said that although Russia’s elite Spetsnaz forces were probably more capable of taking out the president — with more kit and more training — a Wagner assassination mission would be more distanced from the Kremlin. Such a task would likely be their biggest operation to date, having already carried out murky operations in as many as 12 countries around the world.
The risk of such an operation would be very high and Wagner will be braced for casualties, they added. One theory is that once the group established Zelenskyy’s location, they could put a laser target marker on him and the Russian air force could fly in and drop a bomb.
To avoid such a fate Zelenskyy, 44, will have an extremely trusted team around him and must keep moving and changing his methods of communication.