The main adviser to the Ukrainian president targeted by an assassination attempt

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 Mr. Zelensky was in New York for the United Nations General Assembly meeting. He used his speech to denounce the attack, speak out against Russia’s military intervention in eastern Ukraine and rally diplomatic support for Kiev.

“It is time to wake up,” Zelensky said, animated and overwhelmed, to diplomats gathered in the General Assembly Hall. “This is the price of changes in the country.”

The Ukrainian president, who planned to return home immediately after the speech, also said the hospitalized driver, shot three times, was out of danger.

He did not specifically blame Russia for the attack, but attacked Ukraine’s giant neighbor, as he did in previous speeches at the UN, for its seizure of the Crimean peninsula and its support for separatists in eastern Ukraine. Fighting has claimed thousands of lives there over the past eight years.

He recalled with regret to his audience how the Allied victors of World War II, who would help to create the United Nations, had met on the Crimean peninsula. Today, he declared, “the very cradle of the birth of the United Nations remains occupied by a permanent member of the Security Council”.

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.

Earlier Wednesday, Mr Zelensky, dressed in a blue hoodie and suddenly looking roused from sleep, said in a video message from New York that he viewed the attack as a message to him personally, but insisted on the fact that no matter who was behind, he would not be dissuaded from undertaking efforts to modernize the Ukrainian economy and fight crime.

“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 brazen 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 hospitalized in critical condition.

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 Mr. Zelensky’s first and last name.

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.

While 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 was released. went viral online. 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 to keep him 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.

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