02:38 - Source: CNN
Putin critic gunned down in Ukraine

Story highlights

NEW: Suspected shooter dies in hospital

Moscow calls claims Russia is behind the killing "absurd"

Voronenkov sharply criticized Russian President Vladimir Putin after leaving Russia for Ukraine

Kiev, Ukraine CNN —  

A former Russian lawmaker and Kremlin critic who fled to Ukraine last year was shot dead Thursday in Kiev – a killing that Ukraine’s President called a “Russian state terrorist act.”

Denis Voronenkov, who’d been a Communist member of Russia’s lower legislative house before he left, was fatally shot outside a hotel in broad daylight, officials said.

Voronenkov becomes the latest in a string of Russian critics of President Vladimir Putin and the Russian government who were killed or injured in mysterious circumstances.

The suspect in his death died in the hospital after a shootout with Voronenkov’s bodyguard.

Denis Voronenkov, a former Communist legislator in Russia's lower legislative house, was shot dead in Kiev on Thursday, Ukrainian authorities say.
Oleksandr Synytsia/AP
Denis Voronenkov, a former Communist legislator in Russia's lower legislative house, was shot dead in Kiev on Thursday, Ukrainian authorities say.

Calling the killing a “Russian state terrorist act” on Twitter, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko described Voronenkov as “one of the key witnesses of the Russian aggression against Ukraine,” referring to Russia’s 2014 annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea region and a subsequent war with pro-Russian rebels.

Poroshenko’s accusation drew a sharp rebuke from officials in Russia.

Voronenkov had denounced Russia’s annexation of Crimea and said he was cooperating with Ukrainian prosecutors’ treason case against former President Viktor Yanukovych, the pro-Russian politician who fled Ukraine in 2014 after protests.

Body lies outside hotel

Details about the shooting weren’t immediately released. CNN video shows investigators standing over the bloodied body of Voronenkov, lying face-up on a Kiev sidewalk near the Premier Palace hotel.

A Ukrainian police officer seizes a gun at the scene where Voronenkov was shot dead on Thursday.
SERGEI SUPINSKY/AFP/Getty Images
A Ukrainian police officer seizes a gun at the scene where Voronenkov was shot dead on Thursday.

Ukrainian Prosecutor General Yuriy Lutsenko said Voronenkov had given “extremely important testimony” to military prosecutors.

Details about the suspect’s identity and who injured him weren’t available. No motive for the attack was immediately known.

Ukrainian Prosecutor General Yuri Lutsenko said Voronenkov had given “extremely important testimony” to Ukraine’s military prosecutors.

His killing was “a demonstrative execution of a witness,” Lutsenko said.

Annexation of Crimea called a ‘mistake’

Voronenkov and his wife, Maria Maksakova, also a former Russian lawmaker, sharply criticized Putin after they left Russia for Ukraine in October.

In a February interview with Radio Free Europe, Voronenkov called Russia’s seizure of Crimea a “mistake” and “illegal” and said the couple left the country because of pressure from security services.

Voronenkov also alleged that although he was recorded as having voted for the annexation in the Duma, the vote was cast against his will. He was not there that day, and another legislator used Voronenkov’s card to vote for him, he told Radio Free Europe.

The day after that interview, Peskov, Putin’s spokesman, denied Voronenkov’s allegation.

The day after that interview, Peskov, Putin’s spokesman, denied Voronenkov’s claim.

“I was present at almost every voting and it wasn’t like they (Voronenkov and Maksakova) said,” Peskov said, according to Russia’s state-run Sputnik news service.

Voronenkov said he thought his criticisms led Russian authorities to charge him in absentia with fraud in February, Radio Free Europe reported. He called the charges “fake” and “political,” the report said.

Sputnik cast Voronenkov’s departure from Russia as an attempt to flee from investigation.

Voronenkov said he’d become a Ukrainian citizen. While he was a Communist Party member, his wife had belonged to the ruling United Russia party.

Witness against Yanukovych

Voronenkov also told Radio Free Europe he was helping Ukrainian prosecutors prepare their case against Yanukovych, who is accused of treason, in part for allegedly facilitating the Crimea annexation after fleeing Ukraine.

As Ukraine’s President, Yanukovych suspended talks in 2013 on what was to be a landmark political and trade deal with the European Union. Russia had opposed Ukraine forming closer ties with the EU.

Tens of thousands of pro-Western protesters rallied in Kiev against Yanukovych’s decision, and in February 2014, a gunfight between protesters and police left dozens dead. Yanukovych soon fled, eventually for Russia.

Russia’s parliament signed off on Putin’s request to send military forces into Crimea the next month. An uprising by pro-Russian rebels in the eastern Ukrainian regions of Donetsk and Luhansk ensued, a conflict that has left thousands dead.

“I told (prosecutors) some details of what was going on. And I will give testimony in open court in the course of judicial inquiry held in Ukraine,” Voronenkov told Radio Free Europe.

Other deaths, injuries of Kremlin critics

Voronenkov is one of several Kremlin critics to die or be injured in mysterious circumstances. The Kremlin has staunchly denied accusations that it or its agents are targeting political opponents or had anything to do with the deaths.

• In 2015, Putin critic Boris Nemtsov, a deputy prime minister in the late 1990s under President Boris Yeltsin, was shot in the back while walking in central Moscow.

Five suspects have been on trial in Moscow since October, with one accused of accepting cash to kill him. All have pleaded not guilty.

Putin blamed extremists and protesters who he said were trying to stir internal strife in Russia. But people close to Nemtsov have expressed concern that he was killed because of his opposition to the government.

Last month, Nemtsov’s friend, Vladimir Kara-Murza, spent several days in a coma after a suspected poisoning. Kara-Murza is part of Open Russia, an organization of anti-Putin activists who are calling for open elections, a free press and civil rights reforms. It was the second time in two years Kara-Murza fell into a coma after a suspected poisoning.

It was the second time in two years Kara-Murza fell into a coma after a suspected poisoning.

• In 2013, Russian businessman Boris Berezovsky was found dead inside his house in Britain with a noose around his neck. His falling-out with the Russian government had left him self-exiled in the United Kingdom.

A coroner’s officer said it couldn’t say whether Berezovsky killed himself. That year, Putin said he could not rule out that foreign secret services had a role in Berezovsky’s death, but he added that there was no evidence of this.

• In July 2009, human rights activist Natalya Estemirova was kidnapped outside her home in the Russian republic of Chechnya and found shot to death in a neighboring republic the same day. She had spent years investigating human rights abuses in Chechnya.

The head of the group Estemirova worked for, Memorial, accused the Kremlin-backed Chechen leadership of ordering her killing. Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov denied involvement in her death, calling it a “monstrous crime” that was carried out to discredit his government.

• In 2006, Anna Politkovskaya, a journalist critical of Russia’s war in Chechnya, was gunned down at the entrance to her Moscow apartment.

The Kremlin has staunchly denied accusations that it or its agents are targeting political opponents or had anything to do with the deaths.

In 2006, former Russian spy Alexander Litvinenko died a slow death from poisoning in Britain. In a deathbed statement, he blamed Putin for ordering his poisoning by means of the rare radioactive substance polonium-210, saying it was slipped into his tea at a London hotel.

The deaths have raised questions about the vulnerability of the government’s critics.

Journalist Victoria Butenko reported from Ukraine, and CNN’s Jason Hanna wrote in Atlanta. CNN’s Antonia Mortensen, Nick Thompson, Alanne Orjoux, Holly Yan and Catherine E. Shoichet contributed to this report.