The Hunt for Viktor Yanukovych
Viktor Yanukovych is a wanted man. Today Ukraine’s acting Interior Ministry announced the deposed president, along with roughly 50 other top officials of the collapsed regime, were being placed under criminal investigation with Yanukovych placed on the nation’s Most Wanted list. While he still seems to have symbolic, if not fading backing from Russia, Yanukovych’s support base has fallen through the floor among all but his closest associates. Even his own Party of Regions has denounced him as a criminal and murderer. But where did he go? Where is the sultan turned vagabond?
Shortly after it was announced that impeachment proceedings would be taken against him, Yanukovych fled the capital along with cohort Andriy Klyuyev. Rumors swirled over whether he had gone to Kharkiv, to attend the separatist Ukrainian Front conference, or Dubai. The latter, we now know, was a decoy; those following on the Twittersphere were quick to track his alleged flight information in an attempt to pin down. Yanukovych instead flew by helicopter to Kharkiv to avoid detection.
Tenant Prime Minister Turchynov claimed Yanukovych had agreed to resign as president, but after consulting with advisers, he disavowed the decision and submitted a pre-recorded tape claiming his right to rule. Yanukovych said he would not resign or leave the country, and called decisions by parliament “illegal” and that “The events witnessed by our country and the whole world are an example of a coup d’etat,” comparing it to the rise of the Nazis to power in Germany in the 1930s – a common line of rhetoric among Russian officials to shore up post-war sensitivities in the post-Soviet republic.
Following the parliamentary procedures to transfer power to the new provisional government, Attorney General Pshonka and Taxation Minister Klymenko were stopped at the Russian border while trying to flee the country. Yanukovych then flew from Kharkiv to Donetsk aboard his helicopter, where he then, according to the State Border Service, tried to flee via a charter flight on one of two Dassault Falcon jets in Donetsk, but was stopped by border guards. The border agents were “met by a group of armed men who offered money for flying without the proper clearance”. Yanukovych then left by armored car, and spent a few hours at a state residence in the city – sources indicate he was abetted by Rinat Akhmetov. Former Interior Minister Vitaly Zakharchenko (who we now know gave the official order to fire on protesters) also attempted to fly out of Donetsk and was denied access for similar reasons.
Yanukovych’s motorcade then left for Crimea, leaving state traffic police who protected him behind. The next day, February 23rd, he visited a private resort while intentionally avoiding state or known residences to avoid detection. Rada reputy Oleh Lyashko claimed Yanukovych was seen at the Russian Naval base in Sevastopol where he was preparing to flee via Russian military vessel (this was reciprocated in media reports on the 24th). Ukrainian MiG fighter jets were scrambled during the search and it’s said at this time he was abetted by deposed defense minister Pavlo Lebedev.
Authorities attempted to intercept Yanukovych’s motorcade at the international airport in Sevastopol, but one step ahead, he never arrived. Authorities then lost his trail finally on February 24th near his family’s Crimean residence in the the former city of Balaklava, where he released those in his presidential secret service from duty who wished to stand down. The released guards then collected the weapons that officially belong to the government so they could be handed over to the authorities.
Oleksandr Yanukovych restored a series of historical waterfront homes and leased land for a private yacht club in this very area, which remains a possible site of hiding. Journalist Tetyana Chornovol meanwhile speculated that instead he was likely to flee by sea aboard his son’s private yacht, suitably christened “Bandit,” but local reports indicated the yacht hasn’t been seen in some time and GPS data confirms it’s last known location to be far away.
Following parting ways with a portion of his security staff, he, along with his most loyal guards, narrowed the motorcade down to 3 vehicles and left, turning off all communication devices. Reports conflicted as to the whereabouts of Klyuyev: according to acting Interior Minister Avakov, he remained with the president; according to Klyuev’s spokesman Artyom Petrenko, he tendered his resignation to the president in Crimea on the 23rd, saying he “couldn’t stop Yanukovych.” He was then allegedly shot and wounded, with media stating the shootout occurred on his trip back to Kyiv. Petrenko claims Klyuyev is currently in an unspecified Kyiv hospital.
On Wednesday, Klyuyev issued a statement through his press office, distancing himself from Yanukovych, denying his involvement in the Kyiv killings, and stating his intent to cooperate with authorities.
The trail in Crimea had appeared to run officially cold on the 26th, with Interior Minister Avakov admitting that the search was pulled back in Sevastopol to avoid possible armed conflicts in the troubled city. “I think we must not allow any military standoff or conflict to happen. I shall be extremely candid with you: it was one of the reasons why on the night when Valentyn Nalyvaichenko (the head of the Ukrainian Security Council) and I were in Sevastopol, in Crimea, we chose not to continue tough actions with respect of Viktor Yanukovych… Because at that moment we knew it was essentially an affront for armed conflict with grounds for [Russian] forces to interfere in this conflict… We made the decision that the future of Crimea is more important for us than the situation with Yanukovych,” he told a press conference on Wednesday.
The manhunt was escalated to an international search as reports surfaced that Yanu had successfully made he was through the Kerch Strait along with his son Viktor Jr. and into Russian protection. Multiple sources, stated to be confirmed by high-placed Russian officials and law enforcement, alleged that the night prior he had arrived in Moscow, and was seen at the Radisson Royal (confirmed by hotel management). There, he apparently spent all night until Wednesday morning on the 11th floor at a private club restaurant under heightened private security; fugitive former General Prosecutor Pshonka is believed to be with him and his other son, Oleksandr, is reported to have reunited the family.
He is now presumed to be in the Moscow suburb of Barvikha. An RBC report indicated that a house in Barvikha was purchased by a group of Ukrainian citizens for $52 million, and that the house is now under guard. “Yesterday Ukrainian citizens came with passports and without bargaining, bought it, said Russian politician Oleg Mitvol. Previous sources to RBC had indicated Yanukovych was stationed at a local resort.
Head of the Russian Foreign Affairs Committee Mikhail Margelov denied the rumors, saying that Russia wouldn’t risk giving him asylum. Later, the official newspaper of Russian president Vladimir Putin, Rossiyskaya Gazeta, [humorously] alleged that the CIA had whisked Yanukovych Stateside after offering him and his family personal guarantees of safety should he step away from the political arena. The paper followed by refuting Yanukovych’s asylum by the Russian Navy in Cossack Bay, Sevastopol, ‘Yanukovych is not in the facilities or ships of the Russian Black Sea Fleet,’ citing an ‘informed military source’. Ultimately, the Russian Border Service neither confirmed nor denied the earlier reports on Yanukovych’s entering the country.
Interfax, citing Russian government sources, confirms that Yanukovych is indeed being provided asylum in Russia.
On February 27 Yanukovych resurfaced, sending a message to Ukraine declaring himself still the legitimate president of the country. In his address, he stated he was “forced to ask the authorities of the Russian Federation to ensure [his] personal safety from the actions of extremists.” A government source confirmed that Yanukovych’s request has been granted “on the territory of the Russian Federation.” Later, newly elected head of Crimea’s parliament, Sergei Aksenov of the fringe Russian Unity party said that he recognized Yanukovych as the true president of Ukraine and that he would obey his orders – and presumably provide him save haven should he return to Ukraine. Russian politician Vladimir Zhirinovsky told reporters he was glad the Russian government has provided Yanukovych with security personnel.
In the evening, Yanukovych arrived in Russia’s Rostov-on-Don via airplane at 10pm local time to hold a news conference in Rostov-on-Don at 5pm on Friday February 28. In it he claimed he would return to Ukraine only if given security guarantees, and credited ‘patriotic officers’ with enabling him to escape Ukraine into Russia. “It was thanks to patriotic officers that I was able to get to Russia. Let me put it this way: officers who did their duty and helped me stay alive,” Yanukovych told reporters at the conference.
This story will update as new information becomes available. Last updated 2/28 at 10:45 am EST