Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky has survived at least three assassination attempts in the past week, according to reports.
The Times newspaper says mercenaries from a group backed by the Kremlin; and Chechen special forces have been sent to kill the Ukrainian president in recent days.
Comedian Zelensky – who was elected president in 2019 after starring in a TV show as a fictional head of state – survived one attempt on Saturday on the outskirts of capital city Kyiv.
Ukrainian security officials said a group of Chechen assassins had been “eliminated” before they could reach him.
And gung-ho killers from the Wagner Group elsewhere in the capital have incurred losses after their attempts to kill the president were foiled by Ukrainian forces.
Ukrainian officials claim the information that led to the deaths of the Chechens came from disgruntled agents in Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB) who opposed the invasion.
Oleksiy Danilov, the secretary of Ukraine’s National Security and Defense Council, told Ukrainian TV channels that Russian spies had tipped them off.
“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 are working independently from the Chechen assassins.
However, the fearsome private military contractor (PMC) is reportedly 400-strong in the capital, with a ‘kill list’ of 24 names they hope to take out.
The list is said to include Zelensky, his prime minister, cabinet and boxing champion-turned-major Vitali Klitschko and his brother Wladimir.
The group had been told to await the arrival of the Spetsnaz, Russia’s elite special forces, to provide them with a secure corridor out of Kyiv once the assassinations had been completed.
But with a convoy of tanks stuck outside the city their pace has been slower than expected.
A source close to the mercenaries in Kyiv told the Times 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 newspaper was told.
The mercenaries are believed to have drawn up plans for another attempt before the weekend.
As a PMC, The Wagner Group is officially independent from Russian military operations. It means that if things go wrong, the Kremlin can plausibly deny any links with the mercenaries and their work.
However, the guns-for-hire racket is said to be run by Yevgeny Prigozhin, a Russian businessman nicknamed “Putin’s chef” because his restaurants and catering businesses have been used by the Russian president.
Sources say the Spetsnaz is better equipped than the private mercenaries – but an assassination carried out by the Wagners would be more difficult to trace back to the Kremlin.
One told The Times: “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.
“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.”
Russia invaded Ukraine a week ago under the guise of “de-Nazification” – a claim rejected by Zelensky, who is Jewish.
But the 44-year-old “Servant of the People” star has enjoyed surging popularity among his citizens in the wake of the Russian invasion.
He has remained in the capital of Kyiv since the attack began, posting video addresses from inside the city in which he tells Ukrainians: “Listen, I am here.”
The incursion has provoked international fury, with businesses severing their ties with Russian firms, sporting bodies banning athletes and teams and several countries imposing sanctions on companies and individuals. The Russian rouble has also dropped in value by a quarter since the attack began.
However, Russian president Vladimir Putin is thought to be pursuing the reunification of former Soviet states – and seeks to stop new European nations like Ukraine from joining military alliance NATO.
An article accidentally published by Russian news wire service RIA-Novosti earlier this week appears to shed some light on Russia’s true motives for invading its neighbour.
The piece, thought to be prepared for the event of Ukraine’s surrender, described the loss of Ukraine in 1991 as a “national humiliation” and the capture of the country as “Russia…restoring its unity.”
It was hastily deleted from news wires, but not before it was saved and translated by a Pakistani newspaper.
Over one million people have flown Ukraine since the invasion began.
UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi said yesterday: “I have worked in refugee emergencies for almost 40 years, and rarely have I seen an exodus as rapid as this one.”
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