(C) Reuters. Markers are attached next to bullet holes in a car of Serhiy Shefir, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy’s principal aide, following an assault outside the capital Kyiv, Ukraine September 22, 2021. REUTERS/Serhii Nuzhnenko
By Pavel Polityuk and Natalia Zinets
KYIV (Reuters) -Ukrainian police are trying to work out who ordered unidentified individuals to try to murder a top aide of President Volodymyr Zelenskiy after his car was sprayed with automatic gunfire on Wednesday morning in an attack that shocked the political elite.
Serhiy Shefir, the top aide and a close personal friend of Zelenskiy’s, escaped unscathed, but his driver was badly wounded and hospitalised.
The Black Audi carrying Shefir was pockmarked with at least 10 bullet holes. Irina Venediktova, Ukraine’s prosecutor general, said the car had been ambushed as it drove between two villages outside Kyiv, the capital.
The road is lined on both sides by forest which would have given the shooters good cover to hide and get away.
Police said in a statement they had opened a criminal case on suspicion of attempted murder and saw three possible motives and versions: an effort to pressure the country’s leadership, an attempt to destabilise the political situation, or an attack engineered by a foreign intelligence service.
“The purpose of this crime was not to scare, but to kill,” Denys Monastyrsky, the interior minister, said.
Some of Zelenskiy’s advisers suggested the attack may have been orchestrated by a disgruntled oligarch or oligarchs fed up with a presidential drive to dilute their influence. Other advisers raised the possibility that Russia may have been behind the shooting, something the Kremlin denied.
Zelenskiy, who was in New York for the U.N. General Assembly, said he did not know who was responsible for the attack, but pledged “a strong response”.
He said he would fly straight home after delivering his speech in New York.
“I don’t know yet who stood behind this,” said Zelenskiy. “(But) sending me a message by shooting my friend is weakness.”
Shefir, 57, is a longtime associate and friend of Zelenskiy a former comedian who became president in 2019 after entering politics and promising to rid Ukraine of corruption.
Shefir told a news conference the failed assassination attempt on him looked like an attempt to intimidate Zelenskiy.
“I think this won’t frighten the president,” said Shefir.
Zelenskiy came to power on a promise to take on the country’s oligarchs who have wielded outsized influence in business and politics since the 1991 Soviet collapse.
Mykhailo Podolyak, one of Zelenskiy’s advisers, said the assassination attempt may have been a result of the president’s campaign against the oligarchs.
Zelenskiy said he would be doubling down on his planned reforms rather than backing off.
“It does not affect the strength of our team, the course that I have chosen with my team – to change, to clean up our economy, to fight crime and large influential financial groups,” he said.
“This does not affect that. On the contrary, because the Ukrainian people have given me a mandate for changes.”
Podolyak, Zelenskiy’s adviser, promised tougher measures against oligarchs after the attack.
“This open, deliberate and extremely violent assault with automatic weapons cannot be qualified any differently than as an attempted killing of a key team member,” Podolyak told Reuters.
“We, of course, associate this attack with an aggressive and even militant campaign against the active policy of the head of state,” Interfax Ukraine quoted Podolyak as saying separately.
Parliament is this week due to debate a presidential law aimed at reducing the influence of oligarchs in Ukrainian society.
Oleksandr Korniienko, the head of Zelenskiy’s political party, said Russian involvement could not be ruled out.
Ukraine has accused Moscow, which annexed Ukraine’s Crimea peninsula and backed a separatist uprising in eastern Ukraine in 2014, of being behind assassinations in Kyiv before, something Russia has denied.
“A Russian trace should not be absolutely ruled out. We know their ability to organise terrorist attacks in different countries,” Korniienko told reporters.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said suggestions of Russian involvement “have nothing to do with reality”.