Top Adviser to Ukrainian President Is Targeted in an Assassination Attempt

President Volodymyr Zelensky said he was returning to Ukraine from New York immediately after giving his U.N. speech. The adviser, Serhiy Shefir, was unharmed, but his driver was shot and wounded in the attack.

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KYIV, Ukraine — A top adviser to President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine was shot at on Wednesday while being driven in his car outside Kyiv, in what the authorities said was an assassination attempt.

The adviser, Serhiy Shefir, was not injured in the attack, but the driver of the car was wounded and hospitalized, Irina Venediktova, Ukraine’s prosecutor general, said in a statement that included a picture of the driver’s side of Mr. Shefir’s black Audi riddled with bullets.

“This is serious,” the 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 backing for Kyiv.

“It’s time to wake up,” Mr. Zelensky, animated and upset, told the assembled diplomats 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, struck by gunfire three times, was out of danger.

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

He ruefully reminded his audience how the allied victors of World War II, who would help create the United Nations, had met in the Crimean peninsula. Now, he said, “the very cradle of the place the U.N. was born 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 numerous popular shows and propelled Mr. Zelensky, a former comedian, to nationwide fame. In 2019, Mr. Zelensky used his popularity to win the presidency.

Earlier Wednesday, Mr. Zelensky, dressed in a blue hoodie and looking suddenly roused from sleep, said in a video message from New York that he considered the attack to be a message to him personally, but insisted that no matter who was behind it, he would not be deterred from efforts to modernize Ukraine’s economy and tackle criminality.

“Saying hello to me by shooting from the woods at the car of my friend is weakness,” Mr. Zelensky said.

The shots appeared to have been fired about 10 a.m. by a person or people who were hidden in the woods by the road, according to investigators. Mr. Shefir’s car was not armored and he did not use any security detail, Mr. Gerashchenko said.

The shooting occurred near the village of Lisnyky, just outside Kyiv, on a highway bordered by woodlands.

There were no suspects and no one had been arrested in the immediate aftermath of the attack, according to the authorities.

Ukrainian officials cautioned the public not to speculate about who was behind the brazen morning assault, even as images of the bullet-ridden car were 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 was hospitalized in critical condition.

Later on Wednesday, Mr. Shefir appeared at a news conference in Kyiv to praise the work of the emergency responders as well as his driver, who he said “handled himself like a hero.”

“The assassination attempt was carried out in an effort to frightened the upper echelon of government,” Mr. Shefir said. “But you need to understand that the president, Vladimir Aleksandrovich, is a very strong-willed person, who is not easily frightened,” he added, using Mr. Zelensky’s first name and patronymic.

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Mr. Shefir in a picture released by the Ukrainian Presidential Press Service.Credit…Ukrainian Presidential Press Service, via Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Since war broke out in 2014 between Ukraine and separatist forces backed by the Kremlin, there have been numerous assassinations carried out on Ukrainian territory targeting senior military and intelligence officials and politicians, as well as journalists and dissidents fleeing enemies in Russia.

While some of the attacks have been attributed to criminal rivalries and gangland violence, many of them, according to Ukrainian law enforcement officials, are the work of assassins associated with Russia’s intelligence services. Mykhailo Podolyak, an adviser to Mr. Zelensky’s chief of staff, linked the attack on Wednesday to the president’s efforts to limit the influence of oligarchs on politics in Ukraine.

Mr. Podolyak called the attack a “belligerent pushback” against Mr. Zelensky’s policy to “reduce the traditional influence of shadow oligarchs on social processes,” according to Interfax, a news agency.

“Indeed, we link this attack to the aggressive or even belligerent pushback on the active policy of the head of state,” he said.

“This policy aims to palpably reduce the traditional influence of shadow oligarchs on social processes and to destroy the political and financial groups that openly serve our foreign opponents,” Mr. Podolyak told Interfax on Wednesday.

Mr. Shefir was a producer on the hit comedy show “Servant of the People,” in which Mr. Zelensky played a schoolteacher who was propelled to the presidency after a principled tirade against government corruption went viral online. After Mr. Zelensky won the actual presidency in 2019, he placed a number of former show-business associates in key leadership posts.

The two are also neighbors and share a gym and a 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 for him to remain a human being,” Mr. Shefir said of Mr. Zelensky, shortly after his appointment as adviser in 2019.

Andrew E. Kramer contributed reporting from Moscow.

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