Russian Mercenaries Said To Target Ukraine’s Zelensky
Killing the Ukrainian president and toppling his government would pave the way for Moscow to take full control.
Adding fuel to speculation that Monday’s first round of uneventful talks between Russian and Ukrainian delegations was mainly for show, reports have emerged that Russian mercenaries at least nominally backed by the Kremlin are operating in Kiev with orders to assassinate President Zelensky. The Times of London reports that some 400 mercenaries have been tasked with killing the Ukrainian president and toppling his government, which would pave the way for Moscow to take full control.
According to the report, a private militia run by an ally of President Putin, Dmitry Utkin, flew the mercenaries into Ukraine from Africa, ostensibly for impressive remuneration, more than five weeks ago. Over the weekend Ukrainian authorities declared a strict curfew in a bid to sweep the city of potential Russian saboteurs. Whether this attempt met with any success is unclear. There have been reports that Mr. Putin may have ordered the purported henchmen to stand down while negotiations, however uneventful, were taking place between Russian and Ukrainian delegations along the Belarusian border on Monday.
The Times said the alleged mercenaries belong to Mr. Utkin’s Wagner Group, which the E.U.’s foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell, has deemed a paramilitary group that “has recruited, trained and deployed private military units in conflict zones around the world to fuel violence, loot natural resources and intimidate the public in violation of international law and human rights.”
The group is reportedly funded by a Russian oligarch, Yevgeny Prigozhin, who began his career as a sausage wholesaler in St. Petersburg in the 1990s and is today considered to be a close confidant of the Russian president. The BBC has previously reported that all told about 10,000 mercenaries belong to what is essentially Mr. Putin’s private army — if that number is correct, only a small percentage were reportedly flown to Ukraine in recent weeks.
Adding to the growing sense of danger, Mr. Zelensky by dint of his widely lauded insistence on staying in Kiev, may unwittingly be putting himself in the crosshairs of a band of would-be assassins. Mr. Putin in the past has shown little hesitation, and indeed much resolve, in stifling his critics — to the point of allegedly snuffing some out. To cite a prominent example, the liberal Russian politician Boris Nemtsov, who once called Mr. Putin a “mental patient” in an interview, was shot and killed in February 2015 while crossing a bridge close to the Kremlin. The five Chechen men who were later found guilty of gunning him down did it for the equivalent of about $250,000 — but the source of their funding is not officially known.
If Russian mercenaries on a kill mission are indeed on the loose in Kiev, it could mark the first time that such a force of this size has been unleashed on the streets of a European capital since World War II and portends even more anguished days ahead for Mr. Zelensky and those close to him. Whether the Kremlin’s alleged hired guns will actually deliver on reported threats or remain in the shadows is a question that probably no one in beleaguered Kiev really wishes to contemplate.