KYIV, Ukraine – A senior adviser to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky was targeted on Wednesday while driving his car outside of Kiev in what authorities described as an assassination attempt.
The adviser, Serhiy Shefir, was not injured in the attack, but the driver of the car was injured and hospitalized, Irina Venediktova, Attorney General of Ukraine, said in a press release which included a photo of the driver’s side of Mr Shefir’s black Audi riddled with bullets.
“It’s serious,” Deputy Interior Minister Anton Gerashchenko said in a brief interview. “It was a real assassination attempt.
The attack occurred while Zelensky was in New York for the United Nations General Assembly meeting, where he said he planned to denounce Russia’s military intervention in the east. Ukraine and rally diplomatic support for Kiev.
Mr Shefir, 57, is a longtime adviser to the Ukrainian president and is considered Mr Zelensky’s closest confidant. Together with his brother and Mr. Zelensky in 2003, they founded Kvartal 95, a television production company that produced many popular shows and propelled Mr. Zelensky, a former comedian, to national fame. In 2019, Mr. Zelensky used his popularity to win the presidency.
Mr Zelensky said in a video message from New York that he viewed the attack as a message to him personally, but insisted that no matter who was behind, he would not be deterred from efforts to modernize the Ukrainian economy and fight against crime.
Dressed in a blue hoodie, suddenly looking awake from sleep, Zelensky said he would return to the capital Kiev immediately after his speech, scheduled for Wednesday.
“Saying hello to me while pulling my friend’s car from the woods is a weakness,” Zelensky said.
The shots appear to have been fired around 10 a.m. by one or more people hiding in the woods by the side of the road, investigators said. Mr Shefir’s car was unarmored and he did not use any security features, Mr Gerashchenko said.
The shooting took place near the village of Lisnyky, just outside Kiev, on a highway lined with forests.
There were no suspects and no one was arrested immediately after the attack, authorities said.
Ukrainian officials have warned the public not to speculate on who was behind the cheeky morning assault, even though footage of the bullet-riddled car was broadcast across the country. There were at least 10 bullet holes in the vehicle.
The driver, whose name was not immediately released, was shot three times and is hospitalized in critical condition. He is currently undergoing surgery, authorities say.
Later Wednesday, Mr. Shefir appeared at a press conference in Kiev to praise the work of rescuers as well as his driver, who he said “behaved like a hero”.
“The assassination attempt was carried out with the aim of frightening the upper echelons of government,” said Mr. Shefir. “But you have to understand that President Vladimir Alexandrovich is a very strong-willed person, who is not easily scared,” he added, using the first and last name of Mr. Zelensky.
Since war broke out in 2014 between Ukraine and Kremlin-backed separatist forces, numerous assassinations have been carried out on Ukrainian territory targeting senior military and intelligence officials and politicians, as well as journalists and dissidents. fleeing from enemies in Russia.
Although some of the attacks have been attributed to criminal rivalries and gang violence, many of them, according to Ukrainian law enforcement officials, are the work of assassins associated with Russian intelligence services. Mykhailo Podolyak, adviser to Zelensky’s chief of staff, linked Wednesday’s attack to the president’s efforts to limit the influence of the oligarchs on politics in Ukraine.
Mr. Podolyak called the attack a “belligerent pushback” against Mr. Zelensky’s policy of “reducing the traditional influence of phantom oligarchs on social processes,” according to Interfax, a news agency.
“Indeed, we link this attack to the aggressive or even bellicose repression of the active policy of the Head of State”, he declared.
“This policy aims to significantly reduce the traditional influence of phantom oligarchs on social processes and to destroy political and financial groups which openly serve our foreign opponents,” Podolyak told Interfax on Wednesday.
Mr. Shefir was a producer of the hit comedy ‘Servant of the People’, in which Mr. Zelensky played a teacher who was propelled to the presidency after a principled tirade against government corruption went viral in line. After Mr. Zelensky won the current presidency in 2019, he placed a number of former show business associates in key leadership positions.
The two are also neighbors and share a gym and swimming pool. Whenever Mr Zelensky is away, Mr Shefir walks Mr Zelensky’s dog, he said in an interview.
“My main goal, apart from my usual duties, is that he remains a human being,” said Mr. Shefir. said of M. Zelensky, shortly after his appointment as an advisor in 2019.
Andrew E. Kramer contributed to reporting from Moscow.