Ukrainian prosecutors announced on Tuesday that they had opened an investigation into a bizarre explosion at a birthday celebration that killed an aide to Ukraine’s top military commander, in what the authorities portrayed as a tragic accident.
The special defense prosecutor’s office of Ukraine’s central region said that the aide, Maj. Gennadiy Chastyakov, had returned to his home on the outskirts of Kyiv on Monday with birthday gifts from colleagues that included a box containing six grenades. The prosecutor’s office said that one of the grenades had been picked up by the major’s son.
While taking the grenade from the boy, “the officer pulled the ring, which caused the explosion,” the office said in a statement.
Prosecutors said that Major Chastyakov, an aide to Gen. Valery Zaluzhny, commander in chief of the Ukrainian military, had been killed on the spot by the explosion. The blast also seriously wounded the son, 13, and slightly injured the major’s 11-year-old daughter, they added. There was no explanation of why someone would give the major grenades as a present or why he would have pulled the ring.
“Based on the information gathered so far, we can assert that it was indeed an unfortunate accident, a result of careless handling of the ammunition,” Maryana Reva, a spokeswoman for Ukraine’s interior minister, told national television on Tuesday.
Still, the peculiar nature of the episode prompted some on social media to question whether it had really been an accident, leading to speculation that the aide had been killed. The Ukrainian authorities have refrained from portraying the death as a potential assassination or from linking it to Russia’s war in Ukraine, but Ms. Reva acknowledged, “It is not excluded that this case may be requalified based on the evidence collected.”
The prosecutor’s office said that the police had identified the serviceman who had given the gift and had searched his office, finding two other similar grenades.
The episode came at a delicate moment for the Ukrainian Army, whose troops are currently bogged down in inconclusive fighting with Russian forces. Amid the lack of progress, tensions have also surfaced between Ukraine’s military and civilian leaderships.
Ukrainian media initially reported that Major Chastyakov’s wife had told the police that the explosion had occurred when her husband tried to open the gift box, adding to the speculation that he had been killed.
Mysterious deaths and assassinations were a feature in Kyiv’s political landscape before Russia’s full-scale invasion, and officials in Ukraine have for years accused Moscow of pursuing targeted killing operations in the country, often using inventive methods. Analysts have also cited internal political feuds or disputes linked to organized crime as reasons behind such killings.
Among the targets of those attacks have been members of paramilitary groups in eastern Ukraine, a former member of the Ukrainian Parliament, Russian opposition politicians living in exile in Ukraine and Ukrainian military officers.
But since Russia’s invasion, no high-profile assassinations or attempted assassinations of Ukrainian officers or officials away from the front line have come to light.
Ms. Reva said that the serviceman who had gifted the grenades to Major Chastyakov had “explicitly mentioned” that they were military-grade.
“Unfortunately, the deceased didn’t take it seriously,” Ms. Reva said.
The authorities did not identify the serviceman. But Ukrainian police reported on Tuesday afternoon that the case had been referred to the State Bureau of Investigation, which investigates crimes involving high-ranking officials, suggesting that the man is an officer.
The death of Major Chastyakov came as a shock to several Ukrainian officials.
“He was a practical and modern coordinator,” a Ukrainian lawmaker, Mariana Bezuhla, wrote on Facebook. “I would never have thought that Gennadiy would die as a result of carelessness on his birthday.”
Ms. Bezuhla added that the custom of giving weapons and ammunition as gifts should be abolished. “Because even the best people fall into the trap of culture and become victims,” she said.
In a statement, General Zaluzhny expressed deep regret over the loss of a “close friend” who had been “fully devoting his life to the armed forces of Ukraine and the fight against Russian aggression.”
The past few days have been challenging for General Zaluzhny as signs of discord have emerged between him and Ukraine’s political leadership.
Last week, President Volodymyr Zelensky replaced one of General Zaluzhny’s deputies, the head of Ukraine’s Special Operations forces, without explanation.
Mr. Zelensky also publicly disagreed with General Zaluzhny’s recent comments that the war had reached a “stalemate,” and a top presidential aide suggested that the general’s remarks were helpful to the Russians.
Andrew E. Kramer contributed reporting.