On 27 October news broke in annexed Crimea that an attempt had been made on the life of Oleg Tsaryov, a pro-Russian politician from Ukraine who was once tipped to head a pro-Moscow administration in Kyiv back when talk of Russia capturing the city in three days didn’t sound like sarcasm.
The details of the assassination attempt ranged from Tsaryov being stabbed to him being shot twice in the head. There were reports of ambulances, police cars and premises being locked down, but the victim couldn’t be located in any hospital or police station on the peninsula.
Only later on Friday did Tsaryov’s official Telegram channel break its silence and confirm the assassination attempt. “The family confirms that reports of an assassination attempt are true. He was shot twice around midnight at the sanatorium where he lives. Nothing is known about the assailant. The police are investigating. When the ambulances arrived, Oleg was unconscious and had lost a lot of blood. We have no further updates on the state of his health.”
Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB) announced on Tuesday that it had detained a 46 year old from Yalta who had subsequently confessed to working for the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) and to staking Tsaryov out. The suspect was also found to be in possession of a cache of weapons, the FSB said, though the shooter reportedly remains at large.
A search of the suspect’s property uncovered an improvised explosive device, devices for communicating with SBU handlers, photographs of Tsaryov and diagrams of how to get into his home and workplace. The FSB has launched criminal proceedings.
The man who would be tsar
Tsaryov, who was born in Dnipropetrovsk (now Dnipro) in southeastern Ukraine, was for 12 years a member of the Ukrainian parliament, where he sat for the now-banned pro-Russian Party of Regions. When the war in eastern Ukraine began in 2014, Tsaryov travelled to Donetsk to join the pro-Moscow separatists.
A supporter of the Russian World, a revanchist political doctrine that argues for Russia’s inalienable right to a sphere of influence due to its size and unique historical destiny, Tsaryov was at one point speaker of the short-lived parliament of Novorossiya, an unrecognised confederation of separatist regions in eastern Ukraine that existed in 2014-15.
Tsaryov was briefly back in the news on the eve of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine last year, when The Financial Times reported that he was being considered by Moscow for a leading role in the pro-Russian regime it planned to install in Kyiv, citing an anonymous source in Western intelligence.
Tsaryov described the reports as “pretty funny” when contacted by the FT, and said he wasn’t “even invited to speak on [Russian] state TV” as he wasn’t important enough. “I’m a sanatorium director in Yalta,” he added.
Following the annexation of the Crimean peninsula by Russia in 2014, Tsaryov headed to Yalta, one of its main resort towns, where he was able to buy up some sanatoria in prime locations on the Black Sea coast, and settle down with his family in one of them.
However, things clearly didn’t go as smoothly as he’d expected in his new home, and in 2019 he complained in an interview with local media outlet Krym Realii that the Russian authorities in Crimea had cheated him by deciding to sell off two of the properties he was leasing. “I now discourage all my friends from investing in Crimea,” he said.
Tsaryov’s habit of speaking his mind might well have caused problems, however. In one outspoken recent appearance as a guest on ultraconservative, pro-Kremlin channel Tsargrad TV, he charged that “the missiles Russia launches at Ukraine won’t hit the president or anyone from the Ministry of Defence. They’re all in bunkers. We can’t reach them. But people in Kyiv, Uman and Dnipropetrovsk will get hit,” in what amounted to an uncomfortable confirmation of Russian missile strikes on Ukrainian civilians being broadcast on Russian TV.
That wasn’t the only time Tsaryov went off-script during the interview, either. “Russia took Crimea, but lost Ukraine,” he said at another point, adding that Russia being able to capture a large Ukrainian city was “virtually unimaginable. We’d need to rebuild the Russian army first,” he continued, before predicting that: “A big, strategic breakthrough in the special military operation is unlikely. Russia has dark days ahead.”
TV host and arch propagandist Vladimir Solovyov later gave Tsaryov some very sinister-sounding advice: “Oleg, I like you, but keep quiet, and don’t try to play Russian law enforcement agencies off against each other. They’ll work it out themselves. And anyone who gets in their way risks being wiped out.”
While he may no longer be flavour of the month in Moscow, Tsaryov is considered an outright traitor in his native Ukraine, where he was sentenced in absentia to 12 years in prison for crimes against the Ukrainian constitution last year. Ukrainian investigators have continued to investigate him ever since.
Following his shooting, several well-respected Ukrainian media outlets, including one of its main newspapers, Ukrainska Pravda, cited sources saying that the assassination attempt on Tsaryov had been a special operation by the SBU.
“He has long been on the list of traitors who must answer for their crimes. Tsaryov is a totally legitimate target. He isn’t just a supporter of the Russian World. He is someone who personally rode on Russian tanks trying to capture Kyiv,” the source said.
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