Verified. Defector Maxim Kuzminov’s Assassination. RUSpropaganda Rhetoric, debunked

Written by Matt Wickham, analyst, HWAG/UCMC

Propaganda Digest: This is our weekly analysis that exposes the most exaggerated, misleading, and outrageous rhetoric from recent Russian media sources, aimed at promoting critical thinking to better debunk the manipulation of Russian propaganda.

On February 19, Maxim Kuzminov, a Russian soldier who escaped Russia’s war and defected, was found dead in Spain. According to reports, the former pilot was discovered dead with multiple gunshot wounds in Villajoyosa, Alicante, an area in which he chose to live despite Ukraine offering refuge. 

Background: On August 9, 2023, Captain Maxim Kuzminov, commander of a separate helicopter regiment, took control of a Mi-8AMTSh helicopter, breaching the front line and surrendering to the AFU. Two other members of Kuzminov’s crew were killed, though the exact circumstances are unknown. Post-assassination, Russian propagandists used limited information about Kuzminov’s escape to justify his death, portraying him as a murderer of his own people and an enemy of the state. 

The AFU reportedly rewarded Kuzminov with 500,000 euros as a success story for Ukraine’s efforts to encourage defection. With this in mind, Russian propaganda portrays him as devoid of humanity and driven solely by financial gain, and his family is now bearing the consequences of his alleged betrayal or bravery.

Contrary to their typical approach of promptly confirming or denying events, Russian propagandists inundated the information space with contradictory messages. They initially confirmed the death, then cautioned against premature verification without thorough investigation, proceeded to deny it, offered justifications to his death, and eventually returned to 100% confirmation, all in a matter of hours.

Dmitry Medvedev, former president of Russia, commented on the assassination, telling how “A dog died a dogs death, that’s all I have to say” a Russian phrase metaphorically used to describe a particularly cruel, painful, or undignified death—a warning to potential Russian defectors, warning them of a similar bleak future if they dare to consider defecting.

 Russian Narrative  : A Warning to Future “Traitors”

Yulia Vityazeva, Telegram Channel (73,000 subscribers): 

“Whoever destroyed the scum […], an effect on the future is achieved anyway: those of the war criminals who survive, having managed to avoid capture, will not feel safe anywhere and never. They will see a threat in every person they meet on the street, every courier on the doorstep, every rustle in the house and every crow in the sky.“

Sergey Markov , Telegram Channel (66,000): 

“This news can save many lives because it reminds everyone: save your lives and never cooperate with the Ukrainian neo-fascist regime in anything.

Sergey Markov: 

A lesson to the Spanish government – stop supporting the neo-fascist regime in Ukraine. But the general logic remains, as I wrote – the support of fascism by the countries of Europe leads them to disaster inevitably. Ukrainian fascism will kill Europe.”

Voice of Mordor, Telegram Channel,  (163,000): 

“Any such creature taking thirty pieces of silver [money] should know full well that they will end up a corpse, albeit one with pockets full of money.”

Sergey Marden, Telegram Channel. (232,000): 

“In the 1950s, the Soviet security services had accumulated vast experience in liquidating traitors. No media fuss was made at the time. The assasin, after work for identification, had to bring a part of the body. It was good if there were fingers in the card catalog, but if there were not, then it was necessary to saw off the head, freeze it and bring it to the Soviet zone.”


During the Soviet era, the KGB employed a range of tactics to instill fear and loyalty among citizens, employees, soldiers, and those abroad. This included pervasive surveillance and severe penalties, even death, for dissent, creating an environment of intense fear. While Putin’s disdain for betrayers is well-known, with rhetoric suggesting that no one is beyond Russia’s reach, with instances like the Litvinenko and Skripal cases making this seem so, and now Kuzminov’s murder. However, Russian state assassinations abroad are relatively rare. Such operations require extensive planning, resources, professionalism, and political will, often resulting in significant diplomatic fallout, which would therefore require the ‘green light’ from Putin himself.

In the current Russian-Ukrainian war, Russian soldiers face bleak choices: fight and likely die, retreat and face Russian kill squad-like execution for ‘cowardness’, or to lay down weapons and defect. Aware of the low morale among mobilized men, the Kremlin’s propaganda aims to dehumanize defectors as selfish and unpatriotic, deserving of their death. What was noticeable about this case was the hunger (seen by propagandists) for defectors’ deaths, revealing their true brutality. Propagandists want potential defectors to distrust promises of refuge in Ukraine or the West, portraying Russia’s reach as unstoppable and a stride ahead, running rings around Western intelligence agencies.

However, defectors such as Oleg Gordievsky, Stanislav Lunev, Viktor Suvorov, and Sergei Skripal call Russia’s claims of unlimited capabilities into question. Despite Russia’s efforts, Skripal and his daughter continue to live under new identities in England, out of reach of Russian authorities, years after the attempted poisoning—a mission failed. The Kremlin’s rhetoric calling for the execution of defectors and a return to methods of the past, echoes the darkest days of the USSR, implicating not only Putin, but all propagandists.

 Russian Narrative  : Emphasizing Skepticism and Alleged Bias

Sergey Markov, Telegram Channel (66,000): 

“Many respected people believe that the traitor Kuzminov has not been liquidated and that this is disinformation from the GUR of the Defense Ministry of Ukraine in order to hide the traitor from retribution. Also possible. Who shall we believe today?”

MIG Russia, Telegram Channel (447,748): 

“When Litvinenko suddenly became ill or when the cat of the Skripals died, the world uproar rose not even the next day, but a few hours later. Here it took almost a WEEK, after which some trash website posted something (local media wrote about a Ukrainian without a surname), and the GUR. of Ukraine immediately confirmed it. Let’s not be ridiculous.”

Oleg Tsaryov, Telegram Channel  (289,000): 

“Perhaps the traitor found the deserved retribution, and that would be right and fair. But there is a suspicion that the Ukrainian side may also be involved in the possible assassination or information noise, which now benefits from stirring up anti-Russian hysteria in Europe.”


The Kremlin’s propagandists often operate without waiting for factual or confirmed information, disseminating information before it is verified, allowing them to influence the narrative early on, particularly for their domestic audience. They present various scenarios to create confusion and delay or obfuscate accountability for their actions. This tactic buys time for Russia to formulate a response, discredit accusations, or deflect attention onto other actors or events. This event was no exception.

Ukraine’s military intelligence promptly verified the Kuzminov’s assassination and implicated Russia. Russian propagandists attempted to use this to portray Ukraine and the West as quick to blame Russia without proper investigation. Meanwhile, Russia positioned itself as the law-abiding party, waiting for confirmation before making any conclusion (although not true, they had already taken ‘credit’, reveled in the fact it had happened, and praised the assassination). This strategy aimed to portray the West as hypocritical, highlighting instances where Western countries usually require a lengthy investigation before voicing such findings, but allegedly not in this case. This is a means to discredit the West’s reliability and integrity. However, despite the narrative pushed by propaganda, Western countries have yet to confirm the identity of the perpetrator responsible for the pilot’s death, with only Ukraine confirming Russian involvement in the assassination and, hours later, Russia itself – their own intelligence chief of the Russian SVR.

By casting doubt on Western actions, Russian propaganda seeks to undermine trust in Western institutions and narratives, reinforcing its own agenda and deflecting attention from its own actions. This highlights how Russian propaganda operates – by exploiting swift reactions and shaping the narrative, they aim to portray Russia as a victim rather than an aggressor, even after confirming the Kremlin committed the crime.

 Russian Narrative  : Dehumanize the Enemy – a Druggy, Alcoholic, or Dirty Dealings

War on Fakes, Telegram Channel (558,000): 

“All sources say that Kuzminov did not find happiness in Spain and spent the money “earned” by betrayal mainly on drugs. Such a fate of defectors is a common thing. Let us recall the words of Russian President Vladimir Putin: “Traitors always end badly. As a rule, either from drinking, or from drugs, under the fence.”

Voice of Mordor, Telegram Channel (163,000): 

“And it’s not just traitors who should be concerned. Those who shell civilians, battery commanders, even the commanders of squadrons [too]—every house may have a junkie with a blade in search of cash for a dose. […] But I won’t be surprised if it turns out that Kuzminov was killed by a Khokhol [Ukrainians]. To tie up loose ends, or maybe he hasn’t been paid all the dough yet. ”

Marina Akhmedova, Telegram Channel (72,000): 

“Pity only for our two hero pilots, whom he deceived and gave to Ukrainians to be tortured. Kuzminov was afraid to die during a combat flight. He preferred death in a Spanish back alley. I hope his mother still thinks that she made a good deal – she sold her son’s betrayal for 500 thousand euros. Let that money comfort her.”


In instances where propagandists lack concrete information but target individuals who have caused significant embarrassment to Russia, such as Kuzminov, their go-to strategy is to dehumanize the individual. They often resort to unfounded accusations of involvement in drugs or alcohol, portraying them as inherently flawed individuals. This tactic serves to convince the Russian audience that only someone deeply morally corrupt could betray the Russian state or people, reinforcing the narrative that betrayal is a defect of the Russian soul.

Additionally, propagandists distort the narrative surrounding the money received by the defector, implying that both the defector and his mother are complicit in betrayal and motivated solely by financial gain. This portrayal aims to further dehumanize the defector, reducing him to a mere pawn willing to engage in any immoral act for money. Such tactics seek to vilify the defector and undermine any sympathy or support for their actions, ultimately reinforcing the narrative of loyalty to the Russian state above all else.