A top adviser to the Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, has survived an assassination attempt that officials suggest is tied to a political battle with criminal and corrupt interests, including the countries’ oligarchs.
At least 10 bullets struck the car of Serhiy Shefir, an aide and longtime friend of Zelenskiy, on Wednesday as he travelled through the village of Lesnyky toward the capital, Kyiv.
The driver was struck three times and is undergoing surgery. Shefir was not hit by the gunfire, which reportedly came from a forested area along the road.
Photographs showed police had marked at least 10 bullet holes in the black Audi sedan used by Shefir, a business partner of Zelenskiy for nearly two decades. The automatic gunfire was concentrated along the driver’s side door, also striking the windscreen and a back tyre.
Police have not arrested any suspects. Moscow, which is engaged in a simmering proxy war with Kyiv in south-east Ukraine, has denied responsibility for the attack.
Zelenskiy said he would cut short a trip to New York after addressing the United Nations general assembly.
“I will honestly say that I don’t know who was behind this,” said Zelenskiy in a video message after the attack. “These could be internal or external forces. But I don’t consider them to be strong because sending me a ‘hello’ by firing from a forest into the automobile of my friend is weakness.
“This [attack] will not affect the strength of our team. This does not affect the path toward change that I have chosen with my team, for taking our economy out of the shadows, for the fight against criminal elements with large, influential financial groups – on the contrary, because the people of Ukraine gave us a mandate for change.”
Shefir appeared at a news conference later on Wednesday, thanking emergency workers and his “hero” driver, who is in critical condition.
“The assassination attempt was carried out in an effort to frighten the upper echelon of government,” Shefir said. “But you need to understand that the president … is a very strong-willed person who is not easily frightened,”
Oleksandr Korniienko, the head of the president’s political party, said Russia could be behind the attack, Reuters reported.
“A Russian trace should not be absolutely ruled out. We know their ability to organise terrorist attacks in different countries,” Korniienko told reporters.
“It has nothing to do with reality,” said Dmitri Peskov, the Kremlin spokesperson, referring to suggestions of Russia’s involvement. “Rather, these are signs of an overexcited emotional state.”
Some local officials have been targeted in attacks in recent months in Ukraine. This month, a regional government emergency service spokesperson and a first aid volunteer helping the Ukrainian army were killed in a car bombing in Dnipro.
But the assassination attempt against Shefir is the highest-profile attack in recent memory.
“This can’t be qualified as anything other than an attempt to demonstratively murder a key member of the team,” Mykhailo Podolyak, an adviser to Zelenskiy’s chief of staff, told local Ukrainian media.
He connected the attack to efforts to “significantly reduce the traditional influence of shadowy oligarchs on public matters”, as well as criminal groups working for Ukraine’s “foreign opponents”.
Zelenskiy’s efforts at reducing the influence of powerful business interests in Ukraine have received mixed reviews. He made his name as a comic and producer on a television station owned by the tycoon Ihor Kolomoisky, who was placed under sanctions by the US due to corruption allegations in March.
Ukraine’s parliament is to debate a draft law on oligarchs this week that would define criteria for oligarchs and ban them from financing political parties or engaging in privatisations.