The Killers of Kiev: How Putin Created an Assassin’s Metropolis

If you are an enemy of Putin, there’s one city where intrigue and assassins are bound to follow you. The Ukrainian capital of Kiev may be considered just inside the West these days, but it’s a very wild West indeed.

By Joshua Hammer for Gentleman’s Quarterly

Adam Osmayev—his hand on the wheel, his gaze out the window—was trying hard to make sense of where he was headed. As he nosed his car down a quiet street on the industrial outskirts of Kiev, he noted the tableau of blight: grim warehouses, hulking Soviet-era apartments. In recent weeks, he’d begun adjusting to life in the city, to life far from the battlefield. But he still carried a soldier’s sense of unease. Something out here felt strange. Of course, in Kiev, nothing ever feels quite right.

In the backseat, his wife, Amina Okuyeva, studied the hardscrabble neighborhood too. Like Adam, she wasn’t expecting trouble, though she’d been trained to stay alert to its potential. The couple was due soon at an appointment at the French Embassy, but they couldn’t possibly be headed in the right direction, she thought. Why would an embassy be way out here?

Up front sat Alex Werner, a French journalist for Le Monde, the Parisian daily, providing directions and sounding reassuring. Don’t worry, he told the couple, he knew the way. In fact, he told them, they were running a bit early. And so, Werner asked Adam to pull the car over. They could wait for a bit, Werner explained, as the car rolled to a stop on a patch of grass beside a bus stop.

Usually, it was Adam who took charge; Adam who made the plans and plotted the routes. As a commander in the Ukrainian army, he’d spent the past couple of years fighting pro-Russian troops in the east. His wife, Amina, had too, becoming famous as a sniper in a guerrilla outfit. But they were putting the war behind them now. They’d moved to Kiev and were starting over, as best they could. Of course, they knew the exploits of their past would follow them. After all, that’s what had lured Werner, the journalist.

The couple had been meeting with him for the past ten days, sharing the tales of adventure and daring they’d acquired in their years fighting Russia. Their saga of love and violence, Werner told them, sounded just like a movie. He wanted to help make a documentary, he said, and before they could think twice about the idea, he’d pulled a film project together. Now only a few details remained, including a trip to the French Embassy, where, Werner had explained, the couple needed to deal with a contract.

On that languid afternoon last June, as the trio sat waiting in the car, Werner seemed grateful for some time alone with Adam and Amina. He’d grown to like the couple, he told them, and—while they waited—he had a gift for Amina. He wanted them to open it together and asked Adam to join his wife in the backseat. The ceremony of the moment seemed strange to Adam, but he’d gotten used to the journalist’s eccentricities and he was curious about the present.

With the couple seated together, the journalist plopped a bag onto his lap and pulled out an ornate red box with lush gold lettering. As he did, Adam noticed something unsettling: beads of perspiration on Werner’s cheeks. Facing the couple now, Werner opened the red box, revealing a black Glock semiautomatic pistol glinting on a bed of white tissue paper.

In an instant, with his eye on the gun, everything became clear to Adam. He lunged forward and grabbed it by the barrel, thrusting the weapon upward. But Werner had taken the pistol firmly by the stock and as he jerked it down, he squeezed the trigger. A bullet tore into Adam’s chest. He felt himself going numb, but he grabbed for the gun again.

“Strelyai,” he shouted weakly to his wife. Shoot.

In the cramped space behind the passenger’s seat, Amina reached for her hip and unholstered her own handgun. She fired quickly, at incredibly close range, hitting Werner in the arms and shoulder, forcing him backward against the car door.

“Ya sdayus,” he cried, holding up his hands. I give up!

Somehow, Werner tumbled out of the car door and collapsed in the grass. Amina wiggled out of the car too, with her gun all the while still trained on Werner. Without thinking, she fired at him until the magazine was empty. As quickly as the shooting had started, it was done. For now, at least.

Werner slumped in the dirt outside the car. Adam lay sprawled on his back, fighting for air. Both men would live—Werner, shot six times in the limbs, shoulder, and neck, would be hospitalized for months. As for Adam, his liver had been pierced and doctors needed to remove a third of his lung, but he was told he’d recover.

Meanwhile, police quickly confirmed what the couple already realized: that Alex Werner was no French journalist, and that the purported excursion to the embassy appeared to be a meticulously laid trap. Amina and Adam were certain they were supposed to be dead—and just as certain they knew why.

Though they hadn’t been in Kiev long, the couple were already well-known. A few years earlier, Adam had been implicated in a supposed plot to blow up the motorcade of then Russian prime minister Vladimir Putin. Though no bombing was ever carried out—and Adam denied knowledge of any plan—he served time in prison. As he did, Amina earned equal renown as a sniper fighting against pro-Russia rebels in the eastern part of Ukraine. When Adam was freed from jail, he joined his guerrilla-fighting wife in the east, where he took command of an outfit of Chechen irregulars and guided them through some of the bloodiest months of the three-year war.

Last spring, eager to find new ways to agitate Putin’s regime—and plug into a network of like-minded activists—the couple decided to move to Kiev, the Ukrainian capital.

Not that the city offered any guarantees of safety. On its surface, Kiev exudes the elegant charm of places like Prague and Budapest. But to residents who occupy a certain substratum of the population—Russian émigrés who’ve run afoul of the Kremlin, say, or outspoken journalists, or politicians who’ve developed inconvenient consciences—life in Kiev can be a daily exercise in fear. For people like Amina and Adam, every grocery run, every drive, every encounter with a stranger is a leap into the unknown. Beneath a veneer of high Slavic culture and modern sophistication, the city has, for many, become something darker than it appears: a gangland metropolis. In just the past year, half a dozen enemies of Putin’s regime have been killed or grievously injured in Kiev in a rash of bombings and shootings—outbreaks of chaos and violence that have cast an eerie pall over the city.

There can be an otherworldly character to the menace, an odd discordance to the eruption of bomb blasts and gunfire on streets lined with cocktail bars and art galleries. Last March, for instance, on an ordinary morning in the crowded center of town, Denis Voronenkov, a former Russian prosecutor and member of the Russian Parliament who’d earned Putin’s ire after attacking him for corruption, was walking past a luxury hotel when a man wearing a hoodie approached from behind. The man shot Voronenkov’s bodyguard, and then, as dozens of onlookers watched, he put four bullets into Voronenkov’s face and back. Then the bodyguard staggered to his feet, pulled out his own pistol, and fatally shot the assassin.

The brutality is precise and targeted, and almost never causes collateral damage—even at its most spectacular. In July 2016, Pavel Sheremet, a 44-year-old investigative journalist and Putin critic from Minsk, in Belarus, left his home in central Kiev in his wife’s red Subaru and began his morning commute. As he inched across a busy crossroads near Kiev’s national opera house, a bomb planted beneath the front seat exploded. Surveillance footage shows the vehicle—or rather a smoking, blackened hulk—rolling eerily backward. As police pick through the wreck, horrified pedestrians hustle along to work.

The city’s quick descent toward darkness originated, in its own odd way, out of a moment of hopefulness in Kiev. In 2014, after signs of corruption sparked violent street protests, Ukrainians toppled their president, Viktor Yanukovych. The fall of Yanukovych—a Putin supporter who’d been elected with the help of future Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort—was initially greeted as good news by Ukrainians hoping their country could strengthen its ties with the European Union. But days after Yanukovych’s downfall, as the strongman was being whisked into hiding in Russia, Putin seemed to initiate his own plans for the country.

Putin rules over a nest of competing factions jockeying to protect their own interests while currying favor with Putin by looking out for his.

Troops in unmarked green uniforms carrying Russian weaponry appeared in Crimea, in the south of Ukraine. Russian state-owned television churned out reports of neo-Nazi thugs prowling the streets of Kiev, and a relentless stream of Russian propaganda helped fan violence in the Russian-speaking eastern part of the country. Today Russian arms, intelligence men, and soldiers move freely across a border zone destabilized by fake news and propaganda.

Meanwhile, Russian oppositionists—Kremlin foes seeking refuge from Putin’s regime—have settled in Ukraine as well, mostly in Kiev. Their abundance has lured another sort of character to the city, too. Murky figures like Alex Werner.

Of course, as police discovered, Alex Werner wasn’t his real name. In the days after the shoot-out, police announced that the alleged hit man who pursued Amina and Adam was Artur Denisultanov—a thug, thief, and grifter who, according to Russian newspapers, had employed at least a half-dozen identities in recent years to partake in a litany of conspiracies and violent plots.

The mystery of his mission only deepened. Some said that Denisultanov had links to Russian intelligence agents. Others connected him to Ramzan Kadyrov, the Chechen dictator and fierce Putin loyalist. Some even wondered whether Putin himself might have had a hand in the hit.

To Ukrainian officials, there was no doubt that the murder was ordered by the Kremlin. “A Russian trail of blood in this crime is as clear as the blood on Amina’s clothing,” said the communications director for Ukraine’s Ministry of the Interior, which took control of the investigation.

Only later did officials begin to contemplate a stranger possibility—that in this ecosystem of subterfuge and terror, a new kind of killer might now stalk the city. It was plausible that Werner was not a sanctioned assassin at all but a figure more dangerous still: a bounty-hunting freelancer, a self-styled Jason Bourne who hoped somehow to earn the gratitude of Putin by carrying out a hit on spec.

Though the Kiev hits have almost invariably targeted his enemies, Putin’s own fingerprints have never been found on them—and with good reason. “Russia doesn’t work that way,” I was told by Ilya Ponomarev, a former Russian parliamentarian now living in exile in Kiev, who was one of the last people to speak to Denis Voronenkov before he was shot in the street. As Ponomarev sees it, Putin rules over a nest of competing factions jockeying to protect their own interests while currying favor with Putin by looking out for his. Self-starters, in other words, who do the work and then try to seek some reward. “It’s not like you would go to Putin and say, ‘Vladimir, may I [kill this person]?’” Ponomarev went on. “You are coming to Putin with a head of his enemy, and saying ‘I am a hero, I made it.’”

As one example, consider the prime suspect in ordering Voronenkov’s murder: a man named Vladimir Tyurin, an alleged crime lord and the ex-partner of Voronenkov’s wife. Now, prosecutors in Kiev claim his motivation was twofold: jealousy and a desire to “silence a valuable witness” who was prepared to testify about Kremlin corruption.

Further muddying the waters is the fact that the triggerman—the guy shot dead by Voronenkov’s bodyguard—had fought against pro-Russian forces in the war. Why would the Russians be working with a character opposed to the Russians? Tyurin’s lawyer, instead, says that the Ukrainians, not his client, murdered Voronenkov. The Ukrainians insist the hit man was planted by Russian security to sow just this kind of confusion. The whole twisted affair, says Ponomarev, is steeped in the kind of murkiness and ambiguity that Putin’s allies have delighted in creating to keep their Ukrainian enemies off guard.

In this world of smoke screens and muddled identities, Denisultanov seems to have glimpsed some opportunity, and, around 2015, he apparently began stalking the enemies of the Russian president. What he was planning isn’t entirely clear; the motives of a self-employed secret agent—if that’s what he thought he was—can be tough to pin down. Today, the 50-year-old Denisultanov remains difficult to reach: He’s in detention, still awaiting trial. But in a series of e-mails we exchanged, he told me about his background and how he found his way to Kiev.

Raised in Chechnya, Denisultanov had lit out for St. Petersburg after high school. There, according to the Russian press, he fell in with Chechen gangsters vying for control of the city’s protection rackets. He married, and adopted his wife’s last name—the first of a half dozen monikers he’d assume as he wound his way across Europe, blazing a peripatetic path, drawing on a colorful and hard-edged past.

Fact and fiction mingled interchangeably: With a St. Petersburg journalist, he wrote a novel, Oath on the Koran: The Fate of a Chechen, a potboiler rife with shoot-outs and car chases, about a rebel caught up in the first Chechen war of the early 1990s. In our correspondence, Denisultanov described a kinetic life of experimentation and re-invention. “I have had a big number of professions in my life,” he wrote. “I have gone through everything one can go through and tried everything.”

In 2008, Denisultanov popped onto the radar of Austrian authorities when he walked into a police station in Vienna seeking political asylum. In an October statement, he explained that he was an agent of Kadyrov, the violent Chechen dictator, and needed help. He may have changed his mind, though, because soon he was back in Russia—and in the years since, he has denied any association with Kadyrov.

Over the next few years, he continued drifting and grifting. He used another alias to marry again and was convicted of stealing $252,706 from the woman—a charge he described to me in an e-mail as “a fabrication.” Nevertheless, he served time in jail. Then he re-appeared as “Arthur Berger,” the managing director of a company that manufactured the spasmig—a harness-like device for use in rappelling from skyscrapers. The venture collapsed, he says, when the Federal Security Bureau demanded ownership. In late 2015, he left for Kiev, convinced that he could start a new life there.

For a con man unperturbed by violence, Kiev would have seemed ideal. Perhaps such a go-getter could sell information to the Kremlin, or, if more sinister chores needed doing, perhaps he could hire himself out for those, too.

In the months that followed Denisultanov’s arrival, several politicians and high-profile figures had odd encounters with him—encounters in which he assumed dubious identities or seemed to harbor mysterious motives. In each case, the person he approached was, in one way or another, a public enemy of Putin.

The first may have been Ilya Ponomarev, the former member of the Russian Parliament who’d opposed Putin’s annexation of Crimea and now lives in a kind of unofficial exile in Kiev. In January 2016, while Ponomarev sat in the lobby of the plush Hyatt Hotel, Denisultanov approached and wrapped him in a bear hug. Ponomarev stared unrecognizingly. Denisultanov said his name was Alex Berger, and described himself as an Austrian salesman of medical equipment. He said they’d met a few years back, in Russia. Ponomarev didn’t remember the man, but wasn’t alarmed by him.

Over the next three weeks, Ponomarev held five more meetings, mostly in the Hyatt, with the supposed salesman, who said he wanted to discuss a series of business plans. But the projects sounded dubious, and Ponomarev backed away.

The next time Ponomarev spotted the man he knew as Alex Berger, it was in a newspaper, over a year later, when he read about the shoot-out with Amina and Adam. It was enough to make Ponomarev wonder anew about the motives of the strange man who’d been cozying up to him.

Late in 2016, Alex Berger reappeared in a popular café in central Kiev. Berger was no longer a salesman, but now a German magazine writer—with a business card that said as much.

He was hoping to chat with a politician named Oleg Lyashko, a critic of Russia and the leader of the Radical Party in Ukraine. At the time, Lyashko was in the news for a brawl he’d just been involved in on the floor of Parliament, a fight begun after he blasted a colleague for his close ties to Putin.

After Berger strolled up to Lyashko’s table, he introduced himself. The scene was strange from the start, recalls Igor Mosiychuk, Lyashko’s deputy, who was there and who suspected Berger was not who he claimed. Berger handed Lyashko his card and asked for an interview, but the politician turned him down. “He took him for a dubious character,” Mosiychuk told me. (Denisultanov, in an e-mail, denied ever meeting either Lyashko or Ponomarev.)

Just a few weeks after he spoke with me about the dangers faced by Russian dissidents in Kiev, Mosiychuk himself became the latest target of an assassination plot. Two people—including Mosiychuk’s bodyguard—were killed by a bomb meant for him. Injured but defiant, Mosiychuk took to social media the next day to blame the Putin regime. “The initiators are in Moscow,” he wrote, “the executors are in Kiev.”

Last fall, just a few months after their shoot-out, Amina Okuyeva and Adam Osmayev agreed to meet me. I wanted to know how they had survived their brush with Denisultanov, but also what it felt like to have been stalked the way they had been—the way they likely still were.

The couple strolled briskly into a nearly deserted restaurant off a side street in Kiev and said hello. Amina, 34, a petite woman with penetrating, pale blue eyes, wore a pink hijab and a pair of sunglasses balanced on her forehead. Adam, who walked without any sign of injury and pronounced himself fully recovered, wore a faint mustache and goatee that shadowed his friendly face. At 36, he looked more like a graduate student than a battlefield commander. It was difficult to reconcile their modest demeanors with what I knew of their past.

Their struggles began in the late 1990s and early 2000s in Chechnya, where they helped locals fight Russian forces. “The rebels were in the forest, and I supplied them with food, first aid, and intelligence,” said Amina, who was born in Odessa, Ukraine, to a Chechen father and a Polish mother. Adam’s upbringing was more privileged: His father was the director of the state-owned oil company in Chechnya, and he was sent to school in England. But when Russian troops entered Chechnya in 1999, he went home and began secretly working for the rebels. “Some of [the things I did] I can’t discuss,” he told me.

In 2007 he was detained on suspicion of organizing a plot to kill Putin’s ally in Chechnya, Ramzan Kadyrov. Adam denies any such scheme, but admits that he spent those years agitating against Russia and connecting with others in the cause: “I heard from my cousin that there is a girl, crazy like myself, [who] wants to go to war, her name is Amina. I said, ‘Can you give me her number?’”

“I shot as many times as I could. I don’t remember how many before the gun jammed. I tried to take exact aim. The whole incident took less than one minute.”

They were married in 2009, but they didn’t exactly settle down. In 2012, Adam’s apartment was destroyed in a deadly explosion. Badly burned, Adam fled the scene. Ukrainian police later found bomb residue in the wreckage and, on a laptop belonging to Adam, surveillance footage of Putin. Adam was arrested for conspiring to assassinate the Russian prime minister and jailed in Ukraine—only after Russia’s extradition request was blocked by the European Court of Human Rights, a stroke of luck because six months after the pro-Russia government there was toppled in 2014, he was freed. He immediately rejoined his wife at the front.

There, despite his inexperience, Adam was thrust into command of the so-called Dudayev Battalion. Some of his fighters grumbled about Adam’s quick rise; others spread rumors—never substantiated—that he and his well-known wife were helping themselves to money donated to the Chechen resistance.

Last May, with the war having settled into a stalemate, the pair made their move to Kiev, where they found quick solidarity in a fraternity of Kremlin foes. To their critics, it didn’t escape notice that they also enjoyed a comfortable urban lifestyle—a nice apartment, a few cars, a newly purchased house outside of town. The seeming affluence revived old whispers.

But to Amina and Adam, there were more pressing concerns than gossip. They knew they were potential targets and took precautions. They often traveled with a security team and were wary of strangers. So, Amina was appropriately suspicious when her phone rang one afternoon and she didn’t recognize the number.

Denisultanov was on the line. He said his name was Alex Werner, from Le Monde, and that he’d gotten her number from a journalist at a TV talk show. He wanted to get together for an interview. Amina checked with the journalist, who acknowledged passing on her information. “That gave me some comfort,” she told me. “We drew down our security and agreed to a meeting.”

They decided to meet at a sushi bar. As he had before, Denisultanov wore a dark suit, gold-framed glasses, and a gold watch. In his pocket he carried an embossed business card, this one identifying him as “General Manager, Le Monde.”

Adam and Amina said he affected a slight French accent and sprinkled bons mots into his fluent Russian patter. “We asked him how come he speaks Russian so well, and he said, ‘I studied in St. Petersburg for a long time,’” Adam recalled. Then he laid out his pitch: Le Monde wanted to publish more stories about those defending Ukraine from Russian aggression. They were taken with Amina, who, he said, “reminded French women of Joan of Arc.” He claimed the paper wanted to fly the couple to France for a documentary project.

Adam, still on an Interpol watch list for his alleged plot to kill Putin, demurred. Amina explained that it would be difficult for her, too. “I said, ‘I cannot come to France, because I cannot bring my weapon there, and without it I don’t feel safe,’” she told me, smiling.

As they left the restaurant after their meeting, Adam began to wonder about the journalist. He inspected the business card and noticed it included an e-mail address with the suffix “ru”—typical of those used in Russia. When Adam got home and Googled “Alex Werner” and “Le Monde,” nothing came up. He figured that the journalist must be more of an executive than a reporter. Adam says he checked with his contacts in Ukrainian security and that they saw nothing suspicious about the journalist asking the couple to sign a contract.

They consented to a second meeting, at which Denisultanov said the newspaper was planning to transfer money into their bank account. The offer sounded odd to Adam. “We never get paid by journalists,” he told me.

Still, the three met again on May 31, when Denisultanov told them they needed to travel to the French Embassy. He would send a car the following afternoon, he said. “We will drive ourselves,” Amina said she told him. “We don’t trust anybody.”

Fine, said Denisultanov, he’d ride with them, and gave them a dubious address for the embassy.

Denisultanov’s elaborate charade, of course, didn’t end the way he’d planned.

In the backseat of their car, Adam grabbed for the Glock. As he did, Amina reached down and quickly unholstered her own Makarov pistol.

“The only thing I was afraid of was hitting Adam, because he was so close,” Amina told me, placing her hand gently on her husband’s. “I shot as many times as I could. I don’t remember how many before the gun jammed. I tried to take exact aim. The whole incident took less than one minute.”

Adam stumbled out of the backseat and collapsed. “I didn’t have enough oxygen, and I was losing a lot of blood,” he said. Denisultanov lay on the ground, unconscious, possibly dead. Amina rushed to where Adam lay in the grass and then begged a passerby for help. As the bystander tore apart Adam’s shirt, Amina fished from her purse a roll of gauze treated with Celox, a clotting agent designed to stop bleeding from gunshot wounds. They carried it with them everywhere, she told me, an ever-present reminder, in her purse, of how their violent pasts had penetrated their quotidian lives.

“I blocked a hole,” she said, “and then I turned him around, and I plugged the other hole in his back.” Amina may have saved her husband’s life. “I lost three liters of blood,” he says, “but they were able to infuse it back in.”

“Maybe he was a freelancer, but I’m confident that he was acting under orders of the Russians. He was gathering information, meeting with politicians, getting a target list together. And we were on that list…”

In the three months since the incident, Amina and Adam had replayed their encounters with Denisultanov countless times, they said, and in retrospect the warning signs seemed obvious to them. “It was silly on our part,” Adam told me. “We thought, How could we? But he was a very good actor, and he fooled a lot of people.” I asked him whether he believed that Denisultanov was a paid assassin or was working on his own. “Maybe he was a freelancer, but I’m confident that he was acting under orders of the Russians,” Adam replied. “He was gathering information, meeting with politicians, getting a target list together. And we were on that list, and he was very happy to find us.”

In an interview posted on a Ukrainian news site, Denisultanov offered an explanation that strains credulity, insisting the shooting was a misunderstanding. He had wanted to interview Amina and Adam for a book, he said, and posed as a French journalist out of fear that the couple would avoid him if they discovered he was Chechen. Denisultanov said he was unarmed and was admiring Adam’s pistol when it went off accidentally. That’s when Amina jumped into action, he said. “Amina was screaming, she was hysterical, she was in a panic,” he said. “She claimed I was an FSB employee, that I was a killer sent here from Moscow.… Only because of these people’s paranoia, I am here [in detention]. That’s all.”

After the shoot-out, the Interior Ministry provided the couple with a round-the-clock security detail, and Amina and Adam took new precautions. “We don’t go to the same places often, we don’t work in one place, we change our schedule,” Amina told me.

Such precautions are becoming commonplace. It’s said now that in Kiev, nearly every prominent Russian exile, journalist, and politician carries a weapon, and that many change their movements to elude attackers. The targeted explosions and the shootings add disorder to a city already buffeted by frequent protests. Often, the demonstrators turn the heart of the city into a messy conglomeration of barricades, open fires, and tents. Beneath the gaiety of coffee bars and nightclubs, there’s something common to the chaos; something normal to the violence. None of it completely explainable, and yet so much of it predictable.

Sure enough, six weeks after I met with Adam and Amina, I received a message from Kiev. The note was chillingly short.

Amina is dead.

It would take a day or so for details to emerge, but soon a picture of Amina’s final moments could be glimpsed.

On the afternoon of October 30, the couple had set out for home in Kiev after a weekend in Odessa. Adam was at the wheel, and they were traveling without escorts. Both were wearing flak jackets—a standard precaution since the June attack. At nine o’clock, in total darkness, the car passed Glevakha, a village south of Kiev. It crossed a set of railroad tracks, and then rounded a corner.

In a grove of trees, armed men were waiting in ambush. The assailants opened fire with automatic weapons. “Everything around me was blown, pieces flew around, the car panel, everything,” Adam told reporters from his hospital bed a few hours later. Adam was hit in the leg. Amina took at least one bullet in the head. “I drove on as long as I could, but then the car stopped. They might have fired at the engine,” he said, staring blankly. Outside his hospital room, special-unit soldiers guarded the door, their machine guns resting on a stretcher. “When I stopped, I thought they would come to finish me. But nobody approached; they turned out to be cowards and ran away. That was when I started taking care of Amina.”

She was unconscious and bleeding from her head. Adam tried to use the Celox gauze—presumably from the same package that Amina had showed me a few weeks earlier. “I was holding her all the time, trying not to let her blood run out, but that was impossible,” he said. “Amina died in my arms.”

Ukraine’s Interior Ministry again pointed the finger at the Russian special services or Kadyrov, the Chechen strongman. Kadyrov denied responsibility and suggested the Ukrainian government itself was to blame for killing the local folk hero. “The Ukrainian secret services have decided to…get rid of their local female gangster, to distract the attention of Western masters from protest rallies, and to try once again to blame Russia for their troubles,” he declared.

But another theory was making the rounds, one that underscored the difficulty of finding clear answers to political crimes in Ukraine. In this version, the assassins’ intended target had not been Amina, but Adam, whose comrades in the Dudayev Battalion wanted him dead. He and Amina, it seemed, were living large in Kiev, while the fighters in the field still suffered. The stolen Chechen donations, it was said, totaled some $3 million. Adam calls the accusations nonsense; he denies stealing anything and blames Russia for Amina’s murder.

As questions swirled about Amina’s death, she was buried in a traditional Muslim ceremony. Out of fear that it could invite an attack, the service was held in secret. “The war continues,” her husband had explained. “The enemy is near. You cannot endanger people.” When it was over, Adam left the graveside on crutches, hobbling to a waiting vehicle, protected—for the moment—from the dangers that lurked all around.