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Life and Times of Doomed Hit Man Caught Between Russia and Ukraine

The Wall Street Journal documents the strange saga of assassin Timur Makhauri.

Crime By

Since fighting flared in Ukraine after the toppling of the country’s Russia-friendly president in 2014, the former Soviet state has been a volatile, lawless territory where James Bond would hesitate to tread.

Skirmishes still rage between Russian-backed rebels and the government in Kiev, but a major tactic in the arsenal on both sides has been tit-for-tat contract killings — as exemplified by the high-profile assassination of former Russian parliament member Denis Voronenkov in March. And a riveting Wall Street Journal profile of one of the hit men who thrived under such chaos, Timur Makhauri, shows the extent of the bloody espionage.

Denis Voronenkov, 45, a former member of the communist faction in the lower house of Russian parliament and a key witness in Yanukovych case, was shot dead by an unidentified gunman near the entrance of an upscale Premier Palace hotel in Kyiv, Ukraine, March 23, 2017. (Photo by Sergii Kharchenko/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Makhauri spoke to the newspaper after being arrested in February for carrying two unregistered pistols and a fake passport in Kiev. At first he was charged with assassinations by a Ukrainian court, but the country’s intelligence service vouched that he acted as a spy of sorts to ferret out Kremlin agents plotting their own hits.

“I know who to look for and to stop them before they do anything,” Makhauri told the Journal. “There is a small number who do this kind of thing.”

Born in Chechnya, Makhauri had dedicated his life to fighting Russian influence, having logged battle experience in his home country, Georgia, Turkey and Syria over the years.

He became such a scourge to Moscow, that a failed attempt on his life was made with a bomb packed with nuts and bolts planted outside his apartment in 2009. He survived.

But then Moscow tried a more subtle tactic — character assassination — as detailed by the Wall Street Journal: “In the fog of spy intrigue, rumors began to circulate that Mr. Makhauri was working for the Russians, too. In 2006, the Chechen rebel commander, Mr. Basayev, received a load of explosives from a truck driven from Georgia into Russia. The shipment blew up, killing him and much of the rebel leadership. Mr. Makhauri, it was rumored, had planted a booby trap in the truck.”

“So many times they shot me, blew me up and did everything they could to kill me,” Makhauri told the paper. “So they tarnished my name.”

Last year, he moved to Ukraine, joining a volunteer battalion fighting Russian-backed rebels in the east, but ended up in Kiev hunting for Russian agents — where police ultimately arrested him.

Freed in April, Makhauri told acquaintances that he believed he was being followed. His saga came to an abrupt end on September 8, when accepted a ride from a friend who was driving her daughter home.

A bomb detonated in the arm rest, “ripping off his arm and part of his torso and killing him instantly,” apparently planted by an explosive expert savvy enough to focus the blast towards the passenger seat. The driver was injured, but her daughter survived.

Months before his death, during a jailhouse interview with the Journal, Makhauri said that he was not safe even outside the Ukraine, given the enemies he made. “Everywhere is dangerous,” he said.

Read full story at The Wall Street Journal