Kremlin’s Onetime Pick to Be Ukraine’s Puppet Leader Is Shot in Crimea

A Ukrainian former lawmaker whom the Kremlin had handpicked to lead a puppet administration in Kyiv, Ukraine, was shot and wounded in occupied Crimea in an apparent assassination attempt, Ukrainian and Russian officials said on Saturday.

The former lawmaker, Oleg Tsaryov, 53, a pro-Russian business executive, who participated in Moscow’s invasion, was shot as part of a “special operation” carried out this week by Ukraine’s domestic security agency,according to a senior Ukrainian intelligence official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss military operations.

According to Western intelligence agencies, had the Russian invasion succeeded, the Kremlin would have installed Mr. Tsaryov as Ukraine’s leader.

The targeting of prominent Russian and pro-Russian figures has long been part of the broader Ukrainian war effort and has continued apace even as fierce battles rage across a vast front line that has moved little in the past year.

After spending months trying to break through the Russian lines in the south, Ukrainian forces increasingly find themselves on the defensive as Russia renews assaults across eastern Ukraine.

While the Russian forces suffered some of their heaviest losses in months in attempts to encircle the eastern city of Avdiivka, Moscow appears determined to keep up the assaults there and along other lines of attack, Ukrainian and Western officials said.

Fierce fighting was also reported on Saturday around the city of Vuhledar, which is less than 20 miles from a critical Russian logistics hub in southeastern Ukraine.

Sitting at the nexus of the Donetsk and Zaporizhzhia regions, Vuhledar has been the scene of some of the war’s bloodiest battles, including a disastrous Russian armored assault last winter.

Ukrainian troops from the 63rd Mechanized Brigade at a frontline position in the eastern region of Donetsk on Friday.Credit…Tyler Hicks/The New York Times

Oleksandr Voitko, a Ukrainian soldier fighting in the area, told the Ukrainian broadcaster Espreso TV on Saturday that, having failed to capture Vuhledar by attacking it from the south, the Russian forces were now attacking from the northeast.

He compared the fight there to the current situation in Avdiivka.

“The first phase of these battles is similar,” he said. “There was a massive assault in Vuhledar, and we have seen it now. But in Vuhledar, although the situation was difficult, it was easier because there was no enemy advance from the flanks.”

Hundreds of miles to the south, Ukraine’s military continues to look for weak spots in the Russian defense. Ukrainian forces have stepped up amphibious assaults across the Dnipro River this month, and they have managed to hold onto and expand several positions, according to analysts.

It remains unclear if the assaults are part of a broader operation or simply an attempt to force their Russian counterparts to stretch their forces to deal with the threat.

Russia has increased artillery barrages and is engaged in a furious bombing campaign against settlements across the southern region of Kherson.

Natalia Humeniuk, a spokeswoman for the Ukrainian southern command, said on Saturday that Russia had dropped at least 27 powerful guided bombs on settlements in the Kherson region over the course of a single day.

“These are means of terror, which the enemy uses all over the front line,” she said during an appearance on national television.

Damaged buildings in Avdiivka, eastern Ukraine, on Monday.Credit…Nicole Tung for The New York Times

Ukrainian forces have been trying to establish a presence on the eastern bank of the Dnipro River, and the Russian military has sought to demolish any structures that could be used by their opponents for shelter. Russian bombs fired as part of that effort have fallen on areas controlled by Ukraine as well as parts ostensibly under Moscow’s control.

The barrage has taken a heavy toll on civilians on either side of the river, but Russia does not allow independent news or humanitarian organizations to operate in occupied areas, so there is little reliable information about the conditions there.

Away from the thunder of the artillery at the front, Ukrainian saboteurs and resistance fighters continue to work behind enemy lines to undermine the Russian war effort.

Both sides will often confirm attacks by Ukrainian partisans, but the details of the incidents often differ and are impossible to confirm independently.

Both sides released photos and videos of a car that was blown up in the occupied city of Berdiansk in southeastern Ukraine on Monday,for example.

Kremlin-appointed officials said that one Russian soldier had been killed in that attack. Ukraine’s military intelligence agency, however, said that four representatives of Russia’s federal security service, the F.S.B., had been in the car, adding that it was unclear how many had died.

At least one of those killed, the Ukrainian agency said, was “a Russian war criminal who committed brutal torture of local citizens.”

After Mr. Tsaryov’s shooting, accounts of the attack were also given by the Russian authorities and by his family.

Vladimir Rogov, the Russian-appointed official in southern Ukraine, said that Mr. Tsaryov had been shot twice in an assassination attempt, had lost a lot of blood and was in “grave condition.”

Mr. Tsaryov’s family used his Telegram channel to issue a statement confirming the attack, which they said took place at around midnight on Friday at a spa hotel in Yalta, southern Crimea, where he lives.

“There is no information about the criminal,” the family’s statement said.

Ukrainian forces preparing to head to the front line near the eastern town of Avdiivka on Tuesday.Credit…Nicole Tung for The New York Times

Ukraine’s director of military intelligence, Gen. Kyrylo Budanov, told Reuters this year that his country would continue “eliminating enemies of their state.”

“We were doing it and we will be doing it,” he said.

The Ukrainian intelligence official who spoke to The New York Times on Saturday said that Mr. Tsaryov had long been on a “list of traitors.”

The official added that Mr. Tsaryov was not just a person with pro-Russian views but that he had also accompanied Russian forces as they tried to seize Kyiv early in the invasion.

American intelligence officials told The New York Times last year that Mr. Tsaryov had been identified by the Kremlin as someone it could install to lead Ukraine after its soldiers toppled Kyiv’s elected government.

Mr. Tsaryov was a member of the Ukrainian Parliament from 2002 to 2014 before joining the campaign led by Russian proxy forces in eastern Ukraine seeking to secede from the country.

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